01/10/2012 03:01 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Is your diet derailing? Goal setting, mindful eating among ways to stay on track

The steely resolve to adopt healthier eating habits on Jan. 1 can crumble within mere months or even weeks for some people kickstarting the new journey.

Part of the problem may stem from viewing the track to better eating or a slimmer figure as a sprint out of the starting gates rather than a lengthier pursuit.

"People are setting themselves up for disappointment by setting those sort of really huge resolutions come new year; and it's often that they're thinking that they can achieve them in a really short amount of time," said Stephanie Wheler, owner of Something Nutrishus Counselling & Coaching in Saskatoon.

"So it's a quick fix or a temporary resolution they're looking for which can either create an unhealthy relationship with food because they're suddenly cutting things out of their diet; or perhaps they're trying activities they totally hate so that makes them dislike the gym... looking at the fitness side of things."

The registered dietitian said most of her clients have a number in mind as a weight-loss objective, but they also want to be healthy and ensure they can maintain their new habits for the long run.

"People are starting to understand the whole longevity of healthy choices, but I would say people that have a hot holiday coming up, they're thinking about having a swimsuit (on) and that number (on the scale) really means something to them," said Wheler.

"You do get a wide range, but I find a lot of people are just saying, `I'm not stuck on the number, I just maybe want my clothes to fit better, or I just want to know I'm making the right choices.'"

Wheler said common mistakes emerge when diet or weight-loss aspirations are unrealistic and unachievable. A more effective strategy involves creating smaller, more manageable steps towards the end result.

"If someone says, `I'm going to lose 20 pounds,' well, it's (asking): `How are you planning to do that? Are we increasing activity? Are we changing what's going into your body?" she said.

"I do think that's the way to go, but what those actual goals are will depend on the person."

For some, it could start off with something as simple as increasing their water intake in a given week or vowing to stick to just one dessert at a family dinner, she noted.

While goal-setting is critical, Wheler said it's also important for individuals to be realistic with themselves and to keep variety in their diet.

Rather than eating the same lunch for a whole month which will be hard to maintain, try incorporating different fruits or vegetables to avoid getting in a food rut.

"(You're) getting a variety of different nutrients, but you're also mixing up the taste so you're able to enjoy the meals," she said.

"A lot of it comes down to planning so making sure that the foods are in the house or that you're packing a lunch for work, or if you're not doing that, you're at least thinking and giving yourself that plan."

Susan Albers is the author of "But I deserve this chocolate!" (Raincoast Books), which outlines common diet-derailing excuses and ways to outwit them. Among them: feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of changing food habits, lacking the willpower, using food as stress relief or needing to soothe a sweet tooth.

Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center, said getting into the right frame of mind to eat better often starts by changing thinking patterns before you can modify your behaviour.

"For example, the thought: `I can't get back on track.' Once we hear our mind tell us that, we just become completely derailed," said Albers, who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. "We don't even really think so much about it, but we go with that thought."

Albers said our minds are trained to adopt an "all or nothing" approach, perhaps nowhere more true than with diet and exercise.

"We want the black and the white `Give me this rule and I'll follow it' — and it's so much more complicated than that," she said. "It's such a grey area because eating is really based on our feelings, and our feelings are not black and white."

Albers suggests individuals start making a list of successes — however seemingly small — to help build confidence.

"There's probably some things that slip right past your awareness that you're doing well, such as maybe you're eating a great breakfast, not doing so well in the second part of the day," she said. "That's something to focus on and say: `I can do it.'"

In the bigger picture, Wheler said one snack, meal or even a whole day of unhealthy eating isn't going to make or break a person's diet, but it's important to return to the routine.

"It's not failure if one day isn't perfect," she said. "Perfection is really hard to reach with healthy eating."

Albers is also a proponent of mindful eating which involves focusing on your meal rather than multitasking while noshing.

In her mindful eating workshops, she has participants take a small piece of chocolate and slowly peel open the wrapper, making note of the sound of the foil, smells and savouring the sweet. Individuals often find their minds drift to the next piece they'll eat before finishing the one they have, she noted.

"You don't have to take a lot of time, but just focus all of your attention on it and time that you do have and think about: `How does it taste? How much do I want of it?'" said Albers.

"If you're typing and eating at the same time, you're really not thinking about how much you're eating. And before you know it, that whole sleeve of crackers is gone before you even have any awareness of it."



Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center:

Something Nutrishus Counselling & Coaching: