How to Follow a Make-Your-Own-Rules Diet

Create a Personalized Plan for Better Weight Loss Success

Japanese woman eating
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Most dieters expect to follow an eating plan with plenty of rules. Even if you choose a weight loss program that allows you to eat whatever you want it's still likely that you'll have to follow guidelines and restrictions. But wouldn't it be better if you could set your own limits? A make-your-own-rules diet might be more appealing and more effective.

Why Diets Have Rules

Rules provide structure. When we choose to lose weight we usually want to do so with as little stress and effort as possible.

With structure, the dieting process is often easier because we don't have to do the hard work of developing a plan. Rules tell us what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat.

Typical diet rules include:

  • Eat three meals and two small snacks each day
  • Never skip breakfast
  • Avoid eating after dinner
  • Eat x number of calories per day
  • Keep carbohydrate intake under x percent 
  • Don't eat white starches: white rice, white bread, or white pasta
  • Don't eat foods with ingredients that you can't pronounce

Many of these diet rules have a basis in smart nutritional science. For example, many people who are trying to lose weight do better when they eat every few hours. By eating three meals and two small snacks every day, they keep their blood sugar steady and avoid severe hunger that can lead to binge eating.

Similarly, large observational studies have shown that dieters who eat breakfast are able to lose weight more effectively and keep the weight off.

But just because a particular guideline works for one person doesn't mean that it will work for another.  And sometimes, diet rules cause more harm than good.

Why Diet Rules Backfire

While some dieters appreciate structure, others feel that rules are too restrictive. If the feeling of restriction causes stress, a dieter may be inclined to eat more.

According to researchers at Harvard Health, stress can push people towards overeating. And the foods that stressed people are likely to choose are those that are higher in fat and calories.

Weight loss coaches often see this phenomenon in their clients. Aruni Nan Futuronsky is a mindfulness coach and one of three presenters who teaches the Kripalu Approach to Diet at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. She says that rules can make us feel as if we are being disciplined:

Rules, in general, trigger the right/wrong response in so many of us.  When there is an external to do, often we push back against it.  In my experience, so many of us are more successful when we can reframe the idea of “rules”, rethink the concept of “discipline”, and create a system for ourselves that operates from the inside out.

Aruni coaches her students to develop their own rules. In doing so, she uses the image of a river that flows swiftly between riverbanks. The banks provide structure to guide the proper flow of water. As students in the program establish their own riverbanks, they create a system to help their bodies function with vigor and efficiency.

"I like to consider the idea of  creating riverbanks; establishing some bottom line behaviors and practices, such as 'no food after dinner,' or 'no caffeine until the weekend.' Within those riverbanks, we can practice, gather data, assess, tweak, adjust, and recommit.

She adds, however, that the process of establishing riverbanks should be a thoughtful and kind process. "Behavior change is about gathering data without judgment, committing to the fluidity and the non-judgmental nature of change."

How to Create a Make-Your-Own-Rules Diet

If you don't respond well to diet rules set by others, then create your own. The process may take more time than signing up for a program on a website, but you may be more invested in a personalized program that is developed by you.

Tara Stiles is the author of the Make Your Own Rules Diet book and the Make Your Own Rules Cookbook.

 She says that when you feel you, you can't help but become your own best caregiver:

Diets belong to someone else, not to youBegin with your own feeling. Experiment. Try things. See what works for you, and make your own food rules. And expect things to change.

She suggests that calorie counting is one rule that you might want to ditch. "We’re told to count calories, but for most of us, this is a good one to let go. This is true in part because all calories are not created equal." She suggests that you eat real whole foods as much as you can, including plenty of things that grow in the earth. "Focus on how you feel and respond to that."

As you develop your own program, ask yourself key questions to guide your learning process:

  • When do I need more energy during the day? Instead of dining at predetermined meal times, eat wholesome foods when your body needs extra fuel. For example, if you exercise after work, fuel up with a healthy lunch and a small pre-workout snack. If you usually have a busy, hectic morning, be sure to give your body a nutritious, filling breakfast. Design an eating schedule that works for you.
  • Do my emotions guide my eating? Do you eat more often around certain people? Are you more likely to eat when you feel nervous? Do you eat to calm an anxious mind? If so, investigate ways to relieve stress without food. A practice of journaling or meditation works for some people. Others seek the care of a behavioral health professional who is skilled in discussing eating issues.
  • How much food do I need to feel satisfied? Learn to practice mindful eating. At Kripalu, students are encouraged to participate in a practice called silent breakfast. During this time, diners focus on the taste of their meal, the mouthfeel of food, and the pleasure of eating without distraction. When you slow down to truly enjoy your food you are likely to stop before you are full, eat less, and feel more satisfied.
  • When do I eat for reasons other than hunger? Keep a food journal and take notes about how you feel when you choose to eat. Do you eat in the afternoon because you are bored? Do you snack late in the morning out of habit? Cut out unnecessary calories where you can.
  • How do I feel after consuming different types of food? When you fill up with leafy greens, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein does your body feel better? How does it feel when you choose processed foods or meals from fast food restaurants?

As you become more aware of your eating practices, you'll develop questions of your own. Then as you gather data, start to build your riverbanks to guide a healthy weight loss eating practice.

A Word From Verywell

Energy balance matters when it comes to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. If you want to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. But there are different ways to reach that goal.

You may find that developing a personalized plan works best in your life. Even if you choose a commercial diet plan or an online weight loss program, you can customize it to meet your needs. The more you own it, the more likely you are to stay invested, stay motivated, and reach your goal.

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