How to escape the trap of yo-yo dieting

How to turn good-health intentions into behaviours that are second nature

healthy eating

Karen Coghlan

Extreme dieting is not only physically damaging due to potential nutrient deficiencies, but it can also promote psychological distress and promote unhealthy eating behaviours. Years of dieting failures and yo-yo dieting can lead to lowered self-esteem, diminished self-worth, and an unhealthy relationship with food.


Traditional diets require us to make drastic changes overnight and resort to willpower to stick to the rigid rules that are inflicted upon us. When people fail at their diets, it's rarely because they lack the will. It's usually because they are set up for failure before they even begin.

If you are fed up with this constant perception of failure, then perhaps it is time to ditch the restrictive dieting and ultimately build a healthy relationship with food by learning a new way.

Escape the willpower and dieter's trap and instead adopt a habit-based approach to nutrition for long-lasting, maintainable, achievable results.


In an ideal world, we would live healthy and happy lives without any effort at all. However, it doesn't need to be something we just wish for. Healthy eating is something we can all learn to do, simply by changing our minds.

The way we think profoundly influences the way we feel. How we feel, in turn, largely determines how we behave. Our behaviour, if repeated often enough, becomes habit.

In other words, at the root of all our actions, lie our thoughts. So it can be said, if we can learn to think differently about our approach to dieting, this will enable us to feel and act differently around food.

A habit is defined as something that you do often, without conscious effort and may happen without you even being aware of it. For example, when getting dressed in the morning, you may not even notice if you put your left or right sock on first.

The beauty of forming healthy food habits is that you become more resistant to unhealthy relapses or slip ups as the power of the habit kicks in and carries you through any difficult times you may be faced with it.

You will just continue with your healthy eating behaviours because that's just how you eat now, leaving (the overrated) motivation and willpower in the dust.


To form a habit, first you must decide to take action. Take your first step towards a healthier body by simply deciding you want to make a change.

The second step is to commit to your decision by taking action. You must turn your good intentions into new behaviours. You can have all the best intentions in the world, but without a plan in place then your chances of success are decreased.

Put measures and plans in place to translate the decision into action.

Thirdly, the behaviour needs to be repeated consistently, every day. The more you repeat it, the more second nature it will become. It will be something that you automatically do with ease and without effort.

For example, you keep a three-day dietary record and identify a significant lack of protein with your breakfast:

Step one is to decide that you will work on incorporating a source of protein with your first meal of the day.

Step two is to plan and put measures in place that will enable this to happen. If you know you are normally rushed for time in the mornings, then perhaps prepare some overnight oats made with a high protein Greek-style yogurt that you can grab and go from the fridge the next morning.

When forming new habits, you can sometimes just forget to act on your intentions. So set reminders for yourself. When writing out your shopping list for the week, highlight "protein source for breakfast" as an effective reminder.

Step three is to make this behaviour part of your daily routine. The cue is breakfast time and the intended action is eating protein. "Breakfast time" can work as an extremely effective cue because it happens at the same time every day and is therefore a very salient point in your routine.


It can take anywhere between 18 to 254 days to form a habit, so be patient with the process. It won't always be easy and some habits can be more difficult than others to form. So start simple and make one small change at a time that you know you can do. Then another after that, and so on.

Once you start reaping the rewards from the new behaviour, for example, feeling fuller for longer after eating protein with your breakfast, then you will be spurred on to continue repeating it. What initially starts out as a choice, soon turns into part of your daily routine that you just automatically do.

The accumulation of these small and simple changes over time will lead to big and brilliant changes.

Karen is a nutrition coach and personal trainer and runs monthly online group nutrition coaching programmes and hosts nutrition seminars around the country. See