When you were in school and started a new course, did you expect yourself to be able to write the final in the first week or month? I'd imagine not. Instead you recognized that to gain a new skill and knowledge base, you'd have to start off by going to class, doing some basic homework, logging time at the library, maybe getting a tutor or study group, and in short, incrementally learning. So why then, when it comes to cultivating the skill of living healthfully in our modern day dystopian food environment, do people have an expectation that they should be writing their finals on day or week one?
Having worked with many thousands of patients trying to improve their health and lifestyles over the past decade, I can tell you that it's a rare patient who is actually patient. Most, to their credit, are raring to go -- definitely not a bad thing. But what this usually translates into are people who not only take flying leaps of change into food and fitness, but also people who share the expectation that "all at once" is in and of itself a sustainable change modality.
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While I'm sure there are some who manage flying leaps of change with grace, for most of us flying leaps just land us on our faces. Whether it's trying to build muscle or endurance in the gym; to going from a serial box reheater and processed food mixer to becoming a fresh, whole foods cook; to losing weight; to improving lifestyle responsive medical conditions, there really isn't any sustainable way to make those things happen in a hurry. The only way to do things fast is to do them stupid -- dramatically under-eating, vigorously over-exercising or some extreme combination therein.
For changes to be sustainable, they need to be not only tolerable, but honestly enjoyable. While the healthiest life you can tolerate may well see you going from daily hours on the couch to daily hours in the gym, or from everyday fast food to everyday brown bags -- or from an all-you-can-eat lifestyle to a don't ever eat this, that or the other diet -- my guess is that even if you do in fact see dramatic changes to your weight or health, if your lifestyle changes are merely tolerable they'll be short lived. The reason why is straightforward. Whether it's permanently losing weight or permanently improving your health, the key word there is "permanent", whereby the more of your life you'd like to permanently improve, the more of your life you'll need to permanently change, and merely tolerable changes aren't likely to be permanent.
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It's also important not to forget that people are different and that those differences matter. Genetics, metabolisms, co-existing medical conditions, required medications and more can all effect our best efforts and our outcomes. But so too can our life stresses and responsibilities, and the fact that food isn't simply fuel, but also at times both comfort and celebration. Which is why suggesting that everyone of a certain height should weigh the same amount is such nonsense. Sticking with the school analogy, if you give 10 kids the same amount of time to study for the same test they'll get 10 different marks. Those students' jobs are the same as yours -- to do your best, and wherever your best gets you is great.
If you're looking to improve your health, treat it like school. Find yourself some great study resources or teachers, start with the basics, and slowly but surely build up your skills and education. If you try to write your year-end exams too soon, I'm pretty sure you're not going to be very happy with your final grade.
Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute -- dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony on March 4.