Sticking to a diet is an annoying thing – for it to work, you have to do it all day. Which, personally, I’m rubbish at. I do brilliantly at breakfast, great at lunch, okay at dinner….and then, come the evening, all bets are off and the sofa becomes home to a veritable buffet. If that sounds familiar, you’re also a 9-5 dieter and it’s time (for us both) to stop it… and here’s how.
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Why 9-5 Dieting is a Bad Thing
The obvious one is that it’s highly unlikely to lead to you losing any weight – which is frustrating, demoralising and if you’re actively trying to lose weight for health reasons, not good for you.
But there are also the mental patterns that it sets up in your brain. If you start and stop a goal – without success – you can find yourself creating a mental pathway that tells yourself you can’t succeed at it.
There’s no evidence for that, the reason it’s not worked is that you haven’t given the goal long enough to actually kick in, but when you start to set up those negative thought processes, your brain latches onto them and it starts to almost make them a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You might also start to create bad habits with 9-5 dieting.
If every night you get in, kick your shoes off – think, ‘oh blow it, I’ll start again tomorrow’ and have a glass of wine, or a couple of biscuits after dinner, eventually your brain will start to create that glass of wine or biscuit nibble into an unconscious action, you might not even realise you’re doing.
Next thing you know, you’ve 8lb to lose not 7lb – and yes, I might be writing much of this from personal experience!
Why it Happens
One of the most common reasons is a fabulous little mind trick called the Moral Licensing Effect.
The theory is this. Because we work hard all day, sticking to both our diet and societal, rules by the end of the day we decide we’ve been good enough and give ourselves permission to do something bad – which if you’re on a diet or trying to eat more healthily can mean eating something off-plan.
This is particularly likely if you’ve finished a tricky project or had a stressful day.
And There’s More…
Now, this might be easier to resist if we weren’t biologically set up to be swayed by rewards right now. But we are…
By the time evening comes our blood sugar levels and serotonin levels fall. We’re tired, and if you’re following a too rigid or too low-calorie diet, chances are you’re hungry too and this combination makes it very hard to resist temptation.
Oh and then there’s willpower – the thing you have to call on if you want to resist temptation – that can also not work so well at night.
According to Professor Kelly McGonigal in her brilliant book Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self Control (MacMillan), there are three parts to this.
There’s the part that handles ‘I will’ actions – ie ‘I will eat a veggie stir-fry for dinner not a burger.’ The part that handles ‘I won’t’ actions – like ‘I won’t eat the biscuits I don’t need’; and the ‘I want’ section which keeps you on track with goals like I’ I want to start eating healthier’.
For willpower to work, all three of these need to kick in at the appropriate time to override the part of your brain that requires immediate gratification. ‘Oooh, cookies…’
The problem is, by the time evening rolls around, the part of the brain that controls willpower – the pre-frontal cortex – isn’t quite as fired up as it should be. It’s less active after stress or when you’re tired. It’s also affected by emotions like feeling lonely or angry. Your willpower, therefore, isn’t as strong at the end of the day is it is at the beginning.
Plus, there’s a little matter of boredom. During the day your mind and your hands are busy – and food possibly isn’t readily available. At night that hurdle is also taken away – the kitchen is just steps away.
All of these factors combine to create the perfect storm for slipping off a plan. The good news is that once you know why something is happening, you can set up a plan to stop it.
How to Stick to Your Diet at Night
1. Make it Easy For Yourself
The less you have to rely on willpower at night, the better so, take the pressure off it. You could…
– Have a weekly meal plan and batch cook all the meals in advance for a month so all you need to do when you get home is grab one from the freezer and warm it up.
– Buy a slow cooker and put it on before you leave home – dinner will be ready in seconds and you won’t be tempted to go to the pub because you’ll waste all the food.
Crockpot is one of the best-known brand names of slow cookers, but there are plenty of others out there and they really aren’t that expensive. Also, you can cook a few days food in one go then freeze it – it’s the easy way to batch cook.
– Don’t buy your trigger foods – if you can’t eat one biscuit, just don’t buy them. If the kids want biscuits in the house, buy ones you don’t like.
– Don’t go home before the gym – go straight there. Or even better, go first thing in the morning when your willpower is at its highest.
2. Get a Go-To Meal
If you’re not really a planner, at the very least have a quick diet-friendly meal (that you really enjoy) that you can turn to when you’re struggling – and always, always, have the ingredients to hand.
Mine is a Pitta Bread Pizza that I can have on the table in 12 minutes – you can make it with as few as four ingredients (pitta, tomato paste, grated cheese and a veggie or herbs).
3. Think Long Term
One of the most common beliefs when you’re a 9-5 dieter is ‘ah well, I’ll start again tomorrow’ but according to Professor McGonigal, this thought pattern is a really bad idea. ‘Expecting to make different decisions tomorrow gives us license to indulge today,’ she explains.
And of course, tomorrow (or the day after) comes and you repeat the pattern – and it becomes, ‘oh well, I’ll start again on Monday.’ Cue of a weekend of overindulging before you knuckle down. I do this one a LOT.
To break the thought process Professor McGonigal suggests you stop thinking about your choice to break your diet as a one-off and see it as a choice that you’re likely to make every day if you don’t break the habit – with the associated consequences.
Instead of asking ‘do I want to eat these biscuits now?’ (the answer to which is likely to be yes) you ask yourself ‘Do I want the consequences of eating a couple of biscuits every night for the next year?’
Chances are the answer to that will be no and you’ll be more likely to not give in.
If you like this tip, you’ll also want to check out our guide to how to change a habit here – take a look at the Future Self idea as it takes the above tip a little bit further.
4. Don’t Be Totally Scared of Treats
Yes, I know I just told you not to eat the biscuits – but I meant all the biscuits, in one go. Not one, once in a while. Losing weight should not be about total deprivation.
It’s miserable and it doesn’t teach you how to eat in a way that’s going to maintain your weight once it does come off. You should allow yourself the odd small treat – otherwise, it can backfire spectacularly.
When I first wrote this article I had fallen into the trap of consuming hundreds of ‘healthy’ calories to avoid consuming one Caramello Koala because it was chocolate – and chocolate is EVIL. Said Koala is all of 100 calories. I should just eat the blooming thing and be done with it.
Find a small treat that you can build into whatever eating plan you’re following and, if you really want it, let yourself have it rather than trying to fight temptation completely.
A good way to let go of the guilt of treats is to keep the serving sizes sensible – you’ll find a list of the recommended servings sizes for a whole load of foods here.
5. Follow This Rule
You only ever eat at home when seated at a table – not standing by the fridge, wandering around the house or on the sofa.
You’re far less likely to keep nibbling if you have to sit upright than all comfy on the sofa – especially if you can’t see the TV from there!
6. Tackle Food Cravings
These can strike at any point of the day, but, if you find them particularly problematic in the evening, try and find out what’s behind them.
This post pinpoints seven questions to ask yourself when cravings strike that can help you find their source – and stop them.
Food cravings are also often a way to reward ourselves – they’re more common if we’re tired, stress, fed-up or lonely, so, come up with other ways to reward yourself if you’ve had a bad day (or a good one).
This post looks at some great non-foodie ways to reward yourself after you’ve lost weight, but it also works on any other day too.
7. Come Up With a Plan
If your 9-5 dieting is triggered not at home, but by offers to go out to the pub or restaurants (another big problem in my house) then you have two choices – get good at saying no, or, come up with a way to go out and not mess up your progress.
A good way to do is this is to use what’s known as an if/then statement…
– If Jenny asks me to go to the pub then I will tell her ‘no, not tonight, but let’s go in two weeks once I’ve established my healthier habits.’
-Or, If Jenny asks me to go the pub then I will go, but I will check the menu first and pick something healthy for dinner.
If/Then statements are one of the most important steps of making a change. These help you think about what might cause you to deviate from your goals – and how you’re going to handle it.– if you want to see the others sign up for your free mini e-book ‘You Can Do This!’ here.
8. Rearrange Your Kitchen Cupboards
If every time you walk into the kitchen you see food, particularly, snack food, it’s an invitation to eat so, hide the food in the cupboards and even better, put less healthy foods in opaque containers so the contents (or bright colour packets) aren’t as noticeable as you walk past.
According to US studies, we eat 67 per cent more food when it’s stored in a clear container than if it’s hidden in an opaque one.
You can also use this to the opposite effect –if you’re trying to eat more fruit or vegetables having them out where you can see them – or, having a clear Tupperware of crudites in the fridge where you can see them first if you open it can naturally encourage you to reach for these first.
9. Create a Stop Point
Remember, your brain likes to create routines and habits so, start to create one that tells it that eating is done for the night.
You could go for a walk after your meal or, do something simple like brush your teeth or drink a peppermint tea (also one of the best ways to help beat any after dinner bloating you might experience). Thank your body for all it’s done for you that today and promise it you’ll fuel it will all the good things tomorrow.
Then, don’t eat after that point.
Eventually, your brain will make the connection between the act and the end of food for the day – and that will make it less likely that food thoughts will creep in.
So there you have it. Nine ways to help yourself stick a diet past 5pm. Let me know which one you’re going to try – or what else works for you in the comments.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.