How to pick a diet that’s right for you, according to diet and behavior experts

If you’re considering changing your diet, all of the information out there can get overwhelming pretty quickly. There are books, blogs and the endless success stories touting one method over another — from your neighbor, to your coworker, to Beyonce.

a wooden table topped with lots of food

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It’s enough to make you want to give up before you’ve even taken your first bite.

The truth is, a healthy lifestyle with staying power is very personal. The diet that helped your best friend shed 20 pounds may not be the best option for you. So we asked dietitians and health experts for their advice before you begin: How do you pick a diet that will work best for you? Here’s what they said.

1. Start with the ‘why’

Step one in determining if a diet is going to work for you is figuring out why you’re making this change in the first place, said Deirdre K. Tobias, ScD, associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Are you adjusting your diet to help manage symptoms of a certain health condition? Are you trying to improve a health issue, like high blood pressure? Are you trying to lose weight or gain weight? Are you trying to run a marathon?

Different diets accomplish different things for your body. Depending on how you answer those questions, she said: “It might drastically change the avenue one should take when changing their diet.”

2. Think beyond measurable outcomes (including the scale!)

When it comes to changing your diet for the better, it usually works best when it’s an “inside job,” said Kari Anderson, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based doctor of behavioral health and licensed professional counselor, who specializes in helping patients with eating disorders.

Think about the intrinsic, value-driven ways this change will benefit you, she said. It may help you improve your health or lose weight, but at the end of the day the diet you’re choosing should align with the way you want to live your life, she said. “It should make you feel good.”

3. Consider the science, not celeb success stories

Don’t be dazzled by anecdotal success stories (particularly when it comes to celebrities who may have personal trainers, chefs and other assets you do not). Look at long-standing dietary guidelines, said Tobias. Recommendations from groups like the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are based on long-term research with findings that have been replicated over and over again.

People can lose weight on nearly pretty much any diet that limits calories. But overly restrictive diets are tough to stick with over the long-term and may be unhealthy, Tobias said. Diets that align with those evidence-backed recommendations are going to be the ones that best help you control weight and long-term health, she said. “Quality of the diet is still important.”

4. Get input from a pro

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For anyone (and especially if you’re making a change to your diet to help manage a chronic condition, like diabetes or heart disease), it’s a good idea to talk with a dietitian or clinician, Tobias said. “A clinician can help you monitor progress and manage micronutrient deficiencies or any problems that may arise.”

If you’re planning to follow a diet that cuts out entire food groups (like meat, gluten or fruit), a dietitian can help you determine if that’s a good diet for you, and how to make it a sustainable one that helps you meet your long-term health goals, she said. In addition to identifying nutrients a certain diet might be lacking, a dietitian can help you make sure you’re swapping in the right foods for the ones you’re cutting out.

Dietitians can also help you figure out how to incorporate a new diet into your day-to-day life, explained Joey Gochnour, RDN, a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, who owns his own Austin, Texas-based health and wellness coaching practice. What can you eat when you’re out at a restaurant? At a friend’s dinner party? On the go? “A dietitian can help you with that,” he said.

5. Be wary of diets that feel overly restrictive

Diets that feel too restrictive are going to play tricks with your head, Anderson said. “If you don’t have autonomy over your choices, most people don’t do very well.”

This restriction may come in the form of calorie counts, or with long lists of forbidden foods. In general it’s best to be wary of diet plans that cut out entire groups of foods (like whole grains or legumes). While they may work for short-term weight loss, lots of other research shows these types of whole foods tend to be really good for long-term health, Gochnour said.

6. Leave room for treats

You’re going to have cravings for foods you love every so often — whether they’re part of your diet or not, Anderson said. Totally limiting yourself can leave people more likely to binge on those foods if and when they do splurge or overeat other foods, she said.

Instead, pick a diet that allows for splurge foods you love (like French fries, chocolate or bacon) every so often. But do limit when and how much you eat of those foods, Anderson said: “Treat treats like treats.”

7. Ease into it

Avoid the diet pitfall of going cold-turkey on all of your favorite and routine foods all at once on day one, Gochnour said. Dietary changes that ask you to cut out foods you love eating are going to be tough because the food choices we make are about a lot more than nutrition. “It may be about good times and socializing and connecting with other people,” he said, and if so, that’s going to make it a lot tougher to give those foods up.

If you want to overhaul your diet, make changes in increments. Once you feel good about one small step, take another small step, and so on.

8. Watch out for buzz words

Words like “boost,” “cleanse,” “detox,” and “cure” are all red flags that a diet may be inflating its benefits, Tobias said. Consider what evidence these miracle-sounding claims are based on. Does the information you’re reading cite any research? Can you look up those studies?

Also consider if where you’re getting the information (a website, book or company) has anything to gain by you starting their diet. “Consider information sources [about these diets] that don’t really have a stake in the game,” Tobias said.

And remember the age-old advice: If it sounds too good to be true it probably is, Gochnour said. “Every few years there’s going to be a new diet trend. But there’s nothing new under the sun.”

9. Pay attention to how your body feels when you eat

No matter how big or small of a change you’re considering making to your diet, pay attention to how what you eat makes you feel, Anderson said. Do you feel different in the late morning if you’ve eaten a protein-filled breakfast rather than a donut? Can you concentrate for longer? When works best for you to eat your biggest meal of the day? Do certain foods give you indigestion?

Experiment with your body and find what works best for you and what makes you feel good, Anderson said. Maybe too much cheese doesn’t sit well with you. Maybe it works for you to cut it out all together; or maybe you notice small amounts are more manageable. “Cooperate with your body,” Anderson said.

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