Bill Tancer, Chief Data Scientist
2 Minute Read

New Years is in the rearview mirror, and so are most of our resolutions. 

Mark Bittman recently wrote a gloomy prediction in his New York Times op-ed (paywall) recently, stating that your New Year’s Resolutions are doomed to fail, not due to your lack of willpower, or failure to follow through, instead Bittman lays the blame at the feet of big food companies.

As a data scientist, I’ve studied why our New Year’s commitments to change often fail. In my first book Click, What Millions do Online and Why it Matters, I devoted an entire chapter to the issue.

In Click, I quoted Janet Polivy, a professor at the University of Toronto who authored a research study on False Hope Syndrome, a phenomenon where unrealistic expectations combined with some short term gains lead to the eventual failure of achieving our goals. I summed up Polivy’s theory in my book as “the act of simply making a commitment to change gives us temporary hope that we have control that overtakes our past memories of failure. That feeling of control is short-lived however, and the more unrealistic our dieting expectations, the greater the fall.”

Look no further than the world’s biggest search engine to see the dominance of New Year’s diet searches. 

Google Trends provides an index of the most-searched fad diets, a list dominated by how quickly we can lose weight, with how a celebrity has transformed their figure (this year’s obsession is Adele and Rebel Wilson) and other perennial diet search favorites like “low carb,” “carnivore,” and “paleo.”

On average, over the last ten years, the high-point in diet searches happens on New Year’s day, that surge lasts for five days, with the total volume of searches dropping by 50% on day six. 

I agree with Bittman that highly processed foods are a big problem, and a leading cause of obesity in our country, but these packaged nutrient-poor foods are just one element of the problem. Focusing on that one element fails to account for our own powers of self-determination.

I would argue that the concept of diets are equally to blame for our failure to lose weight in the New Year. The one thing that I’ve learned studying weight loss over the years is that the only solution to losing weight and keeping that weight off is to make a permanent lifestyle change. Diets, by their definition are temporary in nature, they’re usually quickly abandoned due to their restrictive nature or to Polivy’s point, unrealistic expectations.

It’s already February, so let’s take a mulligan if we’ve dropped off our diet. Here’s a new resolution; let’s resolve to eat healthier this year. 

Here are three quick tips for your next grocery shopping trip:

  1. Do most of your shopping on the perimeter of the store (minus the bakery of course!); fresh produce, fresh meat and dairy products.
  2. Read the ingredient lists and nutritional labels of packaged foods, avoid trans-fats and added sugars.
  3. Avoid purchasing foods that have a long shelf life (with the exception of bottled water). Longer shelf life usually equates to poor nutrition quality.

If you follow these three tips, you’ll reduce the processed foods in your diet that Bittman talks about, and you’ll also begin the journey of living a healthier lifestyle. Here’s to a healthy 2021.

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