Nutrition challenges can be a great incentive for people to get out of habits that aren’t in alignment with their goals, but more often than not, people go back to their old habits as soon as the challenge is over.
It’s a common cycle: you’re unhappy with your diet and know you can do better, you sign up for a challenge, you realise you like eating the foods the challenge restricted and go back to your old habits. Repeat from the start with slight variations here or there.
While there are many positive sides to nutrition challenges, the biggest problem with them is that they are not sustainable in the long term.
We talked to Dr Mike Molloy, founder of M2 Performance Nutrition and nutrition coach to over 40 CrossFit Games athletes, including Sara Sigmundsdottir, Zack George and Gabriela Migala, about what you should consider before signing up to a nutrition challenge.
Choose a nutrition program that is sustainable in the long term
Extreme approaches and 30-day challenges can work – for a while. The problem is that more often than not they are not sustainable, so at some point people give up and old habits and bad relationships with food come roaring back.
“The faster result isn’t always the better result when it comes to nutrition,” says Dr Molloy. “If you can give somebody [a nutrition plan] that’s a little bit more sustainable, where progress is a little bit slower, it actually tends to work better in the long term.”
Not many people talk about what happens after you finish a nutrition challenge. The reality is that, most of the time, if you enjoy something you’re going to want to eat it.
“Let’s say it’s carbs,” explains Dr Molloy. “You totally restrict carbohydrates for three months and you lose 10 kilos. Awesome. What do you do then? Most people go back to eating carbs.
“And what happens? They go right back to the same ways that they had in the first place. And why did they do that? Well, they like carbs, they weren’t going to go the rest of their life without eating them, so there’s this natural built-in rebound phase.”
Fitness journalist Hilary Achauer writes about a similar phenomenon in the CrossFit article ‘How to Keep Nutrition Top of Mind’. Box owners notice the same pattern come every January: people drink and eat in excess over the holidays, enter a nutrition challenge, repeat the binging. “It’s often difficult to get members to develop lifelong habits instead of looking for quick fixes,” she writes.
Extreme changes don’t usually form long time habits
You should work enjoyment into your nutritional approach if it’s going to work for more than three months, says Dr Molloy. “I always say: ‘I don’t really care what your three-month transformation looks like unless I actually get to see what you look like three years after that as well.’”
Challenges that restrict your calorie levels to very low amounts or completely eliminate food groups off your diet can have good results in body composition changes at first, but the results of that are just as important; many times these diets lead to sleep disruption, low energy levels, subpar performance in the gym, and increased stress levels.
“If we restrict everything that people are able to eat and we make it difficult for them to go out and go to social events, … they start feeling nervous and uncomfortable, or they feel like they have to give up what they love. We see people start to fall off quicker because they are not able to maintain their lifestyle,” reports Achauer.
Many challenges work like that; you follow a relatively extreme approach and you do really well for a month or two. You see good body composition changes and you take a before and after picture. You lure more people into following the same plan. And then, you never see the consequences of that, people don’t post about the likely regression that follows the end of the challenge.
Think beyond the nutrition challenge
“It comes down to sustainability,” says Dr Molloy. “If I cut [many] things in your diet, will you make progress in the short term? Probably. But are you likely to make it work for longer than 30 or 60 days? Probably not.”
Achauer writes that telling people to completely change what they’re doing for six weeks causes stress, makes people miserable and “when the challenge is over the good habits they developed go out the window completely.”
A 30-day nutrition challenge can be a good place to start to implement good habits and learn new things, as they incentivise you to try eating differently and find other options for your usual meals and eating habits. However, you must also think beyond the challenge – if you’re able to follow it to the letter but on the last day think “Finally, I can eat normally again” then the challenge might not be the best option for you.
Personalise your diet to your lifestyle
“Our nutritional needs are all a little bit different,” explains Dr Molloy. “What I recommend for one person may be totally the wrong approach from another person, even if they’re doing the same training, are at relatively the same height, same weight.”
People aren’t robots, so you can’t tell everyone to eat a very specific way and they’ll optimise their performance and body composition as a result, because that removes the emotional aspects from food. “We don’t live in little laboratory experiments, we live in the real world,” explains Dr Molloy. You need to change nutritional approaches based on each athlete’s personal situation.
“Why not use somebody’s personal history [with food] to design a nutrition approach better for them, instead of shoving them into your model?” says Dr Molloy. “Let’s take our general approach to nutrition and try to fit what we do to how you live your life.”
Should you sign up to your gym’s 30-day nutrition challenge?
Nutrition challenges provide motivation and are a great way to get people to start changing their nutritional habits. They get athletes excited about big changes and seeing results, but real change happens the rest of the year. Before you sign up, consider what you’ll do once the challenge is over – how can you keep the habits you learnt past the end of the month?
All content within this article is provided for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.
Always consult a dietitian before making big changes to your diet.