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Eleanor Bradford: The perfect magic diet doesn’t exist – stop wasting time searching for it

While exercise is good for your physical and mental health, so is having a lie-in or enjoying a slice of pizza now and again.

A person holding a doughnut in one hand and a head of broccoli in the other, representing weight loss diets
Balance is key to sticking to a truly healthy lifestyle - so skip an early-morning run or treat yourself to a doughnut every once in a while. Image: jchizhe/Shutterstock

Christmas is past and ‘tis the season to be on a diet.

Losing weight is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. Many of us will have already started our diets and, according to research by that well known statistical source Hartley’s Jam, 87% of us will have fallen off the wagon by the time you read this. Studies over many years have consistently shown that we all start a diet with gusto in the New Year, only to have given up before the month is out.

Marketing companies know this, just as surely as they know we’re all buying chocolates on Valentine’s Day and Pimm’s in July. We are deluged with adverts for healthy food boxes and exercise bikes.

By the time I was driving home after visiting relatives for New Year, the breakfast radio presenters were discussing their new fitness goals and how “great” they already felt after their 10-mile run. I’m glad to be removed from the pressure of the media industry. There are not many workplaces where all your customers feel it’s their duty to point out when you’ve put on a few pounds.

Keto, 5:2, low-carb, Atkins, raw food – there’s a smorgasbord of diets on offer, not to mention the new pressures of looking like a gladiator in your 50s, with celebrities like Davina McCall posting their abs all over Instagram.

Over the decade and a half that I was a health journalist, I spoke to a lot of people who knew a lot about diets. The best explanation I was ever given was from someone who didn’t study metabolism or calories or body mass. He was an expert on the brain. And your brain is wired like a caveman’s.

It’s almost impossible to trick your brain

Whatever weight you are just now, that’s the weight your brain has accepted as normal. As soon as you start restricting your food intake, it sends only one clear message to your head: there’s a famine.

As there’s clearly a famine, the brain tells the body to conserve energy by feeling lethargic whilst also frantically sending hunger signals so that you’ll be incentivised to go out and find extra food. Result: you gorge yourself on all the biscuits in the cupboard whilst watching an entire series of Succession.

Diet blown. Cue self-loathing and the assumption that you’ll never be thin again, so you may as well eat cake.

Someone writing out a meal plan with a bowl of salad and veg on the table next to them
Depriving ourselves of food and calories in a bid to be ‘healthy’ isn’t a sensible or scientific approach. Image: asiandelight/Shutterstock

To me, this rang true. No matter how much you tell yourself that fatty, salty, sugary snacks are bad for you, unless you trick your brain into new habits then you’ve got no chance. The only route around this is a diet that you can sneak past your brain without it noticing.

I’ve done this by accident before, either by being so stressed out that I didn’t feel hungry, or by going to southern Egypt, which was so hot I couldn’t do anything except lie very, very still. Neither of these are recommended diet plans, which leaves only one other option: exercise.

Exercise to feel good – but don’t deprive yourself of lie-ins

As nutritionists have told me many times, the bottom line is calories in, calories out. If you put more calories out, you can offset the calories going in. Plus, you can’t be tempted by the box of Celebrations whilst you’re out for a run. Working out occupies time which might otherwise be spent snacking. And you feel smug when you’ve finished exercising, avoiding the self-loathing diet trap.

Personally speaking, I find the only exception to this rule is swimming. All the evidence points to swimming being a really great source of exercise but, my God, it makes me ravenously hungry.

Two women doing yoga
Find the type of exercise that works best for you. Image: Ivan Moreno sl/Shutterstock

So, I am having a fitness relaunch. You will find me out running, walking and cycling, if it’s not too icy. I’ll fit in a bit of yoga for flexibility, and maybe even a mini-trampoline dance class, if my pelvic floor muscles are up to it. Heck, this is going to require a whole new workout wardrobe.

The only thing is, as I’ve got older, I’ve come to a new conclusion. Whilst getting out into the fresh air is definitely good for your mental health and being fit does improve your physical health, every once in a while, if I’m feeling knackered, I’m just going to skip the early-morning run and have a lie in. That’s as good as yoga for my mental health.

Don’t worry about falling off the wagon. Jump off and live your life with gusto

If I’ve had a hard week, I’m going to veg out with pizza and wine. It is just as effective as running to unwind. And going to a cafe for chocolate cake each Friday with my son is worth every added centimetre to my waistline. Those are memories he will have long after my dress size becomes irrelevant because I’m a batty old lady in flowery A-line frocks in a care home.

So, my advice is, don’t worry about falling off the wagon. Jump off and live your life with gusto.

Who knows? You might just trick your brain into being bikini-ready anyway. And, if that doesn’t happen, just rock your tummy-control swimsuit. There’s nothing more attractive than body confidence.

Eleanor Bradford is a former BBC Scotland health correspondent and now works in communications