Why January Isn’t a Good Time to Start a Diet

And other reasons why not all New Year’s Resolutions should start with the new year

It’s that time of year again… As 2010 draws to a close, we look forward to 2011 and make resolutions. One of the most popular (inspired, perhaps, by the festive meals we’ve consumed since Thanksgiving) is weight loss. But I’ve got some bad news for you: January isn’t a great time to start a diet, at least not if you live in a part of the world where it’s Winter now.

I certainly don’t want to discourage you from adopting good habits and losing excess weight. I’m only suggesting that this may not be the optimal time to begin. If you start a weight loss program now and don’t stick to it, you risk getting discouraged and giving up.

Here in the northeastern United States, we’ve had a snowy week. That’s terrific if you enjoy Winter sports, like skiing or ice skating, but not so great if your reaction to the snowstorms was to curl up on the couch with cookies and hot chocolate. Research indicates there is no hard-wired need for human beings to consume more calories in Winter than at other times of the year. That only means that my desire for comfort foods is cultural, not genetic. It’s definitely real.

This is not the time of year that inspires me to take brisk walks or eat salads. Some days the weather is barely tolerable for a trip to the gym, let alone exercising out-of-doors. This week? Forget the gym—by the time you shovel out your car, you’ll have burned calories, strained muscles, and made yourself hungry. Mass transit is barely running in some areas, and walking is tiring and you risk injury if you fall.

Winter clothing makes it easy to hide a few excess pounds. It’s too cold for gym shorts or leotards. It’s probably dark outside when you leave for work and dark when you get home. When are you going to exercise?

Hope Springs Eternal

I hope I haven’t completely discouraged you. I don’t mean to dissuade you from losing weight, if that’s something you need to do; I’m just suggesting that now is a bad time to start and may only end in frustration.

Just because we call them “New Year’s Resolutions” doesn’t mean we have to start January 2 and complete our projects before Presidents Day. We have the whole year! So let’s spread out those resolutions over twelve months and choose the optimal start dates for each resolution on our lists.

Here’s the good news:

  • Spring is a wonderful time to get outdoors and exercise. It’s not even difficult. The days get longer, the weather gets warm, and the kid in me is always inspired by the start of the baseball season.
  • Tasty and nutritious fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, are abundant in season and are usually less expensive. If you’re fortunate enough to have a farmers market, a little time spent outdoors buying directly from the folks who grew your food is inspiring. But even if you don’t have a farmers market, the produce section of your local supermarket will offer fresh and delicious foods that are healthy, too.
  • The food-centered holidays occur between Halloween and Valentine’s Day. After February there’s less temptation to over-indulge your appetite, except for the occasional backyard barbecue. (But if you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt, it’s easy to remember to be careful about overeating.)
  • Research indicates that women lose weight more easily in the Spring. Sorry, guys, this doesn’t seem to apply to you; but you can lose weight with equal ease all year long.

What Do I Know?

Sure, I told you on Monday not to let anyone discourage you, and here I am three days later suggesting you postpone your New Year’s diet. What do I know?

Rather a lot, as it happens. I wish I could take credit for the brilliant idea to start a weight loss plan in September of 2007, but most of the credit goes to my co-workers at the time and the rest to happenstance. The truth is, because the weather was pleasant I walked a lot, visited the Greenmarket, cut down on meat consumption and between-meals snacking, and saw results almost immediately. By the time Winter rolled around I’d made progress and was motivated to keep at it. My weight loss plan had momentum.

Slowly but surely, over the course of 16 months, I lost 40 pounds—going from 200 pounds and a Body Mass Index of 31.3 (technically I was obese) to 160 pounds and a BMI of 25, right at the high end of normal. Yes, I lost 20% of my body weight. (Almost two years later, I’ve kept it off, except a couple of pounds put on over the holidays.) I may not be a physician or nutritionist, but I know from personal experience that getting off to a good start is half the battle.

What to Do

So here’s my advice: postpone the diet and catch up on your reading list. Or learn to knit. Or tackle some other New Year’s Resolution that can be accomplished easily indoors. But mark your calendars! Spring starts on March 20, so any time after that would be a good date to choose. I mean it, seriously: write it down on your calendar. Start psyching yourself up. Learn a few good healthy recipes. Enlist a friend to encourage you. Because January is just the beginning and you have all year to accomplish your resolutions.

Happy New Year!

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