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Why you shouldn't diet in January

Judith Wills / 01 January 2019

Diet expert Judith Wills now believes that midwinter is the worst time to try to lose weight. So find out when you should start your diet.

January diet
Lots of us start diets in January, but is mid-winter really the best time to lose weight?

Every single year, come January, it’s Groundhog Day. We should all know better by now, but most of us who find ourselves with a few spare inches around the middle and several pounds too many on the scales, grit our teeth, grimace and tell our loved ones the dreaded words: ‘I’m on a diet!’

It’s no wonder – this January, as has happened every January for aeons, all the diet books come out in a jostling cluster; all the slimming and fitness clubs do their major advertising; the shops are full of low-calorie this and sugar-free that promotions, and the media is packed with ‘brand new’ dieting regimes (usually a slightly altered version of what they ran last year). Hard to resist, eh?

Then, a few short weeks after we began, one of the said loved ones comes across us in the kitchen, furtively hunting through the biscuit tin for the last of the chocolate-topped oaties (as we ate all the rest yesterday and the plain digestives just don’t quite do it) and says accusingly, ‘I thought you were on a diet’.

And we have to admit – it’s over. We’ve given up; thrown in the towel (quick-drying, microfibre, unused, as we never got round to doing any of that sweat-inducing exercise at the gym we promised ourselves). We put on our best baggy tracksuit and hunker down to the rest of the winter with a nice pasta TV dinner and a few (or so) chocolates, trying to ignore the guilty feelings our ‘lack of willpower’ has induced.

Humans have evolved to be programmed to want to eat as much as we can during winter, because in past times food was hard to come by. 

Anyway, what does it matter – we’re wearing so many layers, who can even see the spare tyre?

That’s it. For another year. But try not to feel too guilty – willpower is proven to be scant at this time of year. Scientists at Exeter University say that humans have evolved to be programmed to want to eat as much as we can during winter, because in past times food was hard to come by. The urge to eat and maintain our insulating fat layers is still with us, they say.

And indeed, research shows that at least 80% of us give up on the post-festive-season diet within a few short weeks of starting it. So why bother?

By now, any of you of an age to remember me as the person who wrote a new diet book nearly every year (always out in January at the publisher’s insistence), back in the latter years of the past century, may be thinking I have a nerve to decry the January diet, having encouraged one and all to try exactly that.

So I admit guilt, apologise now and have to tell you that sometime during the late 1990s, I had a ‘woke’ moment, or whatever it was called in those days; a realisation I didn’t feel at all happy writing diet books that (although containing perfectly good advice, for the state of our knowledge back then, and which would work well in theory) went against what I knew from experience: that it’s really, really hard to lose weight when it comes down to a feeling that ‘we should’ versus much stronger feelings that we are having a horrid time.

After I realised that however many diet books were published, in fact as a nation we were just getting fatter and fatter, I knew I could never write another diet book again, least of all one published in January.

Instead I chose to write about food, health and diet (in the old sense of what we eat, not a strict calorie-reduction regime) in a more laid-back way, believing, as I still do today (and the figures agree), that short-term/fad/quick-fix unsupervised diets rarely work long term. Most people who start a rigid plan without outside help give up before they’ve lost the weight they wanted to lose. And January is the very worst time of year to start.

‘Why?’ you may well be asking. New Year, new beginning and all that. What goes wrong?

The dark days and long evenings are designed for you to sit there with a glass of wine and some decent chocolate, not a glass of water and an apple.

The cold, miserable weather makes it easy to love meaty, dumplingy casseroles, toast and jam, a baked potato with butter, a takeaway curry with a big pile of rice. The phrase ‘comfort food’ was not invented in vain.

Compare that with what are perceived as ‘diet’ foods – lettuce, kale, other salad stuffs (without any mitigating oily dressing, of course) and, God help us, spiralised carrots; the expensive out-of-season, tasteless fruits such as peppers tomatoes and melons; and the reduced-fat, sugar-free versions of everything you like, thus rendering them everything you don’t like. Oh, did I mention sauerkraut?

It’s bad enough being snowed in or fogbound, without having to become ‘hangry’ as well.

It’s bad enough as it is, being snowed in or fogbound, fretting about the billions of pounds you’re racking up on heating your home, without having to become ‘hangry’ as well.

It’s well documented that rates of depression increase in winter, and the NHS agrees this can increase the longing for carbs. But suppose you are willing to put up with low-cal, low-fat, low-sugar, low-pleasure foods in the wrong season? What you have next is the Motivation Problem.

There is much research showing that the people who do succeed in losing weight on structured diets and/or keeping the weight off, succeed because they have the strong motivation of a ‘happening’ ahead for which they want to look their best. What’s coming up in the weeks ahead if you start in the New Year, though?

Valentine’s Day (not in this house, it isn’t). Parties? No – all gone till summer. Skimpy outfits to buy? Not in this weather. Wedding coming up? Are you kidding? And if you’re taking yourself off on a sunny three-month winter cruise and want to wear a bikini round the pool – well, it’s too late to diet, dear – you’ve missed the boat.

No, for most of us, it’s a long time till summer. The beach? The sunbed? What are they?

For all these reasons, it’s very hard to think about losing weight at this time of year. Well, you can think, maybe plan a bit. Perhaps even take one or two biscuits instead of the pack. But trying a full-on diet now is pure folly. Give it a few weeks and you’ll be tearing your hair out to try to shed pounds that way (I had a phase of only weighing myself after I’d been to the hairdresser’s for a good trim – hair does weigh a lot, you know).

But don’t despair. Be patient. Press ‘Hold’ and I’ll tell you the best time to lose weight.

For what did they invent the term ‘spring clean’, if it isn’t to revamp your body? The best time to diet is any time after early March. Third week of March, BST and all that, is perhaps the best time of all.

So much to look forward to, so much motivation. And you’ve got everything else going for you, too. Just think of the opposite of everything I’ve already explained about why dieting in midwinter is a fool’s game, and you’ll see.

Longer days, lighter days. The rise of the spirit that says yes, I do want to go out for a walk. Suddenly that recipe for hot smoked salmon and cucumber salad looks tempting. A tot of brandy before bed – redundant. And as for bread and butter pudding… far too stodgy now.

It’s spring! Life is wonderful, life is full of possibility. And there are months and months ahead to enjoy getting fitter and slimmer naturally – no need to rush. It’s healthy living time, not diet time, I hope you’ll say. And I can do nothing but agree.  

Judith Wills’ latest book The Food Bible is out in February. Buy it at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.