As a community moderator for IIN’s Emotional Eating Course, one of the most common challenges I see students struggle with is how to coach clients who “just want to lose weight.” Often clients get stuck in the diet mentality – they believe the only way to lose weight is to restrict calories and deprive themselves – because it’s the only approach to weight loss they’ve ever known. So they come to a Health Coach expecting a rule book or meal plan, wanting to know what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Essentially, they are looking for a quick fix.
But as Health Coaches, we know diets don’t work long-term. Losing weight is not as simple as the "calories in, calories out" equation many people focus on. Plus, dieting leaves people feeling deprived, which can lead to overeating, guilt, shame, and a feeling of hopelessness. So, how can you coach clients away from dieting and toward a more sustainably nourishing approach to eating?
Here are 12 suggestions for helping clients ditch the diet mentality and open their minds to a more holistic view of weight loss and health:
1. Start by asking about the client’s previous attempts at dieting.
If a client comes to you to lose weight, chances are they’ve had difficulty trying to lose weight on their own, so explore that with them. Ask them to describe how dieting has served them in the past and how it has made them feel. Often clients who have “failed” at dieting have experienced their share of shame and frustration. Hold space for them – show empathy, nonjudgmental curiosity, and compassion as a way to establish trust, safety, and rapport. Once a client connects emotionally to what didn’t work, they will feel more open to exploring alternative approaches.
2. Meet clients where they are.
Letting go of the diet mentality is challenging for many people. It’s often deeply ingrained, and it can be a convenient distraction from other emotional and non-food related struggles. As an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, it’s not your place to judge clients on their current eating mind-set or habits. Your job is to listen, provide alternative perspectives, and help clients build a nourishing relationship with food that promotes health and satisfaction. Do this by modeling neutrality and approaching clients with a beginner’s mind.
3. Offer information that can validate clients’ feelings of frustration.
When working with clients, it’s generally not recommended to share information unless the client requests it. However, when it comes to helping clients ditch the diet mentality, it can be helpful to provide basic information to support reasons diets don’t work. Doing so can validate clients’ feelings of frustration.
Here are a few biological and psychological factors you can share with clients to explain why diets aren’t usually sustainable:
Dieting can decrease metabolism. When the body senses a shortage of food, it works harder to hold on to fat. This is why many people store more fat after ending a diet. Additionally, the body learns to burn muscle when there isn’t enough fat to burn for energy, and less muscle mass means a lower metabolism.
Dieting can increase appetite. Limiting food intake and depriving the body of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates can throw off hormonal balance and increase cravings.
Dieting can increase stress. Dieting can be physically stressful when it leaves us feeling hungry and deprived, but it can be mentally and emotionally stressful as well. It takes a great deal of mental energy, planning, calculating, and willpower to keep within the confines of a diet. Often people feel anxiety about what they can and cannot eat. Dieting can also motivate us to avoid social situations where foods we are “not allowed to have” might be present, which can increase feelings of isolation.
Dieting doesn’t address the emotional roots tied to eating. Dieting works like a Band-Aid – it’s a quick fix to an underlying issue that doesn’t get addressed. Because dieting ignores physical, psychological, and emotional needs, it doesn’t create satisfaction or holistic or sustainable health.
Dieting can increase self-judgment. Many diets are rather dogmatic. And when we fail to meet a diet’s unrealistic rules, we feel guilty, powerless, frustrated, and ashamed. This can worsen the relationship we have with ourselves and lead to other self-sabotaging behaviors that lead us away from health and well-being.
4. Help clients connect with how they want to feel.
You can ask questions like, “How would you feel if you were able to reach a healthy weight and maintain it?” and “In what ways would it change your life?” When you connect clients to the emotional benefits and rewards that will come from putting in the work, they will feel more authentically motivated to stay committed to their goals.
5. Ask clients if they are open to an alternative approach to losing weight that has proven to be more sustainable.
As Health Coaches, we want to respect client autonomy. Asking the client permission before introducing them to an alternative approach is a great way to keep the client in the driver’s seat, empowering them to take responsibility for their own health and happiness.
6. Be clear about how you work with people.
Once a client consents to trying a new approach to weight loss, it’s time to explain how you work. You can say something like, “As a Health Coach, I consider all aspects of a person’s life and well-being when it comes to weight loss. My goal is to help you lose weight in a way that’s sustainable so you can lose it and keep it off. It isn’t within my scope of practice to create meal plans or tell you what to eat. Instead, I’ll provide guidance and coaching to help empower you to find what works for you. This work might involve digging deep, challenging old mind-sets that have not been serving you, and replacing those mind-sets with new ones that align more with your personal values. Does this sound like something you’re ready to commit to?”
Understand that not every client is going to be ready to put in the work nor will every client be an ideal fit for your services. When you explain your approach to a new or potential client, you should assess whether the person is someone you feel motivated to work with. Don’t be afraid to turn clients away if they seem unready to challenge themselves or unwilling to respect your scope of practice.
7. Coach beyond food.
Like emotional eating, dieting often uses food for a purpose, so pursue the emotional needs and wants that are motivating the client to want to lose weight in the first place. Find out what the weight loss will represent for them. Will it make them feel more desirable, worthy, attractive, strong, likeable, or successful? Help clients build awareness by exploring the reasons behind their eating approaches and how these reasons connect to their values, fears, and aspirations.
8. Respect bio-individuality.
When it comes to weight loss, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone. We all have different needs, preferences, lifestyles, environments, and bodies. Help clients bring awareness to all the facets that make them unique so they can find a middle ground that is comfortable for them.
9. Encourage a more intuitive approach.
Dieting can lead to physical hunger and disconnection from the body and intuition. Help clients take back their power by moving away from what they think they “should” do. Have them try practicing mindfulness, self-trust, self-connection, and self-compassion instead. Nudge them toward trusting their intuition, connecting with their authentic selves, and applying that wisdom to their eating choices.
10. Create room for pleasure.
Eating healthy won’t be sustainable if it isn’t enjoyable. Help clients get creative about food choices by encouraging small adjustments that work within their preferences, values, and daily realities. You can help them enjoy the process of choosing food that satisfies their bodies as well as their taste buds.
11. Shift the focus to adding rather than restricting.
Dieting can cause the brain to fixate on the idea of restricting, which can increase stress and intensify cravings. Try focusing with your clients instead on adding things in – a concept we at IIN call crowding out. They can add nutrient-dense foods to their diets, which will provide their bodies with satiation and healthy fuel, leaving less room for foods that aren’t so nutrient dense. You can also work with clients to crowd out their lives with more primary food, such as self-care.
12. Help clients continually evaluate what is (and isn’t) working.
Developing a health-promoting and satisfying relationship with food is an ongoing journey of discovery and adjustment. Weight can fluctuate based on a wide variety of emotional and physical factors. What works for a client today might not work for them tomorrow. Encourage clients to check in with themselves regularly to continually practice self-awareness, self-connection, and self-trust.
Remember, at the end of the day, you’re here to help clients develop healthier relationships not only with food but with themselves. So don’t be afraid to challenge clients to open their minds and experiment with new ways of being.
Check out Integrative Nutrition’s Emotional Eating Course today to learn more about how to transform your relationship with food and help clients do the same.