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Short-term diets sound appealing, but making small changes over time is a more-sustainable approach (and one that’ll won’t make you feel miserable).

Last year, my husband and I decided to go on a diet. We’d been consuming an unhealthy amount of pizza, dessert and (my favorite) iced mochas and wanted to find a plan that would be relatively easy to follow and give us some results to boast about.

We settled on the Whole30. The recipes in “The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom” looked really delicious and the diet itself lasted for 30 days. I figured I could do anything for a month. I concocted our weekly meal plans—staying away from my four favorite things to eat: sugar, grains, dairy and legumes. How hard could it be to change my diet for a month? Turns out, really hard.

We were miserable. For weeks I fought the mighty urge to sneak a handful of chocolate chips or a slice of pizza. Those 30 days felt like an eternity.

Admittedly, I lost eight pounds. But I was relieved when it was over. For me, it wasn’t something I could do forever. “This diet sounds like it was too big of a change for you,” Anne-Marie Davee told me when I complained about how unhappy I felt on my Whole30 journey. “Dietary habits take time to build; they take time to modify. Gradual changes are much more sustainable.”

Davee is a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor at the University of New England. A competitive athlete, Davee’s expertise is in foods and nutrition and exercise science. She’s completed 20 marathons and 15 triathlons. One of her crowning achievements was competing in the first Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984 with Joan Benoit Samuelson. Eating well and exercising regularly is a way of life for Davee, but she knows not everyone is wired that way. She believes that living a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to be as hard as some people (like me) make it out to be. Gradual changes to diet and exercise over time can make all the difference.

Her passion was ignited during a nutrition class her senior year of high school. “I was amazed at how the changes I made in my food choices were impacting my body,” she says. “I knew I could help other people be healthier and improve their athletic performance by simply guiding them to make healthy food choices.” Davee decided to earn her bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition at the University of Maine to become a Registered Dietitian. She continued her education at UMaine, obtaining a master’s degree in human development.

Davee enjoys working with the UNE women’s lacrosse and soccer teams, as well as with her individual athletic clients. But while their daily menus focus on what they need to be at peak performance, her philosophy can trickle down to weekend warriors.

Davee prefers to eat using the grazing method—six smaller meals throughout the day rather than the traditional three larger meals. “My preference as an active healthy female is more on high complex carbohydrate, low fat and lean protein,” she says. A typical day includes a half of a bagel with peanut butter for breakfast,  mid-morning includes a granola bar and an apple, lunch is a half of a sandwich and cup of soup, mid-afternoon snack might be the other half of her sandwich and dinner might be pasta or rice with lots of vegetables and a small portion of protein. Eating this way keeps her body fueled and her mind sharp, and cuts down on the munchies and afternoon slump.

“Dietary guidelines have not changed in the last 25 years,” she says. “Americans need to eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains while limiting their fat, sodium and added sugar intake. And reduce portions of meat and dairy.” Since 1980, these guidelines have been jointly issued and updated every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Davee isn’t all that impressed with the waves of fad diets and cleanses on the market. She knows that Americans in particular need to get back to basics and away from processed foods. If a diet program gets someone who is used to eating lots of processed foods, salt and sugar to change their thinking and eating, then it’s a positive change. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

“I say tackle one change at a time,” Davee suggests. “If the goal is to eat more vegetables, start with eating two different vegetables every day. I am always promoting gradual change—it’s more sustainable.”

But what about my pizza cravings? Davee tells me that my acquired craving for salty, delicious pizza can be wrangled over time. “It’s really hard to go from eating pizza once or twice a week to not at all,” she says. But I can kick the craving from slowly backing off to enjoying pizza less frequently, say once a month rather than once a week.

That I can handle.

Melanie Brooks loves to write about Maine. Her work has been published in magazines and blogs throughout New England.

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