The five dieters , from left: Food and Dining editor Joe Yonan, Local Living editor Kendra Nichols, food critic Tom Sietsema, deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick and sportswriter Adam Kilgore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A month ago, five Post staffers embarked on a 30-day diet, each looking for a way to reset their eating habits. Now, they’re turning the page, but this is much more than a tidy endpoint: It’s the beginning of making their new, healthy habits stick.

This month-long challenge wasn’t a contest per se, and there is no one winner; all the staffers made their chosen plans work for them, and each has good results to show for it. Collectively they’ve freed themselves from unhealthy habits and adopted positive ones; they have been enjoying more nutritious foods and less hyper-processed, sugary stuff; they have been eating more sensible amounts more mindfully; and they feel better and have lost weight.

But, predictably, life also got in the way of some of the goals they set — with house moves, IRS audits, traffic jams, travel and irresistible parties interfering with their best intentions. I spoke with each of them to get their main take-aways from this diet experiment, and help them strategize all-important next steps. I also managed to convince them to let me check in with them next January to see how they have fared a year later.

If you started a diet on Jan. 1 like they did, or otherwise made resolutions to live healthier, this is an invitation to pause, reflect on your successes and, perhaps, dreams dashed over the past month and recalibrate your plan so you can keep moving forward. Hopefully, the insights shared here will inspire and inform your own next steps.

Kendra Nichols: The Whole30
Kendra Nichols (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Kendra’s wise words to those thinking about the Whole30 diet is to be smart about planning when to start. For her, this challenge was smack in the middle of a move, making it more stressful and difficult than it otherwise would have been. Being between homes and unable to locate the right cookware amid all the boxes, she found it nearly impossible to achieve one of her main personal goals: trying an array of new recipes. She also told me she was “crankier than usual,” to the point where her co-workers dubbed her diet persona “Whole30 Kendra.” But she admirably stuck it out, and lost 9 pounds in the process. Along the way she learned, among other things, that it suits her to eat a hearty breakfast so she isn’t hungry again until lunchtime, and that she can live happily without a vending-machine sugar fix or the 20-ounce diet soda she had been drinking daily.

Kendra has done Whole30 before, and does well with a strict set of rules to follow. The downside has been that when the diet is over, she is left rudderless and winds up returning to her old habits. Last time she did Whole30 she skipped the reintroduction phase (in which you gradually add back the forbidden foods) and went straight to cake. This time she is thinking more long-term. She’s going to view the suggested reintroduction as an extension of the rules, following the specific 10-day transition the book offers. Even more, “I’m going to make myself a little rule book” to follow thereafter. This personal, formalized structure will go a long way toward helping Kendra achieve what she called her ultimate goal: “making moderation the new normal.”

Tom Sietsema: Weight Watchers
Tom Sietsema, who prefers anonymity. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Tom sees food though a somewhat different lens after following the Weight Watchers program for the past month. The plan “makes you aware of the consequences of different choices,” he says. Having been allotted 36 points a day, Tom quickly learned that some foods, like what became his go-to snack, almonds and clementines, offer more satisfaction for fewer points than, say, peanut butter-filled pretzels. And that sometimes you have to choose between a cupcake and a second glass of wine.

While he won’t continue to track his points, he says, “Doing it a full month, it gets drilled into you. . . . Now I know what to do.” Besides making smarter choices, he also knows that exercise is a key component, and he is committed to keeping it up regularly.

He also knows it’s okay to go off the rails a bit once in a while. Confronted with some fabulous restaurant meals (as he frequently will be as the Post’s food critic) and a once-in-a-lifetime charity event, he indulged, but even did that mindfully, choosing oysters instead of prosciutto and staying conscientious about portions. In alignment with the Weight Watchers philosophy, he says: “You can splurge — just get back on track right after. Enjoy it, mindfully, then forget about it. Don’t feel guilty.” Sure, Tom could have lost even more than seven pounds this month without those splurges, but I believe the experience of being able to get back on track, and the knowledge that you can continue toward your goal weight and indulge, is an even more valuable achievement in the long run.

Joe Yonan: Buddha’s Diet
Joe Yonan. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Joe is the only one of the five who plans to continue his diet indefinitely, a testament both to the flexibility of Budda’s Diet — with its only limitation a nine-hour time-window for eating — and Joe’s balanced approach to it. I worried he would be weak from hunger at his morning workout (so he could eat a later dinner) or eat a 5 p.m. dinner alone at his desk rather than with his significant other, or get pulled over for speeding and try to explain to the officer that he had to rush home to eat on time. But although Joe did skip eating before his workouts, he felt fine doing it, and although he had to pass on grabbing a late bowl of ramen with friends one night, he found it easy enough to plan ahead so as not to sacrifice the social pleasures of mealtime. His sage advice: “The overarching philosophy is to have a mindful relationship with food, so don’t get too anxious about a few minutes here or there. The worst thing would be to let the deadline make you scarf your food down.”

In the past 30 days, he has broken the habit of mindlessly munching after dinner, has realized he doesn’t have to grab for food at the slightest twinge of hunger and has lost five pounds. “I couldn’t have done this without tea,” he says. Tea helped slow his pace and calm him as he sipped, and because it is allowed outside the nine-hour window as long as it doesn’t have sweeteners or milk.

Another key strategy was preparing food ahead, stocking his refrigerator on the weekends with “building block ingredients such as blanched and roasted vegetables,” so he could quickly pull meals together on the weekdays. Once Joe reaches his goal weight (he has another 25 or so pounds to go), his maintenance plan is to add a second “cheat day.” From what I can tell, Joe has landed on a sustainable way of life that fits him perfectly.

Bonnie S. Benwick: SouperGirl ‘Cleanse’
Bonnie S. Benwick. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Bonnie is officially “sold on soup.” “The words ‘soup diet’ sound a little crazy,” she says, “ but it’s a food that everyone should eat every week — it’s a good go-to.” This month has helped Bonnie reach her main goals of eating more vegetables and getting portions in check. At first she worried the soups wouldn’t be enough, but found the opposite to be true. (The volume of vegetable-based soups and the fact that their heat slows you down make them especially filling.) The big takeaway is her realization that she can be satisfied without overeating, and she now is more in touch with how food makes her feel. She also has stopped eating past 9 p.m.

Her long-range plan is to make soup every week so she always has it on hand. She is also going to pay attention to how she feels as she eats, savoring slowly, and tuning into her level of satiety rather than continuing to eat just because her mouth wants more. Bonnie wasn’t weighing herself this month, but she recently bought a scale so she can track her weight as an incentive and an indicator — and if she gets off track, she will do another week of the SouperGirl “Cleanse” to reorient her. She also has an exciting event to inspire her to maintain these healthy changes: her son’s wedding in October.

Adam Kilgore: Offseason reset
Adam Kilgore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The notion that you can “slip up and then move on” gives Adam’s plan the potential for longevity. He did that a few times this month, with restaurant meals and vacations that drove him off-plan. But his core changes — focusing on healthful whole foods, limiting alcohol and exercising more — still led the way, and he has dropped 16 pounds as a result. His positive attitude of embracing the good choices you are making rather than yearning for what you are missing also goes a long way toward his success.

Adam told me that the realization that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing — that he can see results even if he dips off his plan here and there — gives him a good template for how to keep this going after April, when he typically returns to his weight-gaining spiral. I pressed him to come up with specific strategies to put into place at that time, and he outlined this sensible three-pronged approach: 1) weigh in at least once a week; 2) exercise at least twice a week; 3) avoid alcohol for at least two days a week. Adam’s overall advice to those embarking on a healthier way of life is simple but profound. It’s something we could all make our mantra year-round: “Whatever choice you are making, make it a good choice. Then do it again.”

5 Diets, the take-aways: How our 5 staffers managed, and what comes next