So often I see women in my practice who feel like they are the only ones to have gone through the diet cycle. You know the one: feel bad about your body and out of control around food, diet, lose weight, gain weight, feel bad about your body and out of control around food, go on another diet... and the rollercoaster continues. However, you are not alone, and you don't have to go round and round that dieting cycle forever. You can step off, and you can enjoy food and your body exactly as you are.
Let's start by re-framing the thoughts you may have had at each stage of the diet cycle.
Thought: That's it, I'm going on a diet!
We are sold so many messages that tell us that in order to be healthy, confident in our own skin, loveable and acceptable, that we must be thin. That we must always be striving to be smaller than we are.
Turn on the TV, open a magazine or scroll on social media and we’re usually only presented with one type of body. When bodies that fall outside of this ‘ideal’ are shown, often it’s as a ‘before’ image to advertise a diet that they know won’t work long term. The ad is unlikely to tell you that the majority of dieters regain the weight they lost, often plus more.
So it’s no wonder we’re feeling miserable about the way we look when we are taught that our bodies are a problem and dieting is the solution.
And you know what? Losing weight isn’t the barrier you need to get through in order to feel good in your body, improve your relationship to food or enjoy your life. You can work towards having all those things right now, exactly as you are.
Thought: It's been a week and I've already lost weight!
At this stage, you might still be enjoying your diet. It’s new, exciting, and is starting to deliver on what you have been desiring for so long. You may also be encouraged to get in the kitchen and try recipes you’ve never tried before. Which is all bound to make you feel good.
Until reality sets in.
Restricting your food intake, whether that be by counting calories, portion control or limiting certain food groups, is likely to cause weight loss. But how long does it last?
Studies show that the longest amount of time most people are able to ‘keep weight off’ is 6-12 months. Two years later most of the weight is regained and by the five year mark most people are back to the weight they started at, or higher (1).
This doesn’t mean that the vast majority of people fail at following dietary rules.
It means that diets don't work.
Thought: No cake for me, I'm trying to be good ... This diet is really hard to stick to and I'm friggin starving! ... Stuff it, I'm getting cake on the way home ... I finished the whole thing. I'm so ashamed.
This sequence of thoughts highlights the restrict-binge cycle that you might experience while dieting.
Yep, it’s a thing. It’s not just you!
One of the biggest predictors of a binge is restriction. So when your diet has rules like not being allowed to eat cake, guess what you’re going to be thinking about?
Hint: it’s not a salad.
When the amount or type of food we allow ourselves is restricted, our body has mechanisms which make it very hard to continue this long term. We start thinking about food more frequently and become more sensitive to the sight and smell of food. To top all this off our hunger signals go into overdrive causing us to be constantly hungry.
These are all mechanisms that the body has to make sure that you don’t accidentally starve to death.
Craving amounts or types of foods is not a character flaw, or something you need to feel guilty about. It’s an instinct which happens to keep you alive.
Thought: I feel crazy around food. I don't know how to eat anymore.
Whether it is our body’s cues about when we are hungry, full or satisfied or even our ability to feed ourselves food that make us feel good, diets have this really insidious skill of making us doubt ourselves.
You don’t need a diet to tell you how to eat. Your body can do that for you.
Sometimes we just need a little help to listen in.
Thought: I've put the weight back on. I failed the diet and I hate my body.
The irony of dieting is that more often than not it will ultimately lead to weight gain, often resulting in you being bigger than when you started.
And it’s not your fault. It’s not because you didn’t stick to it properly, or you because you failed. No. The diet failed. It was always going to.
As discussed above, your body has fantastic mechanisms which work together to help your body get through times of famine (let’s face it, your body doesn’t know you’re restricting your food on purpose) and often provides you with extra just in case it happens again. Further dieting attempts make it harder and harder to shift weight.
This is not your body being untrustworthy.
It’s your body looking out for you.
Thought: That's it! I'm going on a diet...
The unfortunate reality is that the diet cycle keeps going if we continue to believe that our size or shape is a problem needing to be fixed.
You don’t have to spend your whole life hating your body.
It does so much for you every day.
It deserves respect, and so do you.
Look around. You’re likely to have many people in your life who have experienced the same things you have in regards to how you feel about food and body. Share your experience with them. You are not alone in this.
1) Department of Health and Ageing, National Health and Medical Research Council, Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults, adolescents and children in Australia, Melbourne 2013, p161.
Next post: How to let go of the food 'rules' to trust your body again.