Why do we diet?
To lose weight? Change our body shape? To attain the coveted “thigh gap and bikini-body?” To post about it on Instagram? To get healthy?
Maybe on the outside, those answers are logical. Maybe diets seem innocent.
We do desire to have better bodies. We do dream of having great abs and legs “like Carrie Underwood’s”. We want to cleanse our bodies of toxins and purge any form of “unclean” food because we are brainwashed into believing that this is the only way to be healthy.
Our bodies are not the issue, and neither is food.
I think the real reason that we diet goes deeper than that. I think that we diet because we are looking for success, happiness, control, acceptance, love, and fulfillment because we aren’t experiencing it in our everyday lives.
We are looking for our diets to fulfill us in a way that food was never intended to do. “Spring break bodies” are fleeting. Dieting doesn’t satisfy & it leaves us always wanting more (whether that be more weight loss, more body shape definition, or more food, the food that we ashamedly feel so deprived of.) Skinny isn’t always optimal, and overweight isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lab values, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, or your cholesterol levels, are much more relevant when discussing our health. Even “healthy eating” doesn’t always equate to good health. In fact, just just recently, well-known “Biggest Loser” health coach and fitness trainer Bob Harper had a severe heart attack, despite looking & feeling indestructible.
Dieting isn’t the end-all be all. It doesn’t make us “better” or “smarter” or “less lazy” than any other person we know. What it does do, however, is tell us to go against our hunger cues, restrict calories, avoid going out with friends, and being rigid and inflexible with what we eat.
Dieting is the beginning of disordered eating.
For the sake of clarity, when I mention dieting in this article I am not talking about making healthy lifestyle changes and consuming a diet that consists of a large variety of foods. It isn’t bad to consume a healthy diet, rich with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein, fats & of course, your favorite snacks & deserts. When I refer to dieting, I mean the chronic, intentional practice of micromanaging food choices and restricting calories or certain food groups.
On the surface, dieting doesn’t seem like too bad of an idea: get fit, get healthy, & look good doing it. Be Happy. Be Healthy. Be Whole. Harmless, right?
Time & time again evidence-based, scientific, peer reviewed research tells us that dieting doesn’t work. In fact, most people who chronically diet either regain all of the weight that they lose (and more), or they spiral into disordered eating patterns and eating disorders.
Why is this?
First, let’s talk about the set point theory. An individual’s “set point” is the weight range in which his or her body is programmed to function optimally.¹ One person’s set point theory may range from 120-145 lbs, while another persons is 180-200. A large variety of genetic and physiological factors play a role in what exactly each person’s “set-point” is. When a person is outside of their set point range, whether over or under, even if it just be a few pounds, the body will fight to maintain the weight range that it desires.
When we diet, hunger-related hormones are disrupted in our bodies. Our bodies are designed in such a way that it consistently works to take care of us. When the body senses a restriction in food, it starts doing everything that it can to fight against that change. A drop in fat loss can stimulate hunger signals within the brain and a drop in blood sugar, which increases cravings for bread and sweets, which is one reason why we crave sweet treats even more when we are dieting.
Diet also has significant psychological effects, & often leads to an all-or-nothing mentality. Have you ever spent an entire day intentionally eating “healthy”, eating light, & low-calorie foods, only to binge on a box of cookies later in the night? All of a sudden our healthy lifestyle attempts have turned into a cycle of restricting food & binging. We feel out of control, & wonder why we can’t just “eat like normal people”.
Unchecked disordered eating behaviors transition into diagnosable eating disorders in the blink of an eye. One day we seem on top of the world and the next we wonder why we can’t life a life free from dieting and guilt about our bodies and eating habits.
So what happens when we decide not to diet?
Making a decision not to diet it honestly a very difficult one because it is so contradictory to what our culture tells us to do. If we aren’t trying to lose weight, we are told there is something wrong with us.
In the recovery process, I can’t tell you how many times “diet talk” would completely shift the trajectory of my day. When your mind is sick it’s hard to distinguish between lies and the truth. One small comment has the potential to start a war in the mind between our convictions and the opinions of other people.
I would scroll through Facebook and see friends and family jumping on the “cleanse” band wagon or posting about their latest weight loss success with AdvoCare Spark.
I would be set on ordering a certain food at a restaurant something that my body truly desired. However, once I looked at the calories listed on the menu I would immediately switch to the “lighter, healthier” option, even though that isn’t what I really wanted.
Some of my friends tell me that they “love my blog” & that they are “so glad that I had the bravery to share my story”, and yet they continue to talk to me about how they need to lose weight or get into the gym to tone up.
We have all heard (or said), “I have been so bad today. Tomorrow I will get back on my ______ diet.
One of my classmates once said, “I am STARVING I haven’t eaten anything all day”. It was 1:00 pm. Despite the fact that I was up at 6:00 am and worked out that morning, I thought to myself, “What is wrong with me? Why did I need to eat breakfast and lunch already? I should be able to skip breakfast….people do it all the time, I think it would just be a good way to manage my weight.
I have to consistently remind myself of the truth so that I don’t get swept back into the same thinking that the diet industry forces down our throats.
So how do we ditch dieting? What does this practically look like?
- Every person has different diet needs based off of numerous biological, psychological, environmental, and lifestyle factors. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet.
- Ditching dieting means learning to accept your body as it is and not trying to manipulate it to look a certain way.
- Finding a lifestyle that works for you can be challenging. Sometimes you will overeat or eat foods that don’t make you feel so great and that’s okay. It is a trial-and-error process. Show yourself grace. The new-found freedom what you get when you decide to ditch dieting can seem like a license to finally eat the foods that you have forbidden yourself to eat for so long. Your body will help you find the balance between restriction and binge-eating. It just takes time.
- If you want help improving your diet, seek the advice of a reputable registered dietician. If you simply see the word “nutritionists”, or if you are told to purchase additional supplements/shakes to aid in weight loss, run!
- When some people do adopt a healthier lifestyle, they may lose or gain some weight if their bodies are not within the set point range. That’s okay. Again, weight isn’t necessarily the best indicator of health. It’s best to focus on how you feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
As eating disorder awareness week comes to a close, I encourage you to make the conscious decision to NOT diet, and to build a healthy lifestyle that promotes balance, variety, flexibility, joy, and freedom to eat the foods that you choose.
- Set-Point Theory. The Center for health promotion and wellness at MIT Medical, https://medical.mit.edu/sites/default/files/set_point_theory.pdf