THE FIT: Get off the Diet Cycle
As we’re approaching the end of January, a.k.a., National Dieting Month, it’s time to break the news: Diets don’t work.
Dieting is often chosen by people to chase their dreams of confidence and likability: “Once I lose X number of pounds, I’ll finally get the lover/job/life I want.” It’s called magical thinking.
What’s magical to me, is how the monstrous $60 billion per year diet industrial complex has thrived so well when failure is inevitable for 95% of those who buy in to the promises it peddles. And somehow those consumers blame themselves, not the product.
WHAT IS THE DIET CYCLE?
The diet cycle begins with the desire to be thin. Popular media and our patriarchal culture have conditioned us, especially women, to believe that being thin is the primary measure of attractiveness, and therefore, worth. But the reality is that this narrow standard of beauty is difficult to achieve and maintain, if not impossible, for all but a lucky few, due to our natural diversity in genetic makeup and life circumstances.
Dieting is either restricting calories consumed and/or increasing calories expended. Our body handles this famine (not knowing it’s self-imposed) by kicking into gear an intricate series of physiological, psychological, neurological, and hormonal changes, all designed to keep us alive.
Minnesota’s own Ancel Keys did some of the most significant research on what happens to physically and mentally healthy men, in this case conscientious objectors in WW2 when a significant amount of weight is intentionally lost. The men became obsessed with food, persistently talking about their strong food cravings. Some started collecting recipes, stealing food, or deliberately exercising more to get additional rations. Their eating style and personalities changed, including having a decreased sex drive, becoming irritable and depressed.
Our rigid rules and aspirations for slimmer glory become harder to maintain and are even more vulnerable when we’re stressed or sleep-deprived. Ultimately our desire to strong-arm biology fails, we “lose control” and overeat — leading to the regain of any lost weight, but this time as fat (even though muscle was also lost). Metabolic adaptations, including a decreased metabolism, are put in place, often leading to gaining even more weight, so we can better survive any subsequent famine. (Curious about these consequences of dieting? University of Minnesota Psychology researcher Traci Mann, PhD, has written an entire book on it.)
This is where you blame yourself for failing. You may be super successful in many areas of your life, but the diet cycle takes a chunk out of your self-esteem and hacks away at your peace and happiness. After a while, you start Googling the next diet, promising yourself you’ll be really “good” this time, and there goes more precious time, effort, and money to the next diet project and the cycle starts again, getting worse with each turn.
A NEW PATH
Dieting was once believed the way to acceptance and “health.” Now we know differently. The pursuit of dieting harms our physical, social, and emotional health. Nevertheless, the thought of giving up dieting can be super scary, especially if you’ve been on one, every.single.one, since youth.
Change your focus to behavior. Weight is not a behavior. Let go of the scale as your focus, or at least put your active attempts to lose weight on the back burner. There are more accessible ways for people to improve authentic health and longevity whether they lose weight or not, including having close social relationships or even getting a flu vaccine.
Here’s the truth: Health status simply cannot be determined by someone’s weight. It is possible to be fit and fat at the same time, just as one can be thin and decidedly unfit.
It is exhausting to constantly manage your food and exercise, account for every calorie, and draining to work out when under fed. This ill-advised pursuit funnels precious resources away from efforts that could meaningfully improve individual and community health. Naomi Wolf’s take is: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Indeed political change is one area that CAN lead to widespread authentic health improvement, because the social determinants of health outweigh our personal genetics and behaviors.
“It is unethical to continue to prescribe weight loss to patients and communities as a pathway to health, knowing the associated outcomes—weight regain (if weight is even lost) and weight cycling—are connected to further stigmatization, poor health, and well-being.” Dr. Tracy Tylka, Journal of Obesity, 2014.
Giving up dieting and learning to accept your body (and others’) is no silver bullet. It requires lots of courage, but I promise it’s worth it. When working with clients, I have settled on my own three-prong approach to improving your relationship to food and your body: Accept, Attune, and Honor; and I admit, it’s easier said than done ...
Learn to accept and even eventually respect your body. Hating your body will not make you want to take care of it. How about start with a neutral stance, with an intention to take care of it? Inhabit your body fully. Don’t wait until you’ve reached your “ideal” to start living the life you want.
Recognize how messed up our culture’s emphasis and values on small bodies are and how it has affected you. Your body is your home, an instrument with which you live life, not an ornament.
Trade in the scale for true measurements of health such as fitness, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Recognize that mental, emotional, and social aspects of health matter.
Tune into your body’s internal cues around hunger and satisfaction, as well as desire for joyful movement. It's constantly in tune with your changing needs. Its job is to maintain equilibrium, e.g. stabilize blood sugar levels, regulate temperature and maintain a set-point weight range.
It is a fundamental paradigm shift to listen to your internal rather than external cues. Trusting your body can ease your decisions around healthy eating.
It is one thing to hear the innate messages and it’s quite another to honor them. Recognizing how deserving and worthy of self-care and even pleasure your body is can be a big job in itself. It’s important to address your needs for coping and soothing if food has been your primary go-to. Self-compassion is essential.
Find ways of taking care of your body that appeal to you, bring joy, and that have nothing to do with weight, like cycling! Dress it comfortably, speak nicely about it, and recognize how it has shown up for you every moment of every day.