Many clients I work with have been chronic, life-long dieters and even if they’re satisfied with their weight and not currently dieting, they have difficulty giving up the diet mentality. It makes sense–many of us were raised in a culture where we were encouraged to weigh and measure our food and our bodies, and count calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat grams daily.
When I say “diet”, I’m talking about reduced calorie eating plans. And when I say “diet mentality” I’m referring to deeply entrenched thoughts and habits related to controlling your food intake and body size. For example, you might be:
• constantly thinking about what you’ve eaten, what you’ll eat and what diet you’re going to follow to lose weight;
• regularly counting and restricting calorie, carbohydrate and fat grams;
• avoiding particular food categories, like starches or fats
• eating according to “rules” rather than body hunger, i.e., not eating past a certain time of night, fasting, under eating, or skipping meals when you feel fat or after you’ve overeaten;
• avoiding activities that involve food and eating;
• ignoring hunger signals by drinking extra amounts of water, tea, coffee or diet sodas;
• feeling guilty when you eat something off your current diet plan;
• using diet pills, caffeinated beverages and cigarettes to reduce your appetite;
• over-exercising to compensate for perceived overeating or weight gain;
• overusing laxatives and diuretics to combat overeating or bloat and
• excessively concerned about your body size which may manifest in weighing yourself daily or multiple times per day.
Did you know that despite the entrenchment of the diet mentality in our culture, research demonstrates that diets don’t work? Ninety-eight percent of all dieters regain their weight within five years and ninety-five percent within two years. And Harvard medical School studies have shown that constantly losing and gaining weight is more hazardous to health than remaining overweight.
I know that if you have excess weight, you’d like to lose it as soon as possible. Often, the quickest way to feel some control over your eating is to go on a diet. And when you’re feeling out of control with your eating, all you can think about, when you’re not overeating, is gaining back some control. Intuitively, it seems to make sense to cut back your intake in order to lose weight.
But continued obsession with weight loss or gain hinders the process of learning to make peace with food and eat what your body is wanting.
Structured diet plans can be helpful to jumpstart motivation but tend to feel depriving and restricting at some point and they disconnect us from our intuitive wisdom. Constantly restricting your food intake is sure to lead to a binge and/or emotional eating, sooner or later.
It’s important to work on stopping the diet mentality. You may already know that low-calorie dieting doesn’t work long-term. But you may not know why. For the vast majority of people, being overweight is not caused by how much they eat but by what they eat. The idea that people gain weight because they consume a high volume of food is a myth. Eating large amounts of the right food is the key to success. What makes many people overweight is not that they eat so much more but that they get a higher percentage of their calories from refined carbohydrates and fat, or mostly low-nutrient food.
The good news is that you can stop your overeating, still eat to satiation, and lose the weight you want to lose without going on another diet. But before I offer you some guidance on how to do just that, let me share with you the many reasons to stop dieting, once and for all, just in case you’re thinking “I’ll try another diet, just this one time to get this extra weight off”:
1) First and foremost, dieting fails to encourage us to trust the wisdom of our wonderful, phenomenal bodies. By artificially limiting our intake, going “hungry” or eating only select foods, we ignore and imbalance our most basic body signals: hunger, cravings and fullness.
2) Chronic low calorie dieting leads to dietary deficiencies.
3) The body interprets chronic low-calorie dieting as starvation and slows down the metabolism.
4) Food restriction triggers intense food cravings and out-of-control rebound eating and when we go off the diet, our bodies retain more fat for the next famine.
5) Studies show that yo-yo dieting leads to an increased risk of heart disease and diets lower than 800 calories can lead to gallstones.
6) Chronic dieting can throw off our appetite stimulating and braking hormones leading to an out-of-balance appetite.
Some simple steps you can take to begin to address your overeating today include:
1) Eat only when you feel true physical hunger–you know, that empty, rumbling feeling in your stomach or light feeling in your head. And if you tend to have subtle hunger cues, begin eating when you first begin to sense a bit of hunger.
2) Pay attention to your cravings; your body will tell you what it needs. This doesn’t mean eat candy and fried food because you’re craving sugar and fat–-try to satisfy your cravings by selecting nutrient-rich, unprocessed, whole foods full of fiber. Fiber triggers our stretch receptors–nerves in the stomach lining–and gives us that sense of fullness we’re looking for. Nutrient-rich foods, especially leafy green vegetables and fruits, send a message to our nutrient receptors to turn off our appetite. If you’ve been eating lots of fiber-less processed foods and foods of animal-origin, it may take some time to be satisfied by whole potatoes versus french-fries, fruit versus candy or beans versus a cheesy noodle dish. Try to add unprocessed whole plant foods to your daily eating plan and slowly crowd out the fiber-less foods. Take it slow and let your body and the way it feels guide you. There is no rush.
3) Stop eating before you are uncomfortably full. Pay attention to the different sensations of fullness–-can you feel the first subtle stretch sensation? If not, when do you first begin to register fullness? Only when you are very full, or uncomfortably stuffed? See if you can stop eating before the point at which you usually stop, and leave some food on your plate if need be. Take a twenty minute pause.
4) Every time you want to eat when you’re not hungry, or when you’re already full, or if you want to make very unhealthy, comfort food selections, ask yourself:
What am I feeling in this moment? Can you stay with these emotions? Jot them down in a journal.
What am I truly longing for, other than food? See if you can identify your true non-food needs.
Most likely, you’re looking for comfort, soothing, distraction or excitement. Maybe you’re lonely and desire nourishing companionship. Perhaps you’re bored and need some stimulation. Food can be incredibly comforting and even exciting, but you don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t solve any of your deeper emotional needs or issues or help build self-care skills.
See if you can access an Inner Nurturer voice that can validate your emotions and needs and help you meet your true non-food needs.
5) Commit to finding alternative means of coping with triggering emotional states and unmet needs. Your Inner Nurturer can help you out here. Ask for support or a hug, write in your journal, take some time to grieve losses and disappointments, plan more time for rest and relaxation, join a support or social group, etc. You’ll have to get creative here and try on some new behaviors. By not eating during these times, you will reinforce the message “I can take care of myself; I can give myself the support I need.”
6) Replace any negative, disempowering thoughts with positive empowering thoughts. This is where I see many overeaters get in to trouble. Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy can be very helpful here for reframing deep-seated, self-defeating thoughts.
7) Commit to fill you life with purpose and meaning. Easier said than done, right? This may take some time. Time to practice patience. Think about what gives you a sense of purpose or meaning? Is there something that you are passionate about? Let your strengths and gifts guide you.
As you practice the above steps, be gentle with yourself. Remember, it’s progress, not perfection. You deserve lots of compassion, love and forgiveness on this challenging, yet enlightening journey. You didn’t become an overeater overnight, and it will take time to resolve your overeating. The above steps are a good start on the road to releasing the diet mentality.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food Is Comfort. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to https://overeatingrecovery.com.
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