By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I started my first diet as a teenager in the 70s. This was before word got out that diets don’t work. It was also before we got the warning on sunbathing, so every sunny weekend, my friends and I took our starving little bodies to the beach, slathered on baby oil and waited till it was time to eat our next low-fat, low-carb, low-flavor meal.
Little did I know at the time that I would live like this for decades — well, not the baby oil part. I got the scoop on sunscreen somewhere along the line. But I kept up the food restricting, which was always followed by food rebellion: eating massive quantities of all the things my latest diet instructed me not to eat.
By the time the 80s hit, I was off to college and what had begun as an innocent dabbling with diets, evolved into a full-time, painful routine. My family and friends never knew which version of me would show up when I arrived home on holiday breaks — the obsessive, skinny, starving, controlling, snippy but “You look great!” version; or the out of control, blown-up, ashamed, sneak-eating, “Who ate all the cookies?” version. The truth is, I never knew who would show up either. I had no idea that I was caught in a vicious cycle or that there were many underlying factors that needed to be addressed (some that had to do with food and many that didn’t). I had no idea that dieting was not the solution to my out-of-control binges and constant weight gains. And I had no clue that dieting was part of what was causing them.
Many years and tears later, after finally learning what I was truly hungry for and what I really needed, I began teaching others how to break the painful cycle of dieting and overeating. Even though the word is out now that diets don’t work, I find that many people are still seduced by them. And whether it’s an “official” diet from some trendy book or magazine, or the advice of a doctor or friend, the bottom line is this: restricting leads to rebelling — as well as obsession, misery and isolation. Despite what the glossy photos and fad diets promise, if you consistently deprive yourself of delicious, nutritious food, you are going to end up either malnourished or overeating. If I told you not to think about the color red, that is exactly what you would think about. And if I tell you to stay away from carbs, fats or desserts, those are the foods you will likely yearn for!
So, if you have caught the dieting bug and find yourself obsessed with food and still not at peace with your body, here is some food for thought:
Let go of dieting: Whether you are on an official diet or you just think about foods in terms of “good” or “bad,” you are setting yourself up to rebel. Instead of restricting (whether it be in reality or mentality), try being honest with yourself and making your food choices from a place of self-love and self-care. Rather than asking yourself if a food is low-fat, low-carb or low-calorie, try asking yourself: Am I truly physically hungry? What sounds delicious to me right now? Is eating this food being loving to my body? What seems like a sane, moderate amount? Is this what I would serve someone else who does not diet or overeat?
Back in the day, when I approached food thinking about how much I wanted to lose weight, it would lead to one of two things: I would eat a restrictive meal that would lead me to binge later on; or I would rebel and overeat. But, when I began to approach meals with the above questions in mind, I found that there was nothing to rebel from. I began to feel satisfied after a reasonable portion rather than feeling unsatisfied after a restrictive meal or stuffed after a rebellious binge.
Be willing to stop at polite satisfaction: This one is a biggie. It takes a lot of courage to stop eating when you are politely satisfied rather than waiting until you feel overly full or stuffed. Eating moderately means you might have to feel the emotions that you have been numbing with food. It means you will have to find other ways to fill your time, your mind and your unmet needs. The good news is that when you eat what you truly want (when you are physically hungry) and stop when you feel politely satisfied, you will feel so much better about yourself and your body. And you’ll avoid waking up the next day ashamed and bloated and ready to embark on yet another ineffective diet. Easier typed than done but this is possible to learn!
Someone asked me once if I ever think about dieting or bingeing anymore and I said, “I would no more skip or restrict a meal than I would ignore my bladder when I need to go to the bathroom. And I would no more binge than I would take my car to the gas station if the tank was already full.”
Find sweetness, comfort and fulfillment in other ways: In order to alleviate the need to overeat on sweets and comfort foods, we need to make sure that we are getting enough of those qualities in our lives. Write down all the ways you might get more sweetness and comfort in your life and start integrating a few into your daily routine. Additionally, see if you can also integrate moderate portions of comfort foods into your daily meals. This can be challenging if you are used to depriving yourself of your favorite foods and then bingeing on them later. But one way to stop the vicious cycle is to experiment with moderation. There is a middle ground between restriction prison and diet riot. The first step is admitting that dieting is not the solution to your weight or overeating problem; it is part of the cause.
Feel feelings instead of fullness: Once you let go of dieting and rebelling, the feelings that you may have avoided will begin to surface. If you are not distracted by the fantasy of weight loss, the white knuckling at mealtimes, and the all out rebellion of binges, you are left with an array of emotions that are normal for all of us. Learning to tolerate and compassionately welcome difficult emotions until they pass is a skill, just like learning to bike up a steep hill. But the good news is you can get better at it and know that when your emotions pass naturally, you are on the other side of the hill and can coast for a while until the next uphill challenge. Becoming willing to be uncomfortable and feel your emotions until they pass will help you release the need for dieting and/or overeating. You can acknowledge the source of your pain until it passes naturally.
Upgrade your unkind mind: Most people who live on chronic diets also live with an unkind mind. After all, it is usually body dissatisfaction or hatred that leads us to diet in the first place. We are promised that if we lose weight, we will like ourselves. But if that were true, most dieters who lose weight would live happily ever after — and the diet industry would shrink as satisfied customers went on their merry way. But what usually happens is that dieters who lose weight live in terror of breaking their diet and remain obsessed with food, or they overeat and gain the weight back. And the unkind thoughts remain.
So instead of thinking I will like myself if I lose weight, how about trying to like yourself now? And how about ditching the unkind thoughts? What if you were to think along these lines: I will try to like myself right now and as a result of self-kindness and self-care, see how my relationship with food changes. If you can work on liking yourself or at least being kinder to yourself, you are already one step closer to what you think you would get if the diet actually worked long-term. You’ll not only like yourself, but the self-love and self-kindness you demonstrate will lead to better self-care, less overeating, and less dieting!
Speak your truth instead of stuff it: One of the things I needed to learn to do in order to stop overeating was to speak my truth. This was no easy deal given that I have a black belt in people-pleasing. But I realized I had a choice: I could stuff my truth down (or attempt to anyway) with cookies and ice cream, or I could learn how to say what I am feeling and ask for what I need. I also had to learn how to take in feedback without crumbling or retaliating and how to accept the humanness in us all, myself included. No easy task, I know, but neither is over and undereating!
Make non-diet, moderate eating automatic: Many people who struggle with dieting and overeating also struggle with creating a new routine of non-diet, moderate eating. They vow to eat moderately and then ignore that vow. They continue to restrict even though it leads them to overeat. Creating a new habit takes conscious effort at first, until it becomes automatic. A client who has been committed to vegetarianism for decades told me, “I would never in a million years forget that I don’t eat meat and yet I often forget that restricting leads to overeating, which only leads to shame and more restriction.”
See if you can put moderate eating in the same category as brushing your teeth or gassing up your car, activities you never forget to do. I used to forget that dieting would lead back to overeating and that overeating would lead me right back to despair and restricting. A time came, though, when I no longer forgot. Feeding my body what it needed became as important as all the other priorities in my life. Today, someone would have to hold a gun to my head to get me to undereat or overeat. It is simply not worth the consequences. But it took getting in the habit until the habit became second nature.
Make peace with movement: Many people have a relationship with exercise that is similar to their relationship to food. They either avoid it or overdo it. Learning to move your body in ways that feel good, and to rest without feeling guilty, is a challenge in our “go for the burn” culture, but meeting that challenge will help your body find its natural weight range. I often ask clients these questions: If you could never lose or gain another pound no matter what exercise you engaged in, how would you choose to move your body? What form of exercise would you still enjoy? When you take calorie burning and body sculpting out of the equation, you will be able to honor your body’s natural desire to move and rest.
Release the need to please: We live in a culture in which eating is constantly linked with socializing. This can add an additional challenge to someone who is trying to listen to their internal hunger and fullness cues. Many people eat when the clock says it’s time, or when others are eating. Some don’t eat when they are hungry because their family or friends don’t feel like eating yet. Or they eat dessert, even though they are perfectly satisfied with their meal, because a friend made it or their dinner partner is having some. Many people deprive themselves when others are not eating because they want to fit in or think they will be judged. Learning to honestly assess your hunger and fullness rather than giving in to the clock or the flock, is a practice that takes courage. But when you release your need to please and eat only when you want to, your body will thank you and you will have fewer reasons to rebel.
Here’s to letting go of dieting — and choosing from the menu of sanity, moderation, honesty and peace of mind.