Stepping Off the Diet/Riot Roller Coaster

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you’ve been battling with ineffective diets and uncontrollable eating (I call this riding the diet/riot roller coaster) and are ready to find solid ground, consider these tips.

Natural Eating

For decades, there’s been an unnatural paradigm when it comes to appearances and food. Most of us have been told (or have decided) what size our bodies should be based on cultural programming. Then, we set out to eat in a certain way that will supposedly get us to this magical size. Or, we feel bad because we can’t. So, we give up and ignore our body’s needs. These patterns of restricting and feeling out of control with food not only leave us feeling obsessed with food and disconnected from our bodies, but unwell in our bodies.

Thanks to movements like Intuitive Eating and Health at Every size, we now have a different paradigm. Instead of trying to eat in an unnatural manner in an attempt to attain a body size that may not even be natural for you, you instead learn to eat in a way that is non-restrictive and respectful and practice accepting and perhaps even appreciating your body. I know this is no small task in a culture that’s literally brainwashed most of us to think that we need to eat and look a certain way and that dieting will get us there. Contrary to the promises we’ve been sold, dieting leads most people to a sense of deprivation, food and body obsession, and chaotic eating.

When someone struggles with chronic and uncontrollable eating, they generally vacillate between two internal voices when it comes to food. One voice is what I call the “inner dieter.” This internal part sees foods as good, bad, right, and wrong. It’s important to know that you can have an inner dieter voice even if you don’t actually diet, but you think you should.

The second internal voice is what pops up for many people in response to the internal dieter. I call this the “inner rioter.” The inner rioter convinces us to eat everything the inner dieter and diet culture tells us not to eat.

Many people think the dieter is the good voice and the rioter is bad. In truth, the dieter leads to the rioter. It’s part of the problem.

The third internal voice is one that usually needs to be developed if you’ve been riding the diet/riot roller coaster for a while. This voice is wise, loving, and respectful. It knows when, what, and how much to eat.

If you have a history of dieting, feeling out of control with food, or body shame, this wise inner voice might be hard to hear. But rest assured, you have it inside of you. You were born with it. And with intention and practice, you can learn to identify your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues as clearly as you know when you’re tired, cold, warm, or need to go to the bathroom. These are your body’s natural signals. You can get back what the diet industry took from you and learn how to have a natural, enjoyable relationship with food.

Tip: If you’re unsure how to feed yourself in a non-restrictive, respectful manner, you can ask yourself the following questions when you’re approaching a food choice:

How would I feed someone I love who doesn’t diet or riot?

What feels like the most loving thing to do right now? 

Natural Movement

Another important aspect of departing the diet/riot roller coaster is having a healthy relationship with movement and rest. The fitness industry has given us so many rules about “working out” and burning calories that it can make it very challenging to know how we truly like to move and rest our bodies. But, just like feeding ourselves, we can restore our innate clarity that knows exactly how our bodies want to move and rest.

Tip: If your relationship to movement and rest feels problematic, you can try on these questions:

If you found out your body size could not change no matter how much you exercised, how do you think your body might like to move and rest?

If you felt comfortable in your body and allowed yourself to follow your natural rhythms for pleasurable movement and guilt-free rest, what do you think that might look like?

Natural Emotions 

Many of us have been taught that there are good and bad feelings. Happy is good. Sad, mad, and scared, not so good. You may have been told as a child to “quit crying” if you were sad or to go to your room if you were mad. You may have been handed a cookie whenever you had feelings that your caregivers didn’t know how to handle. These responses can give our little brains the message that expressing painful emotions is not okay and we should keep them down.

Since our emotions are natural and need to be welcomed in order to move through us, the only alternative to allowing our emotions to come up naturally is to stuff them down unnaturally. When we get the message that we should be happy all the time and keep our painful feelings down to a minimum, we must find ways to keep those feelings down. This is where food and body obsession or various substances, behaviors, and thoughts can arrive on the scene as attempts to quiet and quell our emotions.

It’s not easy to sit with, tolerate, or safely express our painful emotions, but then neither are the consequences of unnaturally stuffing them down. Those are our only choices. We either feel the feelings that naturally arise in our bodies, or we feel the feelings we have as a result of trying not to feel our feelings.

Tip: If welcoming emotions is a challenge for you, one of the best places to start is with self-compassion. If you become aware of sensations in your body that feel uncomfortable or unacceptable, try welcoming those sensations with acceptance and compassion.

You can also identify any unhelpful thoughts that might be contributing to painful emotions and see if they need to be questioned or upgraded.

Practice identifying your emotions with one word, like sad, mad, scared, lonely, etc. Then offer compassion to whatever emotions you are aware of. Compassion might sound like Of course I feel this way. Or It makes sense that I feel this.

Not only does compassion feel better and kinder, it helps us alleviate the need to stuff our natural emotions down in unnatural ways.

Natural Needs

Just like we all have various emotions that need regular tending, we also have a variety of needs. For many people, body obsession, food restricting, and chronic overeating are attempts to get some of our needs met. But, if these mindsets and behaviors truly met our needs, we would feel better from them and that is rarely the case, long-term.

When we get our needs met in healthy ways, we usually feel better afterwards; we feel satisfied. We don’t need obsessive thoughts or behaviors to try fill those empty spaces. Food can return to its original intended purpose: nutrition and pleasure.

So, what are our needs? Obviously, we have our basic physical needs, like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We also have our emotional and spiritual needs, like comfort, connection, equality, respect, love, play, and balance. These are needs that no amount of food and no particular body size will ever truly fill.

Of course, most of us don’t get every single need met every single moment, but when we are aware of our needs and meet them (or get them met) on a regular basis, we don’t need to turn to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors in an ineffective attempt to meet our needs.

Tip: If you’ve been battling with your body and food, rather than berating yourself for your behaviors, try looking for the unmet needs that the behaviors might be indicative of.

Complete the following sentence starter as authentically as you can:

I need…..

If you identify one or more unmet needs, see if there’s at least one that you can either meet yourself or get met in some way. If that’s not possible right now, you can offer yourself compassion and praise yourself for the courage it takes to dig deep.

Author and neuroscience educator, Sarah Peyton says, “We can literally see in functional MRIs, that brains calm when emotions, and the meaning behind them, are named accurately. When we can understand the ecosystems of our emotions and deep needs, then we can also understand that we make sense. That there’s nothing wrong with us. That we are feeling the way that we feel for very good reasons.”

If you’ve been stuck on the diet/riot roller coaster, you can learn how to feed yourself non-restrictively and respectfully. You can practice moving your body in ways that feel good to you, and resting in ways that truly fill you up. You can learn how to identify and welcome your emotions and needs and meet them with deep compassion. I wish this for you.

View on Psychology Today