It’s that early January feeling...you wake up feeling sluggish, deflated, and bloated. It’s time to go back to work and get back on the wagon. You had planned to do it on, 1st Jan, as your new year’s resolution, but one thing led to another, friends came round and you had your ‘final’ treaty food and booze.
It’s the same every year: eat and drink indulgently over the festive period and land in Jan with the sinking feeling that you need to go on a diet.
DON’T DO IT.
“But I must lose weight,” you cry, “I need to go on a diet” and you load up My Fitness Pal, enter a daily calorie goal that’s low and decide whether you’ll cut carbs, fat, snacking, dairy, wheat or just food in general. With a mix of relief, excitement and dread you begin.
Day one goes well and you feel good. Same for days two, three and four but then the obsessive thinking emerges and your mind can focus on nothing but food: what you should eat, what you will eat, what you absolutely must not eat and what you have eaten. You start to feel hungry and deprived.
You might manage a week or even two, but before you know it your stomach goes from rumbling to growling to screaming and you feel deprived, irritable and miserable. Into the chocolate box, bread bin or wine you dive. The immediate pleasure is wonderful, the yearning lessens and you feel sated for the first time since you started this diet. But a few minutes later the self loathing, fury and despair kick in. “What did I just do?” “Why did I eat that”? “I’ve just undone all of my good work, the last two weeks are totally wasted,” followed by “I have no self control, I’m a failure, I’m rubbish, I’m a failure, I can never do anything I set my mind to,” and so it goes on with you crashing back into the cycle of self-flagellation and misery.
And to add insult to injury you find that you’re a pound or two heavier than when you embarked on the beastly diet that was going to change your life and boost your self-esteem a few weeks ago.
So why is this story so familiar? It’s because food restriction leads to feelings of deprivation and starvation. As any eating disorder clinician will tell you, food restriction/starvation is the primary cause of bingeing. Eliminate restriction, which includes diets that put you in a calorie deficit and leave you hungry, and you eliminate 80% of bingeing.
Food is not a luxury, it’s a necessity and ultimately what keeps us alive, so when we don’t eat our primal brain thinks we’re starving and jumps into action. This bit of our brain is also known as the lower brain, or the animal brain. It is the evolutionary part and it’s sole purpose is to keep us alive. It doesn’t engage in rational thought or understanding. It doesn’t goal set, or process complex issues. That is all done by our higher, human brain. But it’s our lower brain that creates powerful, primal urges, be they for food, sex, fighting, fleeing that often feel impossible to resist and the urges are so powerful because they are linked to our survival.
This is also why diets aren’t sustainable long term – when we’re in a state of starvation, our primal brain will do everything in it’s very powerful power to keep us alive and eating. On top of that are all of the psychosocial and emotional effects of dieting: difficulties in socialising because you can’t go out to eat or you can’t share food and drink with friends, impaired concentration caused by hunger, the mood fluctuations that go with dieting and so much more. Additionally, the moment we say we’re going on a diet the communication is that it’s temporary and that we will, at some point come off it. And be it after a day, a week, a month or three months, we invariably do.
Tweak your lifestyle, change your habits, add new foods into your repertoire, try different ways of preparing food and cooking, add in or increase your exercise, meditate, take up yoga, sign up to courses or classes where you can build up your social life and knowledge. These will all improve your life and move you closer to your shape and weight goals, but do not diet.