Here we go again. Amidst the gloom of a drop in temperature, dark mornings and evenings, we are being pedalled false promises on the back of yet more 'wonder diets' that will magically transform us all from sofa-bound blubbers to lean muscular nymphs. Why are we still falling for this nonsense?
The answer is, predictably, because it's just so appealing. What if there actually were a magical combination of food that allowed us to lose weight, be healthy and fit, without needing any of that pesky exercise nonsense? I speak from experience. I've tried loads of them. I did the 5:2 diet (sure, I lost a bit of weight, but was borderline homicidal on the fast days), the Atkins diet (never has my flat been so gassy), the juice cleanse, the high fibre, the low carb, the high protein. I spent a good six years of my life staring at the mirror in utter loathing, desperate to squeeze into anything smaller than a size 16. Each year, each month, I vowed to stick to this one, try the next big thing that would finally make me thin and happy.
None of them worked. Before you buy the book, the membership, the classes, the special pills, shakes, soups, whatever, stop and think. Here's why you're wasting your time:
1. They're not supposed to work.
This is pretty much fundamental to the whole of diet culture. It doesn't take a genius to surmise that drinking nothing but hot water with cayenne pepper and maple syrup in it is going to make you thin (I can't believe this is actually a thing). Temporarily. The vast majority of these so-called 'solutions' to weight loss are nothing but quick fixes. Ways of eating that get you slurping on (usually branded) products, with a short-term gain.
And of course they don't work. If they did, we wouldn't be queueing up every January to buy the next book, or product, or superfood. It's big business. The diet industry is worth £2billion. If you got healthy and happy, they'd be no-one left to buy their products. If (and when, as 95% of them do) you fail, they are guaranteed to get more money. Even those that focus more on a genuinely healthy lifestyle like Slimming World or Weight Watchers do it in such a way that you never really have full control over what you're putting into your body. Becoming obsessed with 'points' won't teach you how to live healthily, it will simply force you to rely on them, so you keep paying your monthly subscription, buying their low fat cake (it's not cake), and remain woefully uneducated about what your body actually needs.
2. They're bad for you.
Seriously, the stuff that they're trying to convince us of is frightening. The fact that they are included on 'health' websites is beyond me. Any that involve serious restriction of calories are always bad news. Side effects include: 'dizziness, nausea, constipation, bad breath, insomnia, may leave you feeling weak, cause you to miss out on important vitamins or minerals, increase your risk of heart disease.' I don't know about you, but if a diet restricts my ability to operate heavy machinery or complete simple everyday tasks, I'm pretty sure it's not good for me. Not only that, but most of them ask you to cut out an entire food group. The genius of people like Mr. Atkins was convincing us that carbohydrates are somehow 'bad' for us. All food groups provide essential nutrients in order to maintain our bodies. Which leads me on nicely to the next point:
3. They make our relationship with food worse.
Somewhere along the line, people's ideas about what they should be putting into their bodies got pretty messed up. Along with the weird notion that no-one actually enjoys fruit and vegetables, large corporations got us hooked on high sugar and salt food, and made it seem like that's what we really want to eat. What diet-makers do, is brand food with dangerous labels like 'clean,' 'dirty,' 'sinful,' or 'a treat.' Food can be pleasurable, sure, but fundamentally, it provides us with fuel to, you know, live. As soon as we feel like we 'deserve' that piece of cake or that eating a salad is the 'righteous' thing to do, we enter into weird areas.
There have been times that I've eaten an entire tub of Ben and Jerry's and promptly thrown it all back up. I've also semi-starved myself and eaten nothing but vegetables for a week because I felt so guilty about eating 'badly' the week before. If you actually listen to your body, to its needs, you'll find that it isn't that hard. Let's say I've had a couple of days where I've eaten more pasta or potatoes. I find myself craving crunchy fruit, or a plate of squishy, sweet squash. Stop scooping things into your mouth with a sense of 'I'm entitled to this,' and you'll start to realise when you're full. No, it's not a quick fix. But it's the only thing that will give you a healthy relationship with the contents of your plate.
4. They focus on the wrong things.
Lose half a stone in a week! Fit into that dress! Get your beach body! The goal is a short-term fix, something easy and simple that you can do quickly, and see quick results. And, news flash, being thin is not a measure of health. Even if you want to lose weight, the only healthy way to lose weight involves losing around 2lbs a week. Anything more than that is not advised. It also tends to focus entirely in what we put into our bodies, not what we do with them.
A body is a complex and wonderful thing. Feeding it is not enough. It needs to be stretched, the muscles need to be invigorated, exercised. The heart and lungs need to work, to grow, to stay efficient. And this is just the physical being. Diets send us into spirals of shame and self-obsession. Guilt and self-loathing come out of unhealthy relationships with our bodies, our diets and our physical fitness. Exercise releases endorphins, boosts blood flow, increases happiness. A healthy body is about so many complex factors. Obsessing over food is not the way to a 'healthier you,' no matter how prettily they package it.
5. They're too good to be true.
A friend of mine was in the gym when a woman came up to her. "Wow, you look great!" she said. "What's your secret?" My friend shrugged, having been asked this question a few times. "I eat healthily and exercise regularly." Boring, isn't it?
The simple fact is that the only way to get your 'dream body' is by changing your lifestyle. All of it. You'll have to learn how to cook, what a decent portion size is, how to exercise effectively. After that, how to manage your body. I need to stretch after a run, I do yoga and strength training, so I don't injure myself. If I did another sport, it would have a bigger impact on other parts of my body. When you move your muscles, they can get hurt. But that's what they're there for. There are no quick fixes. If only it were that simple.
But it is definitely worth it. This year was the second in a row that I made absolutely no resolutions based on diet or fitness. It's not that my body is flawless. There are still wobbly bits. My weight still fluctuates, but not nearly as much.
The knowledge I have about my body is that it's healthy. The big diet secret? There isn't one. The healthiest diet involves doing as little as possible to your food. Cook from scratch, eat fresh stuff more, but other than that, it takes time. Get to know your body, exercise it, massage it, appreciate it. Stop letting a multi-billion-pound industry make you feel bad about yourself. Take responsibility for your own health. Next year, be the person they've got nothing to sell to.