If you're one of the 1 in 5 who resolved to diet as their 2017 New Years Resolution, you may be one of the many who have broken their resolution just 9 days after making it. If this is you, you may be feeling rotten about your failure but believe it or not, this is actually good news. If you want a healthy relationship with food and with your body - which for many will mean losing weight long term - dieting is the worst thing you can do (despite what the multibillion pound dieting industry want you to think). Here's why:
Firstly, you probably don't need to lose weight.
Two thirds of men and women in the Western world believe that they weigh more than they should, though only one third are actually overweight. In a survey of 2000 people, 72% of the female dieters had never been overweight, and 44% of the men. These statistics have been replicated in study after study.
Secondly, even if you are overweight, diets do not work.
Statistically, 97% of dieters are as big or bigger one year after starting a diet. When the majority fail, there must be more to it than simply lack of willpower. So what is it that happens in our bodies when we drastically restrict food intake?
- When we consistently eat less food than we need, our body thinks it needs to prepare itself for a food shortage. Our metabolism alters so that we use up energy more slowly. This continues the more weight we lose, so the lighter we are the less we need to eat. In practice, this means the more 'successful' we become at dieting, the easier it becomes to gain weight because fewer and fewer calories are needed for this to happen. So as soon as we start eating normally again, our body is primed to put the weight straight back on, and more.
- This in turn means that the worst thing you can do is lose weight fast. Doing this means you'll risk losing lean tissue, as well as fat. This matters because the amount of lean tissue is what determines our metabolic rate. The less lean tissue you have, the less you need to eat in order to put on weight. So crash diets set your body up to regain more weight, and faster.
- Each time you diet, you are repeating and worsening this process, better and better preparing your body to PUT ON weight in the long run.
- There's a theory that each of our bodies has a natural, or 'set' weight range which our metabolism will work to maintain. If you are over your set weight, your body will adapt to burn calories more efficiently, to help you to lose weight. If you go under it, your body will alter its metabolism in order to gain it back. Many people's 'ideal weight' is below our natural set point - we want to be as lithe as we were as teenagers when we are in our 50s, but set point rises naturally as we get older. The battle to reach this mythical weight gets harder and harder as your own body will try to prevent you from reaching it. Our ideal weight needs to be realistic and based on health, rather than an unrealistic and often unhealthy media ideal.
- The scarcity psychology that goes with dieting means that when a dieter lapses, they will tend to ride the wave of that lapse and eat a lot more of the 'forbidden' food than a non-dieter would. This behaviour has been proven in laboratory conditions. This, 'I've blown it' mentality says "I've broken my diet so I may as well eat the whole lot. I'll start again tomorrow." This is not just something that happens to people with low willpower. This is part of the psychology of dieting.
- Hunger is regulated by our brain's natural cues to eat, and to stop eating when full. A dieter tries to ignore these natural cues and instead relies on mind over matter and willpower. But stopping eating before we are full sets us up regularly for a fall as the physical hunger grows and we are then ripe to binge or reach for the junk food.
- Restriction of food also increases the perceived importance of food which increases the likelihood of it being used to try to regulate emotions. A dieter is far more likely to comfort eat that someone for whom no food is taboo. Psychologically, dieting sets you up for indulgence.
So what's the alternative? Rather than dieting, which is about short term restriction, guilt, self-loathing and misinformation, I propose a striving towards a life long healthy attitude to food and the body. This means learning to listen to the body's natural cues for hunger and fullness. Sensitivity to these cues can get lost through dieting or binging, but they can be relearned, with patience and with help. When this is done consistently over time, your eating will be in line with what your body needs - we gain weight when we eat consistently more than we need. A healthy attitude to food and the body is a lifestyle, not a quick fix, and it's positive, not punishing.
A healthy attitude to food means:
- Knowing there's no such thing as good or bad food. Food does not have a moral value. It cannot be 'naughty'.
- Understanding that all foods have the capacity to nourish us in some way.
- Following natural cues for hunger and natural cues that say you're full.
- Sometimes not following that and eating a bit too much or not quite enough. The difference is that this is not then followed by a pendulum compensation or self-flagellation. Our bodies can cope with too much or too little from time to time, so long as it's not consistently one or the other.
- Enjoying the sensual delight of eating.
- Being comfortable eating alone or with others.
- Feeling able to say no or yes, to food that is offered.
A healthy attitude to the body means:
- Having realistic expectations of size and weight for your age.
- Learning to enjoy and celebrate the body that you have.
- Not comparing your body to other.s
- Not buying into the myth that you will be more successful, rich, loveable, sexy, disciplined, likeable, funny or popular when you are thin. None of these things have the slightest bit to do with thinness.
What if you find this too hard?
Many, many, many people find these things hard to put into practice. That's one of the reasons why dieting seems so attractive. There's no shame in finding it hard. Food and eating are far more complex than we realise. So many factors in our personal history, in society, in the things that we read and hear, and in our own individual psychological make up, contribute to a complex or troubled relationship with food. There is nothing wrong with asking for or needing help with it. A counsellor who is trained to understand issues of food will be able to help you to understand your own personal relationship with it, and help you to set yourself free from the battle that you have had with food up to now. Whether you have a slight tendency to eat too much or too little, or you have an eating disorder, or are obese, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is get someone positive and professional along for the ride who understands that it's hard, and who wants to help you to reach your goals.
Stephanie Bushell is a counsellor in London and online who has an Advanced Diploma in Eating Disorders & Obesity. She is also the founder of Counselling Anywhere, a directory of qualified online counsellors. If you are struggling with eating or body image problems, find an online counsellor now who can help you from the comfort of your own home, by clicking here.