What is Dieting and the Diet Mentality?
Our society teaches us that dieting is the way that we should be living. Dieting, restriction and mistrusting our bodies have become the norm. Let’s take a moment to discuss what dieting actually is. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, dieting is defined as “to cause to eat and drink sparingly or according to prescribed rules” as a verb. As an adjective, diet is “promoting weight loss.” How does one diet? Dieting is done through creating and/or committing to certain rules and regimens as it comes to what a person can and cannot eat.
Did you know that the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry? According to BusinessWire.com, the diet/weight loss industry is worth approximately $72-billion! That is certainly worth repeating…$72 billion dollars!
The diet industry sells various products and programs that promise weight loss. If diets truly worked, then every, or at least most dieters would be at their goal weight, rendering the diet/weight loss industry so successful that it would put itself out of business…because there would be no return customers and no one would need them anymore. All this evidence gives me the confidence to say that diets do not work…and you are wasting money investing in them.
There are countless amounts of diets that exist out there that seem appealing and perhaps too-good-to-be-true…because they are! These diet plans prey on your emotions, attempt to sell you the idea that happiness can only be achieved by having their version of an ideal body, and then manipulate you to follow their plans as a solution to everything wrong in your life. Sounds dramatic, I know, but let me ask you this; how many times have you said some alternative of the following to yourself – “I’ll be happy when I lose XX amount of weight.”
The most typical goal a person who decides to diet has is to lose weight. However, here’s the problem. Dieting perpetuates an unhealthy relationship with food. Dieting teaches us to distrust our bodies and to ignore the signals our body sends us. Many people who diet seem to take great pride in feeling hunger. When a person feels hunger, the diet mentality tells us that that is a success. You’ve successfully ignored your body’s hunger cues. So then, what’s the score? Diet: 1 – Body: 0!
Did you know that girls who diet often are 12 times more likely to engage in binge eating than girls who don’t diet? That is, girls who diet, meaning girls who attempt to follow restrictive food rules, are more likely to binge-eat. Here’s an example I often use to describe why restricting your food may, and likely will, lead to binging or over-eating:
As people, we tend not to like restrictive rules. When we tell ourselves ‘no’ about something, the little child comes out of us and simply doesn’t like it. Now that you’re older, you likely have better impulse control and are more able to follow rules…however, that will only go so far. Ultimately, you’ll get tired of holding that impulse and go for the very thing you told yourself you couldn’t have. Therefore, you said no ice cream? Your rebellious self – who’s tired of the rules is going to get yourself ice cream…and then some! Rules are restrictive and no one likes to be restricted!
Did you know that 95% of dieters will regain their lost weight within 1-5 years? If we’re going to measure success with anything, it needs to be successful for the long run, right? People turn to dieting because they want to lose weight. They follow food rules and restrict themselves. Sure, maybe they’ll lose weight, but is it truly “successful” if that lost weight comes back? Once this weight comes back, the dieter usually feels awful about themselves…they’re back at square one. They never dealt with the root issues; which is their relationship with food and with their bodies.
How Can Therapy Help Break the Dieting Cycle?
The goal of therapy is to stop dangerous eating disorder behaviors and to develop a healthier, happier and more intuitive relationship with eating, with food, as well as with your body. Throughout the course of our lives, we have been trained to disconnect from our body’s intuitive nature in order fit the world around us. For example, throughout school, instead of eating when you’re hungry, you have to wait until your designated lunchtime, which does not support eating in response to hunger cues.
Have you ever spent any amount of time with an infant? They are extremely intuitive. They feel hunger and they cry to get fed. They get fed and refuse to eat more if they are no longer hungry or will continue crying if they’re still hungry. Much to our dismay, they don’t care what time it is. They don’t care if it’s time to eat or if it’s 3:15 AM! All this is to say that we have this natural ability within us. Dieting flies in the face of intuitive eating through rules, restriction, and eventual “failure” to adhere to this unnatural way of feeding your body.
The diet cycle looks something like this: begin a diet, maybe lose a little weight while feeling miserable because we can’t have anything we want to eat. Ultimately, you’ll rebel and over-indulge in these foods that were being restricted. Eventually, you gain the weight back, perhaps even more as your body attempts to save itself from the perceived starvation you’ve imposed. Cue the guilt and the shame that you feel after all your “hard work” dieting was for naught. Diet culture and the accompanying shame associated with failure may lead you to another diet attempt, convincing yourself that you will really stick to your diet this time…and the cycle continues…over…and over…and over again!
So then what? Dieting has been sold to us as THE solution; the solution for our health and the solution for our happiness. However, it’s not a solution at all, it’s the problem. Research has shown that weight cycling is damaging to your health and metabolism, and of course has a negative impact on your mental well-being and happiness. What is the solution then? Of course it is important that we look after our health, but we need to do so in a sustainable way. Diets are not sustainable, nor are they life-giving. In fact, dieting steals lives. They steal experiences away from you such as you not going to a party because of the food that’ll be there, or you not wearing the beautiful dress because of the way your body looks when you “fell off your diet.”
If we are looking for the solution to anything, we must look at what is sustainable. If we are working toward any goal, the means of achieving that goal must be something that works with our lives and our bodies…NOT against them! What we then need to focus on is our relationship with food…not focusing on how we can use food to manipulate our bodies. When you can put the goal of weight loss to the side and begin to focus on listening to your body and working with it, you’ll find that the process is a much more enjoyable one! When we don’t listen to our bodies, our bodies may get away from what it wants to be at for optimal health. When we listen to our bodies and are patient with them, our bodies tend to find their way to the point that it wants to be at.
What Could Life Without Dieting Look Like?
- Swap not eating carbs with having carbs as a balanced part of every meal.
- Swap restricting your calorie intake so that you can ‘save’ your calories for a treat with having a treat when you crave it or when the situation presents itself, such as birthday cake.
- Swap food rules for the mentality that all foods fit. Remind yourself that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want.
- Swap pain-inducing dreadful exercise to movement that is mindful and feels good, both mentally and physically.
This can be a very scary transition. You probably feel anxious even reading this. You probably have thoughts coming up such as how you can’t trust your body or you can’t have whatever you want, whenever you want because you’ll never stop eating cupcakes or you’ll continue to gain weight indefinitely. Diet culture has you convinced that you need to turn to dieting, and it’s probably very familiar territory for you. In the past, you likely have come across that feeling that you are out of control and couldn’t stop eating cupcakes once you finally caved after having restricted them. However, that wasn’t because that was the quantity that your body wanted…it’s what your mind wanted after you kept saying no to it. Say yes, and you’ll find that the food will lose its power over you.
Let me leave you with this, what do you have to lose by trying something new?
- Work on your relationship with food, not how you can use food to manipulate your body.
- Put the goal of weight loss to the side because it will disrupt working on your intuitive relationship with food.
- Trust your body and trust the process.
- Be patient.
- Listen to your body, not the diets that society prescribes.
- Remember sustainability is the key to success. If you are miserable doing what you’re doing, it will not be sustainable nor successful!
- Your body knows best, learn to listen to it again and it’ll prove to you that you can trust it if you allow it to!
Return To Eating Disorder Recovery
10 Ways to Rebel Against Diet Culture
Challenging Diet Rules
The Urge To Diet After an Eating Disorder
Dangers of the Wedding Diet
Causes of Eating Disorders
About The Author:
Stephanie Van Schaick is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor that specializes in the treatment of Eating Disorders and Body Image. Her practice is located in Patchogue, NY and she sees clients both in-person and virtually. In addition to her website, she works on spreading awareness and education on her Youtube channel.
Written – 2020