No matter what my clients come to see me about, more often than not we end up talking about their relationship with food. I liken it to a scale: a perfectly healthy relationship with food is at one end and a full-blown eating disorder at the other. I work in the grey area in the middle.
Most of my clients have either tried dieting or limiting their food intake in some way or another, and when they look back they usually say that dieting started them on a downward spiral. When on a diet they feel deprived because they’re not allowed certain foods, or not allowed enough food. And when they can’t take it anymore they “cheat on the diet” as one put it. This cheating is usually in a big way. Not like one chocolate biscuit, but more like a whole packet of chocolate biscuits. And then they feel super guilty about their “binge” so they start the diet again. Sound familiar? It’s the diet cycle and it can be really debilitating.
Maybe some of my clients would try to argue this mental hell was worth going through if they actually lost weight but newsflash: most don’t. Restrictive diets have a success rate of just 3% over five years… Or, to reverse that, 97% of restrictive diets fail. Plus, most of the time you not only put back on the weight you lose, you put on just a little bit extra, too. This is the J-curve of dieting. And when you add a whole lot of those J-curves together (each successive diet attempt), over time you can end up significantly heavier than when you started. What the hell, right?
So why don’t diets work?
- Food gets harder to resist: basically your body goes into survival mode and your drive to eat increases. It’s even been shown that food actually tastes better.
- Hunger and fullness signals get messed up: the hungry hormone increases and the hormone that tells you when you’re full decreases. Double whammy.
- Metabolism slows down: this makes it harder to lose weight and easier to put weight back on.
- You get stressed out: when you’re obsessing over your calorie-intake 24/7 it messes with your mind and levels of cortisol increase. This makes you more likely to binge eat.
So far this post has been all doom and gloom so let’s get into the positive stuff. If diets suck so much, what can you do to heal your relationship with food and be healthy without dieting?
- Focus on wellbeing, not weight: when someone tells me they want to lose weight, I ask them why. Probe deep enough and usually more positive goals come to light – they want to sleep better, they want to feel more energized, etc. So let’s take weight out of the equation and focus on those other things instead. How you feel is much more important than the number on the scale. What’s important to you?
- Focus on what to include, not what to exclude: letting go of food rules can be a really scary idea for someone who’s controlled their food intake rigidly in the past. A lot of people think if they are allowed to eat “bad” foods, they’ll never stop eating them. But that’s just not how it plays out in reality. Some people need to go through a phase where they have cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a while, and that’s just fine. Things naturally settle down over time. I tell my clients not to worry about avoiding certain foods, they have permission to eat anything! I find that it usually helps to get them to think about including some things they know make them feel good (vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, etc.) instead of obsessing over what they “shouldn’t” have.
- Learn to be in tune with your body: how do you feel after eating certain foods? What does your body need today? Are you hungry for food or for something else? Are you just thirsty? It can take time to get in tune with your body, especially if you’ve been struggling with disordered eating for a long time. Eating intuitively may be the goal but if you’re at a stage where you don’t even know what hungry and full feels like anymore, it can help to start by focusing on regular eating (think three meals and a couple snacks). It will take time (sometimes a long time) but those natural signals should slowly come back. I think of it as your body learning to trust you again (because you are feeding it regularly), and you learning to trust your body.
- Recognize that food is more than fuel, and health is about more than just what you eat: food is so much more than calories. Food can connect us with memories and our culture. Growing, gathering and cooking your own food is good for you in its own right. Eating with loved ones boosts your wellbeing, too. Health is much bigger than just nutrition. Social connections, feeling like you have a sense of purpose and meaning, sleeping well, getting active, self-care… Food is just part of the picture. I find that when clients start to appreciate the big picture it helps them to stop obsessing over food.
Different things work for different people but I hope some of these tips help you. Where are you at in your journey of healing your relationship with food?
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