I am pretty vocal about being anti-diet. Diets do not work for the majority of people. Our behaviour is driven by how we are thinking and feeling. Going on a diet usually involves trying to create a behaviour change without making any other changes. Diets will insist that you just have to be disciplined enough and if you don’t manage to stick to the diet, you must be lacking in willpower.
As Kelly McGonigal writes in her book Willpower! You only need willpower if there is a conflict of will. Diets create a conflict and no-one can thrive while living in a conflicted state. There are three things that could happen when you go on a diet.
You might lose weight and be a “success” story.
Firstly, you might lose weight and keep it off. This is very much the exception not the rule but it does happen in a tiny percentage of cases. When it does happen, these people have created a shift in identity. They develop a new attitude to how they eat and move their bodies and that attitude is integrated into their personality. Usually these are people who didn’t have a great deal of emotion around their eating or body image to begin with. They are not people who have tried dozens of diets and have had the experience of feeling like a failure around food. Because the emotions are not particularly heightened, they are not working with the same resistance that so many of us are. Not fair? Perhaps, but we can’t change our emotional history with food. We need to accept where we’re starting from.
The rebound effect of diets.
Secondly, you may stick to the diet for hours, days, weeks or months - maybe you even hit you goal weight but at some point most people will throw off the shackles and resume eating, usually more than before and usually with a sense of feeling out of control until you find yourself back at your starting weight or higher. How distressed you are by this experience will predict how disordered you could start to become around food the next time you try and exert control over your eating.
Dieting triggers eating disorders.
And lastly, you restrict and maintain your restriction through tolerating the conflict of wanting to eat but not allowing yourself to. This one can be dangerous because it’s the feeding ground of eating disorders. In anorexia tight restriction is maintained but at enormous cost. Obsession, fear, anxiety, isolation and deteriorating health all follow this type of restriction and once you’re gripped by it, it’s incredibly difficult to fully recover. Perhaps you manage to restrict but with periods of bingeing, well this is a slippery slope into binge eating disorder and once you start making “amends” for bingeing (purging, exercise, laxatives, fasting) you slide into bulimia territory.
How do I stop overeating?
You may be thinking this all sounds a bit hopeless. What are you supposed to do if dieting isn’t the answer? I think we need think about what we can learn about the first group. They changed their identity around how they were with food. Their conflict and emotionality around food isn’t as high. In order to change how we eat, we first need to reduce our own conflict and emotionality around food. I know you want to jump straight into making the changes. Of course you do, this has become so incredibly important to you but the challenge may be to make it LESS important. This is why ditching the diet mentality is crucial. It’s not just about not dieting but about shifting the mentality. This is the mentality that you carry around day-to-day and it influences every single food choice you make and turning food decisions into a minefield.
This is how so many people get stuck, the desperation to lose weight through controlling what you eat is what will keep you feeling out of control. Like a spiders web, the more you struggle, the more stuck you become. We need to end the war to find peace and then rebuild from the debris. This means surrender, not destroying ourselves through trying to win against our appetite for it is a fierce and non-compromising opponent.