The Dieting Game: Can You Really Ever Win?

hungry man and burgerI have two questions for you. Question #1: Do you know anyone who followed a diet and lost weight? I bet you do, because ALL diets work. Yes, I said that. And NO, I don’t believe in dieting, but they DO work…..initially. If you ever tried one, then you know. That is why I often hear “I am going back on the Atkin’s Diet (insert Weight Watcher’s, Zone Diet, Hollywood Diet, etc) because I lost a lot of weight on it last year, it works”. Yes, all these diets “work” because they provide less calories (energy) than you were eating before (if you follow the restrictive guidelines spelled out in whatever plan). Voila! You lose weight.

Question #2: How many of those individuals that you know who were “successful” in losing weight continue to maintain their weight loss a year or two later? I am guessing there aren’t too many. Research predicts this, past experience proves this, yet, millions of people continue to support the diet industry (or continue to repeat the same diets over and over). Even worse than gaining back weight is falling into a destructive eating disorder, another fall-out of starting on a restrictive diet. If you are reading this and thinking “hey, I actually lost weight and have kept it off!” then you, my dear, are the exception. Hopefully, you are one of the lucky ones who made some positive changes in your lifestyle as a consequence of starting your diet; and hopefully, none of that disordered thinking that goes along with most diets did not stick.

I have known people who started exercising at the same time as dieting and learned they actually loved moving. They end up becoming yoga fans, or loving the gym or zumba, and enjoying every minute. Even when they give up the diet, they have successfully incorporated something healthy into their lives that is helping them have a healthier lifestyle (and body). Sometimes, people who are forced to learn to cook healthier because their diet calls for different foods realize they actually enjoy some of the healthier meals. They may learn how to shop smarter and eat out less and end up eating healthier in the end, even though they give up their weight loss diet. Again, these people are the lucky ones who have taken something positive from their restrictive diet and are able to move on and incorporate a healthy habit or two. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, for most people, this is not the outcome of following a strict weight loss diet. Instead of loving the new exercise regime they started, they give it up immediately because the only reason they started it in the first place was to lose weight. And since they are off the diet, they of course are off the exercise. To them, exercise still feels like punishment, so why would they continue?

As far as learning and incorporating some healthier cooking and eating habits, most dieters end up missing the foods they have been restricting so much that they tend to overeat them once they give up their diet. They avoid salads like the plague. They go right back to the easier life of picking up fast food or eating whatever is quickest. They go back to that “all-or-nothing” thinking (and eating) because in the back of their minds, they know another diet will come (so why not enjoy it all now, right?).

If you are a dieter, but not one of the lucky ones who has evolved into a healthier lifestyle, and just can’t imagine life without another diet in your future, what other options do you have? How about a reality check?

The reality is that YOU are not like anyone else. Over the years I have learned that our bodies (and weight) are affected by so many complex factors that only focusing on eating/food/exercise is like taking a toothpick to chip away at an iceberg. You really need to get to the bottom of it. We all have our own “big picture” of what affects what we eat, how we live and what we are, and these factors can be supportive of health or non-supportive. What kinds of things am I referring to? I group these contributing factors into three categories:

  1. physiological
  2. behavioral
  3. psychological

If you do not address each of these areas then evolving into a healthy happy lifestyle is next to impossible. Although some diet programs attempt to address things like behaviors, positive thinking/emotional eating and metabolism, they typically only scratch the surface, and they tend to be “blanket” approaches. We are all different and what works for one may not work for another.

So where to begin? Instead of judging yourself (I notice people often beat themselves up emotionally when they fall off the dieting wagon) I recommend a “detective” approach. It means more of a problem-solving, discovery model of moving toward change rather than a judgmental approach. In other words, you just want to gradually figure out, step by step, by trial and error, how to move into a lifestyle that is better for your body (and mind and soul for that matter). For example, let’s start with #1: Physiological.

What kinds of things contribute physiologically to your body and weight? Here are a few:

  • Conditions such as low thyroid (hypothyroid),  PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome-a condition many women have and don’t know with symptoms such as irregular periods) and genetics all contribute.
  • Lack of sleep affects hormones that cause weight gain and food cravings.
  • Inadequate protein intake or imbalances in macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) may contribute to food cravings.
  • Not moving enough, loss of muscle mass, sedentary lifestyle in general compromises our body’s ability to self-regulate (in other words, active people are more in tune with their hunger and fullness, making it easier to avoid over-or under-eating)

As far as #2: Behavioral, some things that contribute to our not-so-healthy behaviors include

  • repetitive behaviors that have evolved into automatic habits (such as sitting on the couch the minute you walk in the door from work, or stopping in for a donut just because it is on the way to work, or eating in the car, or skipping meals, etc).
  • Non-supportive food environment: purchasing lots of unhealthy foods because it was on sale (hard to resist those buy-one-get-two chips!); leaving food on the counter where it becomes a trigger every time you walk by; not planning ahead for dinners so you have to resort to eating out; going to the grocery store hungry so you end up buying stuff you didn’t plan to buy
  • Clean-plate Club: you were made to finish your food even if you were stuffed because someone is starving somewhere
  • Eating food because it is free (such as when your work provides free pizza or donuts or whatever and you just had your lunch, you are not hungry, but you eat it anyway…because it’s free)
  • You eat food because you think you should, because it is good for you, even though you don’t want it or aren’t hungry anymore (note: some people with a history of disordered eating often do have to make themselves eat according to a meal plan, even when they may not feel hunger. This is critical for them as they may not be connected to their body signals).

And, finally, #3: Psychological

  • You grew up with lots of attention paid to body image, weight, dieting
  • You have used food throughout your life to provide pleasure (after all, you got a cookie when you were good growing up, now you can reward yourself whenever you want to)
  • You have used food and eating to stuff emotions (you are not good at expressing yourself or you grew up repressing how you really felt because it just wasn’t acceptable or permitted); you never received counseling or got help for this or you may not even be aware of it
  • You have dieted so much in your life that you are fearful of being without food
  • You had a parent (or spouse or friend or sibling) who restricted your food or commented on your eating or your body/weight and so you are rebelling
  • You have extremely negative “self-talk”, in other words, you beat yourself up in your mind way too much

These lists are just examples and do not come close to all of the factors that can have an affect on our eating and health. They are probably just the tip of that iceberg, and I am guessing you can think of many more examples in your own personal life. The bottom line message is to accept how complicated and intertwined all of these things become over time, and how difficult and complex it can be to figure it all out. It takes time. It takes more than a diet. So please don’t feel bad if you are one of those people who didn’t last on one. Instead, maybe you did learn something about healthy cooking or grocery shopping, or maybe you discovered you really do like grilled fish or roasted veggies. Don’t give those good things up just because you are not on that specific diet anymore.

Maybe you can use your experience with dieting and only keep what you want.

But then consider putting on that detective hat. Can you ignore what everyone else is doing, and instead start to look at your lifestyle, habits and emotions that are unique to you? Just start somewhere. Maybe you don’t get enough sleep. I promise you if you start getting to bed earlier (before 11 pm) and getting those 8 hours of sleep you will feel better immediately (and likely have less food cravings). Or, if you are tired all the time, or have irregular periods, maybe it is time to get checked out by your physician. You can’t be active or motivated if you are exhausted. You may decide to make a small change such as meal planning instead of eating on the fly. It is up to you, after all, you know your life best.

Can you win at the dieting game? Yes, you can. If you just take what you learn from them….and leave the rest.

 

 

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