The data is pretty clear, diets don't work. People who lose weight by dieting not only tend to gain the weight back within the first year, but they even gain more weight than what they lost in the first place. This, understandably, leads to feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and even depression and anxiety. Focusing on what to eat rather than how to eat is a very simplistic approach that leaves all the nuances of why we eat, far behind. The solution? Improving our relationship with food instead.
Most of us have a complicated relationship with food and with our bodies
From a young age we are taught to see certain types of food as a reward, and some as a chore or a punishment that needs to be endured. Were you ever told that you would get some ice cream (i.e. reward) if you ate all your vegetables (i.e. chore)? No wonder we struggle to get our 5 a day! But it gets trickier than that. As a society we have internalised the idea that we need to look a certain way, and that we have to adopt a certain type of diet to achieve that goal. This is what is known as 'diet mentality'.
Diet mentality separates us from our internal wisdom
Diet mentality typically labels food as 'good' or 'bad', restricts the amount of calories and/or types of food we eat, and only grants us permission to eat something we really want if we had burnt enough calories that day (e.g. through exercise). The problem is that by restricting what and how much we eat, we are relying on external factors to guide our behaviour, rather than 'tuning in' with our internal regulation systems such as signals of hunger and satiety. Studies show that people who intentionally restrict the type and amount of food they eat, are more likely to engage in problematic eating behaviours like binge eating, emotional eating and disinhibited eating (i.e. overeating in response to different stimuli like the mere presence of food).
Suppressing our hunger only makes us hungrier
Here's an example of what happens when we ignore our signals of hunger: Think of a time when you couldn't eat when you were hungry for whatever reason. Do you remember how those signals of hunger became louder and louder and you became crankier and crankier? And when you finally got the chance to eat something, you wanted to devour your entire fridge? Your body wanted to take all the food it could get because it thought you were in a time of scarcity. The same is true for restrictive diets.
We crave what we 'can't' have
When we decide to cut off entire food groups (e.g. zero carb diets) or even just certain types of foods, those exact foods become the centre of our attention and in fact, we crave them more. Eventually when we are 'not strong enough' and have a slice of a perfectly delicious Victoria sponge at a birthday party, we are flooded with feelings of guilt and shame. These negative emotions often lead to an 'all or nothing' mentality that goes like this: "Well, I had a slice, might as well have three more". This then leads to cycles of more restricting, followed by more binging... and round and round it goes. Over time, these type of behaviours can lead to weight gain, mental health problems and, in some cases, eating disorders.
Get back in touch with your body
The first step towards improving our relationship with food (and with ourselves) is to start trusting our body again. Practices like mindful eating can help us re-learn how to eat when we are hungry and stop at the point when we feel full (like children do!). Through these kinds of practices we can also start identifying what feels good in our own body and what doesn't. That right there is the ultimate tool for personalised nutrition!
Bring self-compassion into the mix
Through mindful eating we also bring more awareness and self-compassion into the decisions we make around food. Just by identifying when we are reaching for a chocolate bar because we are feeling sad, and not because we are hungry, we are already taking control over otherwise automatic behaviours. The key is to understand that, as with everything in life, it is all about balance and flexibility. We need to let go of strict rules that only fill us up with stress and anxiety when trying to decide what, and how much to eat, instead of just enjoying a nice meal with our loved ones.
By combining mindfulness, self-compassion, and general principles of nutrition, we can start perceiving food as nourishing rather than punishing, and go back to enjoying food, guilt-free.
By Daniela Mercado Beivide
Holly's Content & Research Manager
Subscribe to the Holly Health newsletter here, to be kept in the loop