When it comes to dieting, I've done it all. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. All of the t-shirts. And none of them ever even fit me in the end.
Simply because diets don't work.
But diets do work, I hear the cynical professional out there cry! Diets don't fail, people do!
Diets Don't Work, or Do They?
Stall the ball, Pope John Paul. Not so fast, Morty. How on earth can we simplify the rabbit hole that is dieting, and the psychology behind it, into one do or do not sentence? We can't.
On the one hand, yes it is true, we do fail at dieting. I can't disagree, if we disregard context. We are given a list of dieting rules to follow for fat loss and if we don't follow them for an extended period of time, then yes, you can say we have failed.
But why do we fail?
That all important, most basic question of them all again. Why?
It is because we are all fat, useless, lazy incompetents that we are led to believe we are when we inevitably fail?
Or are we being set up for failure in the first place? Is there a more meaningful why, that will help serve us in the long run, that will unearth the root cause of our behaviours, that will ultimately help to create that all important awareness from which we can build dietary success?
For the majority of dieters out there, traditional elimination or restrictive type diets fail because of the psychological distress that they can cause.
Disclaimer: Albeit not everyone.
The psychology to eating behaviours and dieting is an absolutely fascinating topic and the more I study and write about it, the more I encourage people to move away from the traditional restrictive dietary approaches because of the emotional distress they cause.
All or Nothing
When it comes to dieting, the “all or nothing” approach seems to be ingrained in our brains. We are either full on eating all of the cake or none of the cake at all.
We eat a perfect healthy diet Monday to Friday but then come the weekend we binge on cake, ice-cream, pizza, and kebabs to make up for the lost time with these beloved foods we deprived ourselves from during the week.
Just because this behaviour is quite common, but that doesn't make it normal. Having the perfect healthy diet during the week and losing control over your eating behaviours and at the weekend is not balanced and it's certainly not healthy.
The “all or nothing approach” is the complete opposite of a healthy balanced approach. And it can be quite detrimental to our health and well-being if taken to the extreme.
Our eating behaviours contribute towards much more than just our physical health, it also plays a pivotal role in our emotional and mental well-being. Striving for the perfect diet can arouse feelings of distress, anxiety, misery, and ultimately failure when we fail to attain the unachievable, that is dietary perfection.
Food Fear Mongering
It doesn’t help that our social media is also full of false information, where we constantly see certain foods or food groups falsely labelled as toxic, poisonous, chemical crap storms and the root of disease.
I’m fed up with food fear mongering. Especially those who demonise sugar and make it out to be the spawn of satan.
Yes, an overload of sugar is bad for us, as is an overload of anything. But the poison is in the dose, and a little bit of what you fancy will do you more good than harm.
We are also led to believe by some fitness and nutrition gurus, that we must eliminate, restrict, and deprive ourselves of ALL sugars, processed food and convenience foods.
Some even go as far to say that we must avoid gluten, dairy, and beans, to clean up our diets for optimal health and particularly if fat loss is a goal.
This is nonsense, unethical and very uncalled for. Those who dole out this kind of toxic misinformation are either misinformed themselves, uneducated, or else just immoral, devoid of any empathy for their clients.
Believing this type of false information can lead to psychological distress as we struggle to conform to the unnecessary authoritarian nutrition rules inflicted on us.
If we go to such extreme measures to avoid certain foods and/or foods groups, then the inevitable WILL happen. We will experience overwhelming cravings for the foods we are avoiding, and it’s only a matter of time before we give in and cave to the cravings, and binge on our beloved foods.
The vicious circle of restriction, elimination and deprivation thus ensues and the diet starts all over again... Next Monday perhaps?
Healthy Obsession or Disordered Eating?
While following the “all” approach and eating nothing but whole unprocessed nutrient dense foods, you may very well be the picture of physical health.
But on the inside, you pretty much feel like shit, as your mind is preoccupied every moment of the day obsessing over the perfect food choice. In this case, it is worth asking yourself, what is the point of looking good on the outside if you feel like crap on the inside?
In this regard, the most nutritious diet is not always the healthiest one. Your health is far more than just physical. If our emotional health and well-being is suffering as a result of our food beliefs (usually false beliefs) and choices, then our overall health is in danger too.
People who are predisposed to obsessive type behaviours or those with addictive type personalities can suffer quite badly by getting caught up in the quest for the perfect diet. An obsession with perfect food choices can lead to disordered eating patterns, binge eating, or worse still, full on eating disorders.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder, whose symptoms include obsessive behaviours in the pursuit of the perfect diet. An orthorexic may avoid foods such as those made with artificial ingredients, fats, sugars, dairy products, or other ingredients deemed to be unhealthy.
They fear being unhealthy. Even though the reality is that none of the listed foods are truly unhealthy and they can all be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.
The obsession with a perfect diet can become so severe that it interferes with everyday activities. Socialising or dining out with friends can become problematic and stressful as the perfectionist fears breaking strict food rules. In extreme cases, the sufferer may become a social recluse in an effort to avoid such situations.
In addition, if the strict food rules are broken or deviated from, then overwhelming feelings of guilt can kick in, leading to low self-esteem and diminished self worth, which can perpetuate the cycle even further.
Obsessive “healthy” eaters also tend to have a sense of superiority about their food choices and can also be quite judgemental of other people’s food choices. Especially towards those who don’t comply with their own beliefs, which can ultimately end up driving friends and family away.
The Flaws of Perfection
The dieting industry is nothing short of a money making racket. It’s a grand scheme to deprive you of your happiness and the money in your wallet.
There is a plethora of con artists and so called health professionals, who are doing their utmost best to scare you into believing that you MUST give up sugar to lose weight, that you MUST give up cheese and dairy to lose weight, that you MUST give up bread to lose weight, that you MUST give up all things carby and delicious (think pizza) to lose weight.
They will then take all of your money and in return show you what you should be doing, instead of eating all of these delicious foods, to achieve the “body of your dreams”.
The honest to goodness truth is that you don’t need the perfect diet. It’s not always about making the best choice all of the time. It’s about making the better choice over the worst choice most of the time.
The MORE extreme the approach, then the LESS sustainable the results will be. This includes all forms of elimination or restrictive diets that have a black list of foods.
If you INSIST on following a diet that has a black list or banned list of foods, then follow it 80% or most of the time, not all of the time. Use the other 20% to allow yourself some dietary freedom. Use 10% on questionable food items that you enjoy, such as pizza and creamy pasta. Then use the remaining 10% on food items that you know are downright nutrient-less yet thoroughly enjoyable to eat!
Think cake, Saturday night take-away, kebabs. These are fun foods that absolutely have a place in all of our lives on an occasion. Food is and should be a pleasurable experience. So let yourself enjoy the fun side of food. Give yourself permission and watch the guilt dissipate.
You can of course choose not to indulge in fun foods. But just be aware of the consequences of that decision. Will your choice to avoid fun and indulgent foods send you off in an uncontrolled food binge after you finally cave into your cravings? Binging is not a healthy outcome, no matter how common it is.
Balance is the not the average of two dietary extremes (starving and binging), it is the reining in of the extremes in the first place. So rather than eating none of the cake none of the time, or all of the cake all of the time, choose to eat some of the cake some of the time instead.
Restricting, depriving, and starving yourself of fun foods is not maintainable. There is no joy, benefits, or saint-ship to be gained from being a food martyr. A nutritious diet consisting purely of whole and unprocessed foods and not allowing for fun foods that you enjoy eating is far from healthy.
What is the point of having a physically healthy body if you have to sacrifice a healthy mind to achieve it?
The pursuit of a perfect diet is not healthy nor is it a normal behaviour. So loosen the reins slightly and strive for balance instead.
The beauty of balance is that you get to have your cake.
And eat it too.
Thanks for reading,