The year of no diets
Welcome to a new year! And the year I'm hailing as "the year of no diets".
We’ve all been there, it’s January and the marketing has got you in a vice. You’re convinced that you need to lose weight or look a certain way, or maybe you just feel like you need to sort your life out and starting with your diet/body seems like an easy option. It’s about control and this can feel like a new fresh start. But I hate to be the bearer of bad news... it will end in failure. They always do! Diets are made to work for a short amount of time, if at all. And then you feel like you’re the one that’s failed, but it is the diet (and perhaps the diet industry) that failed you – it doesn’t work for your body to live in such a restrictive state, but more on that later.
With all that said, I invite you to make this the year of no diets. Together, we will reject diet culture and everything to do with it. Ok, but what if you want to improve your health, how can you do that without crash dieting? Let me explain.
Why diets don't work
Firstly, diets don’t serve you. There are many side effects of dieting, which can impact you physically and mentally.
Physically, deficiencies following the elimination of certain food groups (and the knock-on effects on these), can change your metabolism as your body tries to conserve energy, you may experience muscle loss and bone health and be compromised. There is also a link between dieting and increased risk for some eating disorders.
Mentally, you may experience increased stress and anxiety (especially as you fear failing the diet) as well as increased obsessive thoughts about food and it taking up a lot of your headspace. Your body image might start to change, with unrealistic body standards causing your self-esteem to decrease and this can trickle down into social isolation etc.
Now that can seem like a lot, and perhaps sounds extreme, but I’ve heard stories of how dieting has slowly changed someone’s life for the worse. It’s like running your phone on 25% all the time – apps are slow, things are buffering and nothing is optimal.
Dieting also increases your chance of yo-yo dieting (visit nourishedpractice.com to find my article explaining this in more detail) which means failing at a diet, deciding you’re going to try again, failing, rebounding and repeating this yo-yo back again.
What is the diet cycle and how can you break out of it?
The diet cycle can be simplified as:
You start wanting to lose weight or change your body in some way. This leads you to a diet – and the actual diet can vary – and you go for it. You go super restrictive, cut out whole food groups and majorly reduce how much you’re taking in. And you start to notice changes, and you get compliments from other people. The little voice in your head says you’re finally doing it, and maybe you feel in control.
But then one day, you’re feeling exhausted and run down, so you pause the diet for a few hours or a day or two. One ‘cheat meal’ turns into a binge or loss of control around food. And now you’re full of guilt and shame – it was all going so well until you had no self-control. You feel like it’s your fault. After a little while you resolve to fix what you’ve done, and you’ll jump back on the wagon. And give it even more. So the cycle restarts…
How to break it
Acknowledge you want to get out. Say it out loud, write it down, tell people, and lean on your support. If you’re unsure, then make a list of reasons why the diet(s) isn't serving you (for example, "I’m skipping social plans with friends, I’m only thinking about food and it’s distracting me from work" etc.).
Commit to eating enough the fuel your body. Even if you don’t want to reject diet culture or embrace an approach like Intuitive Eating, focus on eating enough to feel fuelled and satisfied with your food. Start to notice the signs that you may be under fuelling your body – feelings of hunger, experiencing brain fog, trouble concentrating, cravings for certain foods etc. – and see if reintroducing some food helps with this.
Move away from labelling food good or bad. Food is food! And see how reframing this changes the amount of mental energy you’re spending on overthinking food choices. After a week or two, reflect on whether this has helped to reduce any guilt and shame you may be feeling.
And finally, get rid of diet tools. I’m talking scales and calorie-counting apps etc. They are not serving you and don’t take in the hundreds of things that affect you daily. The scale doesn’t know your hormones, your stress, your water levels, the time of day, your bowel movements etc. People change not only day by day, but hour by hour. It's natural.
A note on mindful eating
Mindful eating is sometimes used as a tool within Intuitive Eating and many frameworks, but it is something in itself that can be useful when moving away from diets. Mindful eating mostly focuses on being present when eating. Here are some tips.
Slow down when eating. Put your utensils down at intervals and notice how full you’re eating. Remove any rules about the number of chews or a time frame. Clear your mind and simply eat at a slightly reduced pace.
Engage all those senses. How does your food smell, and taste, and what texture is it? Is it hot/cold? Does it smell of anything, does the flavour change as you eat it? If you always eat when distracted, try and turn off distractions (equally, if you’re currently hyperfocused on food, perhaps distract yourself and see how it feels).
Start to try and recognise emotional triggers around food. When you experience intense cravings ask yourself how you’re feeling – are you tired or stressed etc?
Tuning into hunger and fullness
Hunger and fullness might feel slightly different to everyone. Start to invite pauses into your day to assess hunger and fullness (some people put alarms on their watch/phone to help check-in) for you. Maybe you use a hunger scale or you note down physical and mental sensations in your body.
There will be occasions when you overeat, but this is a way to learn where that boundary is – and remember it changes day by day. This is a skill that comes with practice.
A note on body positivity/neutrality/acceptance
A lot of diets and diet culture generally will focus primarily on what we call "the thin ideal". The idea is that our bodies need to meet a universal standard to be of value. Therefore, as we move away from dieting, we need to move away from such body-shaming thoughts. This can be hard. Again, it varies day by day how we feel about our bodies, and this can be influenced by stress, hormones, bloating etc.
And we don’t have to go for loving our body, flaunting it super confidently. Body neutrality and acceptance is a popular approach where we focus on a non-judgemental attitude about our body regardless of its shape, size or appearance. It focuses on what our bodies can do, and what they enable us to do.
How can you start to cultivate body acceptance/neutrality?
- Treat yourself with kindness, and talk to yourself as you would a friend/family member when you notice judgmental thoughts arise.
- Start to question beauty standards as you see them, and ask yourself why you think certain things are beautiful or not.
- Focus on what your body can do – whether you think about it, write it down or even ask a friend/family member/partner to list the amazing things your body can do.
- Surround yourself with positive influences including physical people around you, social media and what you’re reading.
- Try and wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and confident.
- Set some non-appearance goals for your body e.g. strength, mobility, running a certain distance etc.
- Participate in activities that you enjoy so you can move the focus away from what your body looks like when you do it.
- Try and reduce how much you compare yourself to others, and notice when you do it.
If you know what Intuitive Eating is, you may know Intuitive Movement. It is an approach to movement that encourages you to connect with your body and engage in movement that feels joyful and meets your needs whatever that may be.
Here are some tips:
- Explore a range of activities. Now is a great time to try new things.
- Set intentions not goals e.g. move to reduce stress, to feel good, to feel confident.
- Reframe your language around exercise. Instead of ‘having to exercise’, it is a chance to move your body, have a fun time with friends etc.
- Get outside. I know that this doesn’t always sound great when it's cold and rainy, but green therapy is a real thing. And the fresh(ish) air is always good!
- Celebrate small wins and milestones.
- Regularly check in on what feels good and what doesn't. Just because you enjoyed a dance class doesn’t mean you have to go if it’s no longer feeling so fun. Week by week, month by month, it may change. And that’s okay.
- Lean into your community. Support helps when making any change. Much like how smokers tell everyone around them for accountability, the same can apply here. Equally, if you don’t feel like explaining your reasoning to others, you don’t have to. Lean into the online world.
The benefits of a no-diet lifestyle
There are so many benefits to living a no-diet lifestyle. To keep it brief...
- It improves your mental health as you reduce the stress and anxiety around food.
- Your body image and overall self-worth may improve.
- You experience a reduced risk of nutrient deficiencies.
- You are free from food obsession and yo-yo dieting.
- You will experience increased energy levels and improved emotional well-being, due to reduced feelings of failure/guilt and or shame.
- You will likely experience an improved relationship with exercise (and so you’re more likely to adhere to it).
- You will be empowered over your health choices, you have autonomy and control.
Ultimately, if dieting hasn’t worked thus far, then maybe it’s time you tried something new. It can't be worse than the hunger and frustration you're currently feeling.
If you've resonated with this article and agree it's time for a change, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me via my Nutritionist Resource profile, where you can book a discovery call, visit my website or find me on Instagram (@nourishedpractice).