I remember growing up my Mom did some pretty weird diets. The one that stuck in my head was the Scarsdale diet. She ate grapefruit for breakfast with black coffee, had a low carb lunch of cold cut meats and vegetables, and dinner was always fish with some kind of salad. She made us completely separate dinners to eat while on these kinds of diets (which my poor Dad was also subjected to) and after a while would just give up and go back to eating normally again.
The thing I remember the most was how much of a failure she felt like, her dramatic mood swings (because she was probably fucking hungry), and the fact that she felt like it was all her fault. If only she’d had a bit more willpower, then THIS would be the diet that worked for her.
Are you my Mom? Does this hit home for you?Or maybe your story is more like mine…
I never went on what you would call an ‘extreme’ diet, but I definitely bought into the trap of Clean Eating at the height of its popularity around 2009. Sugar was the devil, carbs were something to be feared, everything I made had protein or protein powder, and dessert was a dirty word.
And I guess you could say I “succeeded” at my form of dieting because I stuck to it. So much so that I developed an eating disorder. I’m not sure what’s worse here: feeling like you’ve failed every diet and developing low self-esteem like my Mom or sticking to one so rigidly that it causes you to develop a mental health condition where you’re terrified of food and weight gain even though you’re now clinically underweight.
Despite the differences in these stories, they both boil down to one common factor: diets are dangerous and don’t work. You might be sitting there beating yourself up about all the time, money, and heartache you experienced as a result, but I invite you to look at it a different way: you were doing what you thought was best.
It’s hard to be compassionate because diet culture is so pervasive. You feel like a failure when the 5:2 diet (or whatever else you’re trying) doesn’t work but let me reassure you that you’re the RULE and NOT the exception because 95% of diets fail and most people regain the weight back within 1 – 5 years.
But what exactly is going on inside your body that makes diets so unsustainable? Well let’s take a closer look.
Your hormones hate starvation
One main reason diets don’t work is they go against our biochemistry, and our body’s natural inclination to maintain homeostasis. In an ideal world the hunger hormone ghrelin and neurotransmitter neuropeptide Y go up in response to food deprivation, then you recognise these signals, eat a balanced and enjoyable meal, and they go down again.
However, when you deprive yourself of food (a la dieting) these hormones continue to increase until you reach a hunger level so uncontrollable that all you want to do is faceplant into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s when you get home. Nueropeptide Y in particular makes you crave carbohydrates like nobody’s business and if you don’t eat enough during the day, can make you want to scoff a whole loaf of bread, with a side of hot chips to wash it down.
Again, this is not your fault, it’s physiology at play.
Diets make us obsessed with food
I’ve got a challenge for you: I want you to try really really REALLY hard not to think about white polar bears.
I’m guessing you just thought about a whole bunch of them.
In psychology this is known as ironic process theory, or the white bear problem, and it relates to dieting as well. Because diets make certain foods off limits, or shortens our feeding window ,such as when intermittent fasting, it can lead to intrusive thoughts about food. Suddenly your roommates stale 2-week-old cookies sitting in the cupboard become extremely appetising because
Your hunger hormones are raging, particularly for carbs because your body is trying to get your blood sugar levels back up.
You brain is fixated with thoughts of food because it’s not getting as much as it’s used to.
Things that are ‘off limits’ become much more enticing.
Next minute you’re wolfing down not just one, but a fair few cookies, which don’t even taste good! As a result you wind up feeling guilty, uncomfortable and unpleasant. That’s not willpower, that’s hormones, physiology and psychology at work.
Diets force us to ignore our internal cues
Do you ever feel bad when you need to go to the bathroom because your bladder is full? Probably not! What about when you feel tired and need to go to bed or take a nap? I’m guessing that’s a no as well.
Hunger is an internal cue on par with the need to empty your bladder or get enough sleep at night, yet it’s seen as bad or wrong within society. Let me clear this up very quickly for you: YOU’RE NOT A GLUTTON FOR HONOURING YOUR HUNGER. Hunger is a physiological process that signals when your body needs food to keep your energy levels up and all your internal processes humming along.
And if you’re worried you can’t trust your body, know this: those who eat in line with hunger and fullness usually have lower BMIs and more stable insulin levels than those who chronically diet.
I know that society has told you that dieting is the only way to be healthy, or that it will lead to happiness and solve all your problems, but I urge you to see through the BS. There are other tools that can help you achieve REAL health without all this heartache namely intuitive eating and mindful exercise.
Remember your health practices should make your life feel bigger and easier, not smaller and more stressful. If you find that dieting has left you feeling lacklustre, maybe it’s time to try something new.