There is no doubt that dieting is ingrained in our culture. It seems like almost everyone has been on a diet at some point in their life. But what happens when dieting becomes a lifestyle? When year after year, you are spending the majority of time on a diet, or planning the next diet? Dynamic Eating Psychology refers to this as chronic dieting.
Chronic dieting is when, over a period of years, your world is ruled by diets, calorie counting and food restriction, all with the goal of achieving or maintaining a certain (often unrealistic) weight or body type. To be clear, the dieting can be continuous or intermittent. If you’re dieting intermittently, either you are ON your program and tightly controlling your food intake, or you’re OFF the program, during which time you may be indulging in everything you had restricted before, and you are likely to be consumed by thoughts of when you will get back on the program.
This is distinct from occasional or targeted dieting, where you go on a specific diet or eating plan for a period of time to address weight or health concerns. Chronic dieting is an ongoing quest with no real end.
Some studies estimate that older women, when looking back, have spent as much as 30 years of their life on a diet. Wow! Can you recall the time of your first diet, and fast forward to now? How many months out of each year were you on a diet, or even thinking about going on a diet?
If you recognize this cycle, here are 5 ways that chronic dieting may be affecting your life.
1. Food is Stigmatized
Spend enough time in the dieting world and you will learn an entirely new language regarding the food you eat. In your mind, all food primarily falls into two categories: Good or Bad. Your diet plan of choice teaches you which foods contain too many calories, fat, sugar, sodium or other unwanted substances. You learn about the healthy food that you need to eat more of, so you scan menus and grocery stores for foods that fit the “good” category.
And it’s hard to know exactly what foods are good. Nutritional experts disagree on these points. Is animal protein healthy or is vegetarianism better? What about grains and gluten? Or dairy and cheese? For every diet there always seem to be new opinions and research to support the addition or elimination of certain foods. It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of continually searching for the holy grail of diets, the ONE that will finally have all the answers to all your food problems.
2. Where’s the Pleasure?
In Mind Body Nutrition, food is acknowledged as a source of pleasure. The human body is biologically designed to receive pleasure from food. While experts want to reduce food to just calories and nutrients, food’s meaning to us is far too complex for that to work. Food is memory, connection and love. We all have favorite meals that remind us of special times, and gatherings in all cultures invariably involve preparing and eating traditional foods. When you think of or smell certain foods, your body’s digestive systems turn on and you begin to salivate. This is a process that should be welcomed. It means you are in your body, and all systems are working.
By stigmatizing your food, you automatically create a stress response every time it’s consumed. Because at some point the foods you’ve eaten with pleasure in the past will be on that bad list. The deprivation will become too difficult, and you’ll just want that chocolate cake! But you may not be able to truly enjoy the cake, and emotions such as guilt or even shame will accompany each bite – which induce a physiological stress response in your body and interfere with your ability to properly metabolize what you have consumed.
Reducing pleasure with food can also limit pleasure in other parts of your life. When you start to deny yourself pleasure in any area, you will be living in a more contracted, less open state. Instead, try taking the time to really enjoy ALL your food, the healthy stuff and the treats. You’ll activate the parasympathetic nervous system of the body to fully absorb and assimilate the nutrients of whatever is ingested, even that so-called bad food.
3. The World is Small
Chronic dieters create rules around their eating environment so they can control their food intake and stick to their diet plans. They may avoid certain restaurants, events or activities so as not to be faced with foods that are bad, or that come from an unknown origin. Many chronic dieters find travelling to be very stressful and often chose not to travel to avoid consuming higher calorie food.
They often take great precautions to research restaurant food’s nutritional content, map out calories and fat, and make rigid plans for what they can or can’t eat. Of course, we all at times need to use care when eating in new places, but with chronic dieting, this is a way of life. The dieter has a hard time just going with the flow. This will naturally affect their interpersonal relationships and could limit their interactions to only those who want to follow the same rules. Chronic dieters often join communities of other dieters so they can justify the behavior and continue to restrict their options.
We believe growth comes from exploration. Exploring new activities, places, people and food will open your world and your palate in ways you can’t imagine. And it’s fun!
4. Happiness is in the Future
If you are a chronic dieter, you are in a constant state of control around food, so your “eating life” may feel like performing surgery. Everything has to be exact and there’s no room for error, and that is exhausting. Real life is messy, scary, and unpredictable.
The initial goal of a diet seems harmless – you just want to lose some weight! But over time, that weight comes back, and you have to continually be on a diet to achieve or maintain a weight or body type that may be unrealistic. The chronic dieter is always chasing a number on a scale with the thought that once they get there, they can finally relax and enjoy their life. Happiness with body and weight is always in the future.
In Dynamic Eating Psychology, we advocate losing the scale and accepting yourself where you are right now. That happiness and joy can happen right now – there’s no need to wait until you achieve some magic weight. Look around and discover that happy people come in all shapes and sizes!
5. Fear and Perfectionism
Ultimately, chronic dieting is a form of perfection – a desire to get everything right, and eat in a perfect way. If today you didn’t get it right, there’s always tomorrow or the next day. Until you wake up and realize that that you’ve spent literally years of your life on a diet.
At some point the dieting is no longer about health or weight, but evolves into a fear of giving up control and trusting ourselves to eat more freely. We need to recognize that we are worth loving, no matter what we weigh. According to Brene Brown, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
No one on their deathbed wishes they had dieted more. So stop dieting and start living. Eat some chocolate cake and enjoy it! Experiment with all kinds of foods and adventures that ignite pleasure in your heart. Eat slowly and mindfully and listen to your body. Your body will tell you when it needs more or when it’s had enough. You just have to give it a chance!
If you want to break free from chronic dieting, or other eating challenges, check out our program Transform Your Relationship with Food.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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