Many people end their festive season feeling the need to purge, cleanse, restrict and detox, harbouring a sense of guilt and shame following those holiday indulgences. The new year starts with setting often lofty goals and striving for a 'better version' of themselves.
As we reach the middle of January many have already "fallen off the wagon" and are feeling a sense of failure or are struggling to stick to their new 'health' regimen.
However, the reality is diets are bound to fail. Starting the New Year with a restrictive diet is actually unlikely to bring health or happiness. Instead, it often damages our relationship with both food and our bodies, impacting negatively on our mental and physical health.
It’s now 20 years since I began studying nutritional science. In that career, one thing has frustrated and infuriated me more than anything else. The fact that diets don’t work but are still promoted by so many in the pursuit of health. In actual fact, instead of improving lives they often cause great harm.
I regularly become enraged by the media and many health professionals still selling the idea of a “perfect body” and the “magic dietary regimen” to achieve it. The idea that if you have the willpower to see it through and lose weight you will be happier, healthier and life will be better. This approach is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.
Diets can take many forms but they all essentially come down to restriction.
The 'diet and lifestyle' industry is worth approximately 60 billion and thrives by keeping people hooked on this 'restrict and relapse' cycle. In the 80’s and 90’s popular diets included the South Beach Diet, Atkins, the cabbage soup diet and group approaches like slimming world and weight watchers.
Today the diet world has taken more of a stealth approach. Juice cleanses, Paleo diets, clean eating, keto, intermittent fasting and the “I quit sugar programme” all focus on restrictive eating. Even the vegan plant-based approach can be a diet in disguise if your intention for eating in this way is to alter your body size.
All these diets have one thing in common- they foster a negative relationship with food. They foster a belief that you are just not capable of eating and enjoying freely. Like a perpetual prison, you can't just jump off the diet train. You don't get to reach 'perfect body status' and go back to eating carefree, because your connection to your body and what it needs has been damaged along the way.
On the diet train, every bite comes with a side helping of judgement and analysis. If you eat off-plan, submit to temptation, you earn yourself feelings of guilt and failure. This goes beyond the restriction of food, it starts to restrict life and social interaction, and long term it damages our relationships, self-image and sense of worth. When we sign up to a world that makes us feel shame for enjoying a bite of our child's birthday cake ... something has gone terribly wrong.
Research shows us that 85-95% of people who diet will regain the weight within 2-5 years. A third of people will gain the weight plus some. We are as certain that diets don't work as we are that smoking causes cancer, yet every January millions begin in vain to try and reduce their weight. The other thing we know, when your diet doesn't work, it is not your lack of willpower. It is SO much more complex than that.
One reason diets don’t work is that our bodies are hard-wired to rebel back against restriction, it's a natural protective survival mechanism. When faced with restriction our body thinks we are starving and works harder to store energy. Our brains also drive us to focus more on what has been restricted and what our body is craving in order for us to take action and redress the balance.
And what is at the root of this futile restriction? The pursuit of a thinner body!
We perpetually strive for a thin ideal that has been sold to us by the media. The reality is only 5% of women genetically have the body type that is being sold to us. The majority of images we see are photoshopped and our idea of what a “normal” body looks like has become completely distorted. The truth is not even the models look like their own images. Our Instagram feeds are full of edited photos, “living their best life” as something to aspire to. None of this is real. In reality, life isn’t perfect. It's is hard, gritty, tricky and bodies actually come in all different shapes, sizes and abilities. That is reality. Your best, authentic self has flaws. We all do. That is part of what makes us human. Perfectly imperfect.
We need to let go of this idea of perfection, be it the “perfect body” or the “perfect life”; it’s not real or authentic and striving for it causes us unnecessary pain and harm. Our bodies are amazing vessels that carry us through life, we need to nourish and nurture them, be kind to them and treat them with compassion. Holding them up to an unrealistic ideal of thinness is not the answer to truly achieving health.
We know from the research that weight does not equal health. There are people in larger bodies who are healthy just as there are people in smaller bodies that are unhealthy. It is our engagement in health behaviours that make us healthy. Additionally 'health' looks different for different people.
Importantly, your health is not an indication of your value or worth. You are worthy irrespective of your size, gender, ability, ethnicity, the colour of your skin or health status.
When we think about health and wellbeing it’s not just about our physical health in isolation. To be truly healthy we must incorporate all aspects of our mental, physical and spiritual health (whatever that means to you).
We could ensure every bite was nutrient-dense, but if this makes us feel deprived and restricted our choices at social gatherings, or makes us feel excluded, chances are this may not make us feel healthier overall. We need to find what works for our bodies, this requires us to tune in, listen to what our body needs and respond with kindness and compassion.
We now know that if we want to instil a healthy relationship with food in our children this needs to start by first modelling it ourselves. Here are some steps you can take to improve your own relationship with food and in turn help foster positive food behaviours and a confident body image for your children.
1) Ditch the diet. Give yourself permission to enjoy eating. Allow yourself to enjoy all foods without punishment, restriction shame or guilt. Eat mindfully- Learn to tune in and connect before you eat. How do you feel? What are your emotions? Thoughts? How does your body feel? Honour that.
2) Tune in to the taste, texture, smell of your food. Acknowledge your feelings of hunger and fullness. Engage all your senses in eating and eating-related decisions. Accept your thoughts and feelings around food and eating without judgement.
3) Honour your hunger. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when full. Eat as much or as little as you feel like eating. If at times you eat beyond fullness that too is part of “competent eating” and requires no action but self-compassion and kindness.
4) Stop comparing. Comparison is the thief of joy. Your body and nutritional needs are different than those of others. Only you truly know how your body feels and what it needs.
5) Develop an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude for the food on our plates and our amazing, wonderful bodies and all they can do. Instead of focusing simply on the appearance of your body focus on what it does for you. Being grateful for the fact that your stomach is working to process your food to give you energy, your legs are strong to help you walk or run or your arms work to hug those we love.
6) Focus on offering yourself self-compassion and kindness. Learning to practice mindfulness can help you to tune in to how you are thinking and feeling and you will be able to pick up on when your mind turns to critical thought patterns. Being aware of these thoughts will give you the ability to shift them and focus on the positive instead. Ask yourself “How can I be kind to myself in this moment?”Check out our soundcloud for some introductory mindfulness meditations.
7) Prioritise self-care. Set an intention to prioritise yourself. What will help you to feel good physically and mentally? Tune in to what works for you and do it.
8) Let food be food. Simply. No judgment and no labels. Avoid using judgments to define food. Good or bad foods, healthy or unhealthy, treat foods or occasional foods all denote a value system which can lead to shame around eating foods that don’t meet the criteria.
If you’d like to learn more or are interested in making peace with your relationship with eating contact us at The Food Tree. We offer individual and small group sessions either online or in-person at our base in Central Auckland.