The Dieting Dilemma

Imagine you’re back in 5th grade and it’s snack break. You reach inside your brown bag and find that your mom packed you one small pack of gummy bears. You love gummy bears. You yank out the bag, salivating at the sight of the squishy little critters.

You are thrilled. You’re mom never packs you gummy bears. As you pull out your first scrumptious gummy, your best friend walks by and, seeing your bag of gummies, screams, “Gummy bears! I want one!” Soon, you have every 5th grader within a 50-foot radius begging for a gummy.

“But, but”… you exclaim, “I only have 10 and, you see, my mom never gives me gummy bears!” Knowing you won’t experience their juicy goodness again for a while, you reluctantly hand off some of your precious gummy bears.

In a couple of months, your mom surprises you by again slipping a small bag of gummies into your lunch. You’re no dummy, you remember last time. Instead of opening the bag in plain sight, you quickly stuff each gummy into your mouth in the corner of the classroom. I mean, come on, you never get gummies. When given the chance, you want all the gummies you can get your hands on.

Your body feels the same way.

Fast forward to your current self and consider your favorite treat, the one you almost never let yourself eat. You have this idea that it’s a “bad” food and is something you shouldn’t eat. For me, this food is brownies.

What happens on the occasion I allow myself to have brownies when I’ve told myself, repeatedly, that I shouldn’t have brownies? I want all the brownies.

If you’ve ever dieted or restricted, you’ve probably experienced something similar. You’re stalwart in your efforts to avoid all “bad” foods and then, when you decide to allow yourself an indulgence it’s like a switch is flipped in your head and the next thing you know you’re standing over a half-eaten tray of brownies. Not only did you overeat, but you didn’t even enjoy doing it. 

The Problem with Dieting

Dieting, it turns out, is a sure fire way to pack on the pounds.

Scientists have termed this phenomenon “Dieting induced weight gain” and the research here is compelling. A large review conducted at UCLA found that not only does dieting not cause long-term weight loss, but that it is a consistent predictor of weight gain.

What!? Isn’t dieting supposed to make you skinny, desirable and happy?

Unfortunately not. There are numerous physiological and psychological reasons why, in the long run, dieting won’t help you lose weight and will likely make you gain it.  

Biological

Your body senses a diet as a period of starvation. Because your body wants to keep you alive, it drastically reduces its caloric expenditure (by up to 20%). That means, even though you’re cutting down calories, you’re burning less throughout the day. This drop in metabolism carries over to when you’ve stopped dieting.

Repeated bouts of dieting tell your body that available food cannot be counted on and so, it better save up for the inevitable famine that’s to come. In essence, your body gains rebound weight to protect against future episodes of starvation. Pretty smart body, huh?

Psychological

If you’ve ever tried to cut out your favorite foods, you know that when you do allow yourself to indulge it’s easy to let go of all inhibition. You feel so simultaneously awful about eating “badly” and overjoyed at finally being able to eat that overindulgence is almost imminent. This not only leads to cycles of binging/restricting but to a diminished ability to recognize your internal hunger and satiety cues.

Despite what popular media will have you believe, dieting works directly against your long-term weight-loss efforts.

The Solution

If dieting doesn’t work then how are you ever supposed to lose weight?

This is where a wonderful concept known as intuitive eating comes in. Intuitive eating, learning to listen to your body’s hunger cues and cravings to dictate eating, is a powerful tool for finding and maintaining a healthy weight.

It’s not an overstatement when I say that intuitive eating has changed my life. For years I struggled with disordered eating and obsession over what, when and how much I ate. Sometimes, I ate “well” and was ecstatic. I was proud of my ability to maintain a regimented eating plan. Sometimes I ate “poorly” and was overcome by feelings of worthlessness and disgust. So then I tried even harder to eat even better.

In time, I responded exactly as I’ve described above, my metabolism slowed and I found myself in a constant battle with food. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it, but always I obsessed over it.

Despite my consistent struggles to maintain what I believed to be a “perfect diet,” I did not have the body of my dreams. In fact, the harder I tried to control my body through my diet, the more my body seemed to rebel.

I learned about intuitive eating and decided it had to be better than what I was doing. It wasn’t something I could pick up over night but, with practice, intuitive eating has allowed me to reconnect with my hunger cues and feelings of fullness, eat when and what my body needs and, most importantly, let go of my extreme preoccupation with food so that I am able to enjoy everything that life has to offer.

If this story sounds all too familiar, check out next week’s post on Intuitive Eating – What it is and how to do it!

by Kelsey Brown