Uh-oh, it’s January.
The time of year when, even if you’ve been doing really well normalising your relationship with food, you can suddenly find yourself bingeing again.
Why? Because in January it’s impossible to escape the barrage of adverts for slimming clubs, weight-reduction schemes and meal replacement products. Social media is abuzz with the latest celebrity eating plans, while endless newspaper and magazine articles try to convince us of the new wonder diet “that really works”.
The message screamed at us from every avenue is a New Year, a New You, a New Life, a Slimmer You, a Better You, a Better Life. Fat = miserable, slim = happy. So get on board, people.
Despite the fact that you’ve tried every weight-loss plan under the sun and have only ever lost weight then put it on again you think about going on another diet, or going back to one that hasn’t worked for you in the past.
Besides, all your family, friends and co-workers are talking about is what diet they’re on, what they’re allowed to eat and how much weight they’re losing. If everyone’s doing it, it must be OK, right?
There’s that voice in your head saying “you’ve got to lose weight. You’ll feel better about yourself if you lose weight. This time it’ll work. Just go on a diet”.
Go on a diet. It is this thought alone that can spark a resurgence in bingeing.
Why? Because dieting is about restriction. I don’t care how it’s dressed up. I don’t care if people say “but I can eat whatever I want”. If you’re eating to someone else’s rules, there will be certain foods that are permitted and certain foods that are restricted. And if you have psychological and emotional issues related to food, there will be part of you that panics at the thought of restriction or scarcity. It’s this part that motivates you to binge.
Furthermore, diets discourage autonomy. If a slimming club promises to help “keep you on track”, it’s not your track, it’s theirs. When you diet, you stop listening to your body about when, what and how much you want to eat in favour of doing what the diet “experts” tell you to do. But the process of eating should be guided by your natural instincts, not by the rules of some global money-making organisation that profits from your failure.
As a psychotherapist, the saddest and most damaging aspect of dieting that I see on a regular basis is what it does to our heads.
You start your diet all excited and enthused, fantasising about how slim and gorgeous you’re going to look. In preparation for your new regime, you have a massive blow-out on all the foods you’re not going to be allowed once it’s begun.
You do “really well” for a few days, maybe a few weeks, until “something happens”. You eat something “off-plan” and you’ve “ruined” your diet for the day.
As you begin beating yourself up you start looking around for other food you’ve been missing out on. After all, the diet’s trashed for today but first thing tomorrow you’re going to be so strong and super-strict with yourself, so all this food’s going to be off-limits again. Next, a part of you says “well, if this is my last opportunity to have this sort of food I’d better make the most of it, hadn’t I? In for a penny, in for a pound. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.”
That’s why you don’t stop at a couple of slices of bread or a few biscuits. It’s the whole loaf or the whole packet. Then what? Tubs of ice-cream, pizza, cake, doughnuts, chocolate. The terror of impending restriction means that before you know it, you’re going hell for leather consuming the contents of your kitchen or are racing to the local shop to buy a stash of contraband to binge on alone in your car.
What happens next triggers the breakdown in your relationship with food.
You start to form negative, compelling beliefs about yourself and your eating such as “I can never eat just one biscuit, I have to eat the whole packet”, “I can’t trust myself to have cake/chocolate/ice-cream in the house”, “I don’t control food, it controls me”.
Your self-esteem takes a battering as you tell yourself “I’m greedy”, “I’m weak”, “I’m a failure”. And because your weight begins to “yo-yo” as a result of dieting you come to believe “if I lose weight I will only put it on again”.
Without necessarily being aware of it, you’re caught in a restricting/bingeing cycle. With each experience of restriction followed by bingeing, the negative messages are reinforced until they are well and truly entrenched in your mind. Ultimately, it feels impossible that you could ever have a normal relationship with food or a positive relationship with yourself.
This was certainly my experience. When I first began reading about normalising my relationship with food I was extremely sceptical. “That might work for other people”, I thought, “but not for me. I’m an all-or-nothing, out-of-control, hopeless binge-monster and always will be”.
Fortunately, there was a part of me that knew that normalising my eating was the way to go and, despite the other voice in my head saying “what a load of hogwash, go back to dieting”, it encouraged me to understand the enormous damage that dieting was doing. I was then able gradually to undo the negative beliefs about food, weight loss and myself that I had developed as a result of dieting.
One of the things I love about working with people with overeating issues is seeing them challenge and transform their beliefs. As they persevere in normalising their relationship with food (and it does take perseverance) and their eating behaviour gently changes, they also change what they believe about themselves.
Their new experiences dictate their new beliefs: “I feel OK leaving food on my plate”, “I’m able to say no to chocolate because I don’t feel like it”, “I can stop when I’ve had enough”. They begin to realise they’re not the all-or-nothing, out-of-control, hopeless binge-monster they thought they were either. They are who they are. And food is just food. That’s all.
It doesn’t mean they’re never bothered by thoughts of dieting again but if they are, a part of them remembers the deprivation, food-obsession, misery, despair and weight gain that dieting causes and pretty soon they’re back on track. Their track, no one else’s.
So this January, instead of starting a new eating regime, maybe make a commitment to look after yourself emotionally, psychologically and physically. Perhaps use your energy to understand and work with yourself, rather than against. Could you ditch the dieting forever and concentrate instead on listening to yourself and your body? How would that feel?
However, if you’re absolutely sure you want to go on another diet, please consider your previous experiences and ask yourself one question:
Is it worth it?
If you need more information before you decide, this might help.