When Diet Thinking Adds Pounds
She'd been on and off diets for 50 years....
Posted Feb 02, 2011
The question's especially pertinent now, as Stella's pre-diabetic. What's been especially perplexing is that this time, with health at stake, she can't seem to stick with a change for even a day. While the reasons for this are, of course, complicated, Stella's process illustrates the problems dieting itself poses for getting and keeping weight off. We know that every diet slows metabolism, and this can make regaining easier and losing harder. But do those diets also wear down the psychological resilience needed to change? In many cases, yes. Stella' process illustrates this well.
The idea of a "lifestyle change", rather than another diet doomed to fail, appealed to Stella. In fact, many people these days will agree that this beats a short-term effort that can't be maintained. The dieting mindset is hard to shake, though. And it will usually interfere if you've been on ten, twenty, a hundred diets before. Stella, for example, as a pudgy child, had been encouraged to cut back since age 8. Her entire life until now had been spent either on a diet, or thinking she should be on a diet-a not uncommon story.
So now Stella sets out to eat on a regular schedule, no skipping meals to save up for extravagances. Her portions will be smaller. She's going to have some protein at every meal and snack. She'll think of sweets as special occasion treats and keep them out of the house. She's a good cook, and she won't be stuck with boring food each day. None of this sounds terrible. But she wakes up each morning, at first, dreading the regime and finding reasons to ignore it. She's agreed to keep a journal and note feelings. She comes up with nothing but resentment about having to do this at all.
As we unravel what happened, Stella's dieting mindset reveals itself in several unhelpful ways. First: anything geared toward weight loss has meant "get rid of these pounds, and fast". A diet has represented an almost magical solution to whatever isn't feeling good. "If I lose.....I'll feel better," goes the thinking, and most dieters initially set out with gusto. Stella's current plan isn't geared toward fast. Maybe it's not even geared toward weight loss, at first, but rather at significant habit changes. Not so magical.
Second: however hopeful the start, a diet usually contains within itself the seeds of drudgery, discomfort, and ultimate disappointment. It's also, in the past, meant that one's not acceptable as is. Any change aimed at eating differently, then, can become associated with these very negative feelings. Why would anyone bring them on without the fast ten- or twenty-pound drop to bolster the magical thinking?
And third: the factors outlined here notwithstanding, a diet does offer something lasting to cling to. That is, it preserves for the long run the sweets and feasts that we've used to manage emotions or otherwise give short-term gratification. "Well, it hasn't worked, again...." Now, discouraged perhaps, we nevertheless return to the old habits.
The diet mindset doesn't foster realistic preparation, especially for the difficulties that will always interfere. It doesn't point to learning from mistakes. It ignores the fact that new habits result from practice, repetition, more repetition, and times of picking up and starting again. It has us cut out foods without anticipating how it will feel to live with less of them. And it preserves the undermining idea that you'll get the "bad" (or "good"!) stuff again once all the weight is gone. Magically, it won't cause trouble then.
Plodding along without the magical thinking, using her journal, actively challenging the diet mindset, it began to dawn on Stella that this time really was different. "It might take a year or two," she realized. "But this is how it's going to have to be--I never registered it that way before." Maybe not magical, but as she sheds a couple of pounds, and then a couple more, and doesn't suffer so much, it seems a bit miraculous.
Dr. Katz’ workbook, Eat Sanely: Get off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good, is available in paperback, or as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, or ipad: www.eatsanely.com/order-the-eat-sanely-weight-loss-workbook