Do you still believe in diets?

The fact that dieting works is one of the most widespread myths of the western world.

So many women are stuck in the constant cycle of calorie restriction, deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain.

Diet cycle

The problem is that we don’t see it as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet.

What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body becomes better equipped to deal with the perceived famine.

  • Our digestive systems slow down in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that we eat, leaving us feeling bloated and sluggish.
  • Our metabolism slows down so that we waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in our body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
  • Growth of our nails and hair slows down as our bodies try to conserve energy and we may experience disruption to our menstrual cycles.
  • Even we slow down as we start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue and muscle aches and pains.

Basically, everything slows down! Not only that, our bodies develop ways to persuade us to eat more, increasing our hunger signals and cravings for sweet and fatty foods making us feel like we just don’t have the willpower that we used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often.

Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yoyo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term.

Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:

  1. Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction

Yes there are people who lose weight and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less as they get older in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient!

Being in a calorie deficit is a stressor for our bodies, causing cortisol levels to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising our blood sugar and increases the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and we thought going on a diet was healthy!

  1. Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting

Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food (or not!) but if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide the nutrients our bodies need. Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a slight nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble.

In addition, each weight cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate, meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.

So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?

Jumping off the diet wagon and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!

Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15lbs more than my old “ideal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Plus, I am maintaining that weight on twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat A LOT of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).

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If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, please please please take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns. I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom 😊

HA recovery diaries #10 Liberation not limitation

A huge part of recovery from HA or any form of restrictive disorder is letting go of the rules.  It seems like it should be easy once we learn that our habits are responsible for our poor health to just stop exercising and start eating but it is very rarely so.  Often we have spent years beating ourselves into submission that it becomes almost impossible to disentangle ourselves.

So why do we place these rules on ourselves?

Almost always we begin with the best intentions in mind.  We want to get healthier, to be fitter, to look better, to create “the best version of ourselves”.  And how are we told to do this?  Eat less, move more, lose weight.  We are surrounded by these messages in society to the point that they become embedded into our psyche.  Almost everyone is living in the mindset of either trying to lose weight or not wanting to gain weight.  Dieting and exercise have become the social norms.

When we first set out on a health or weight loss journey, we do our research and arm ourselves with knowledge.  Which foods are low in calories or have the most nutrients? How many calories should we eat?  Which foods are more fattening?  How much exercise a day is needed for weight loss?  Which exercises burn the most fat?  All of this information is too much to carry around in our heads so we develop rules to follow to save hours of deliberation every time we need to eat or move our bodies.  Following a plan is so much easier as it takes the pressure of decision making away.   But this is not necessarily a good thing!

For example, take some common food rules:

I can only eat X calories a day

I shouldn’t eat chocolate

I can’t have dessert

If I go to a restaurant I have to have a salad

I am only allowed to eat X times a day

I must leave X hours between meals

Notice any similarities?

The words only, can’t, shouldn’t, must, allowed..  How do these words make you feel?  Ask most people to choose between oppression and liberation and I can almost guarantee they will choose freedom.  But living with words like this, we cannot be totally free.  For some reason we seem to enjoy creating a cage for ourselves to live in, placing restrictions and limitations on our own lives.

Why do we do this?

I don’t have the answer to that.  Maybe it is because we are scared.  So scared of our own power that we feel we have to reign ourselves in.  Scared that without the rules we will be totally out of control.  And ironically enough, rules create exactly the kind of environment for this kind of rebelling to occur.  If you are the kind of person that tends to spiral into chaos the minute you break a rule, think back to before you ever had any rules.  I am guessing that you were doing just fine.   As soon as we place restrictions on ourselves we ignite the deep desire to rebel and it becomes a viscous cycle.

In creating rules, we hand over our power to adapt and change.  Life is not constant – in fact its common to hear that the only constant thing about it is change.  And rules don’t account for this.  We are constantly evolving as humans and the world is in a state of continuous flux.  Just because something works for us today does not mean it will work tomorrow.  But often we cling to the rules we make, far beyond the point where they no longer serve us.  The habits and beliefs we have built become so deeply embedded that it is difficult to consider any other option.

This is why going “all in” works can be so challenging.  Although the fundamentals are non-negotiable there is a lot of room for individualisation.

We know that we need to exercise less but how much is too much?  Can we carry on with what we usually do but less frequently?  How about lifting weights?  Is walking ok?  If so for how long?  What about yoga?

We know we need to nourish our bodies but how much do we need?  Is 2000 calories enough?  3000?  Should we be eating junk foods or focus on nutrition?  Is eating a lot at night ok or should we be spacing things out throughout the day?

These are all questions that come up frequently and there simply is no answer.  Everybody is different and it is up to you to find what works best for your body.  And this can be scary if we are coming from a place where we had a set rule book to help us make our decisions.  We knew what was ok and not ok.  We had external guides to tell us what to do.  And now we are supposed to just let ourselves loose in the world?!

Again, most people want to live a life where they feel free.  In the western world, we are lucky to have abundance available to us every day and yet we choose to turn away from it.  Partly this is because we are made to believe that we can only have certain things if we do as we are told.  If we deprive ourselves in the short term we will receive the rewards of health, beauty and happiness in the long term.  No pain, no gain.  But this simply isn’t true.  We can have all of these things without punishing or depriving ourselves.

What we aren’t told is that there is a shortcut.  Welcoming the abundance in our lives with gratitude will bring us all of these things.  Getting in touch with our needs on both a physical and emotional level and focusing on the things that mean the most to us will bring a deep, sustainable joy which no health or fitness plan can ever promise.  You are the most powerful person in your own life and unlocking this power and using it is so rewarding.  And by power I don’t mean will-power, the ability to stick to external or self-imposed rules but the power to live your life the way you want to.  The power to go against the grain, to make mistakes, to change your mind.. what ever you need to do.

When it comes to food, give yourself the freedom to choose what, when, how much.  If you feel compelled to exercise, give yourself permission to rest.  If your body wants to move then explore that gently.  Take away all numbers, measurements, times and go with whatever feels right.  It might be scary at first but once you get to know your body and your intuition, this will become your safe place.  And when you are stuck or unsure about a decision in your healing journey, maybe try approaching it with a question.

Will this bring me closer to liberation or limitation?