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Have Years of Dieting Ruined “Normal”?

I was chatting to some ladies in my exercise class yesterday and they were talking about how a friend of theirs had been very successful losing 15 kg on a diet. They then went on to say that she preached about it all the time, as though she was terrified that if she stopped for just a second, it would all fall apart and she’s put all the weight back on.

She’s right to be afraid – after all, that’s what history has taught us, right?

But the thing her friends mentioned most was how this woman never stopped talking about it, bringing it up whenever they all had a coffee together, going on about how many calories there was in each mouthful of skimmed milk. These ladies were all agreed that such an obsession was unhealthy – because, apart from anything else, it prevented her from ever enjoying anything she ate.

Every mouthful of food she consumed came with a side order of panic, laced liberally with a buttery guilt sauce.

I only wish I could say I didn’t know how she felt – but alas, I do, only too well. There is a sense of panic, and a very real fear that the moment you let go that steely grip on your diet plan, the entire universe will fall apart. When you’ve put months of effort into it, denied yourself all sorts of pleasures, just to lose a few pounds, you need hold onto whatever it is that’s working for you, because you have no idea whether you’ll ever see it again.

Take a moment to count up all the diets you’ve ever been on. Okay – if it takes more than a minute, just count up the diets you’ve been on over the last 5 years. There’ll be the cabbage diet, the low carb diet, the high protein diet, the grapefruit diet, the soup diet, the water diet, and if you’re over a certain age, that perennial favourite, the Israeli Army Diet (I strongly doubt anybody in the Israeli army every went on this diet as they’d be useless after the first two days of eating only apples!)

One of the things in common amongst all diets is that they are restrictive. Now, you may be thinking ‘That’s what a diet is supposed to do! If I don’t restrict certain foods, how can I lose weight?’

Well, that’s a good question, and I’m not going to try answering it here – what’s more important, is what we restrict, and how we feel about it.

There’s this psychological term known as the ‘Deprivation Cycle’. It’s a simple idea – the more you deprive yourself of something, the more you want it. And when you finally give in, you binge on it. Way more than you would have if you’d just had it to start with.

I should just point out here, that the Deprivation Cycle is one of the reasons we put on more weight after we finish our diets. But more of that later.

When we restrict our food intake, we focus heavily on what we can’t have. We think about it all the time. After a while, we can’t think of anything else. Before we know it, we’re just like the lady on her diet – so obsessed with food that she’s lost the ability to see that she’s obsessed, that she can’t ever enjoy going out because she’s seized with terror, and where her friends are looking for ways to help her out of that no-win cycle.

Because it’s ultimately self-defeating. She can’t keep it up forever and when she finally stumbles, she’ll fall heavily.

I know I sound negative here, but you know yourself it’s true. Diets have a way of stripping away our ability to understand what’s normal, what’s okay to eat.

I once sat at a party and watched a friend of mine – who’d never had a weight problem – pay no attention to the cream-laden pavlova on the table, and instead, nibbled on a couple of sandwiches all night. Me? I couldn’t take my eyes off the desert! I realised that her behaviour around food and her feelings towards it were entirely different to mine – and it has nothing to do with hunger.

She did have some desert, later in the evening, but she ate three mouthfuls and left the rest.

Shocking, I know!

One of the hardest things to do after you’ve had a weight problem for a few years, is to re-learn what’s normal and okay. Especially if you don’t have anything to guide you. I’m still learning, and I’m still making mistakes. But I know I’m much better than I was and I improve every single day.

In my next post, I’ll look at how we think about normal, and how it affects the way we eat. In the meantime, have a look at those people in your life who have never had an eating problem. Do you see any patterns? Anything they do that you don’t?

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4 Comments

  1. KRin says:

    You put the case well. I’m more inclined to take people by the throat who say they are on a diet and shake them! The “D” word should be banned from all sensible and sane people’s conversation.

    1. Mackenzie says:

      I sometimes feel like that too. Unfortunately, it’s still deeply ingrained in our culture that the only way to lose weight is to go on a diet.

  2. Jane Tisell says:

    Oh only too true and I’m doing it myself [beat over head with slipper]. Old habits of mind are very hard to break…

    1. Mackenzie says:

      Nah, don’t beat yourself over the head! It hurts.