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7 steps to end chronic dieting

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How many times have you promised yourself your new diet will really work this time? 

You go along for a while and lose some weight, thinking, “This time I’ve got it.” But then, in a matter of days, weeks, or months, you find yourself eating the very foods you’ve restricted, and this cycle repeats again and again. If chronic dieting describes your experience over the years—or even over decades—it’s important to know that it’s not your fault. There’s a way out of this battle with food so that you can stop fighting and make peace.

Please note: If you find yourself consistently undereating or bingeing, you may have an eating disorder and should consider talking with a mental health professional who can help you make peace with food.

The chronic dieting cycle

To break free from chronic dieting, you first need to understand how the diet cycle works. No one wakes up in the morning and says “I look great and feel so healthy—I think I’ll start a new diet.” Instead, thoughts such as “I’m too fat,” “I’m unhealthy,” or “My thighs rub together” are typical beliefs that lead to food restrictions for weight loss. 

These thoughts lead you to choose from the hundreds of plans and programs that promise weight loss. Whether it’s counting calories or points, eliminating certain foods or food groups, or going for long periods of time without eating, each of these methods requires you to control food in some way to achieve weight loss. As you follow your plan, you’re likely to feel a sense of virtuousness, almost like a “high.” Furthermore, just about every diet will result in weight loss in the short run. 

But if starting a diet feels good and produces weight loss, you then have to wonder: Why do approximately 95% of people who go on a diet gain back the weight? And why do a third to two-thirds of people end up at a weight higher than their pre-diet weight? The answer lies in the psychological and physiological deprivation that’s built into the diet cycle.

The role of deprivation

Psychological deprivation occurs when we know there’s something we want that we can’t have. Take a moment to think about what you would do if you were told that starting tomorrow, you can never have ice cream again. Most people would respond that they’d have it tonight, whether they’re hungry for it or not—and that they’d eat much more of it than their body needs. It’s common for people who plan to start a diet on an upcoming Monday or on January 1 to find themselves eating larger quantities of food ahead of time.

Physiological deprivation refers to underfeeding your body and thereby not meeting its needs for energy. The human body is wired for survival, and there are all kinds of mechanisms beyond conscious control that come into play when you don’t take in enough energy through food to nourish it properly. Your body doesn’t know that you’re dieting to meet the fashion of the time, so it lowers your metabolism to make sure you stay alive. It also tries to help you prepare for future famines by getting better at storing fat. Hormones kick in that make you feel hungrier sooner and make it take longer to feel full. Your body is just doing its job!

These physical and psychological factors send strong messages that eventually compel you to break through your food restrictions and eat the very foods you’ve been trying to avoid. Does that sound familiar? Unfortunately, when you find yourself going off your diet, you’re also likely to feel out of control. You may even feel shame—first that your body doesn’t conform to cultural ideals, and then because you can’t stick to your diet so you can fit in better. But keep in mind that you haven’t failed your diet: Your diet has failed you. 

Breaking the cycle

When you make peace with food, eating becomes a source of nourishment and pleasure. Here are seven steps to help you end chronic dieting and heal your relationship with food.

1.  Let go of the diet mindset

“I’m being good today,” “It’s a cheat day,” and “Sweets are bad for you” are all typical comments that reflect the diet mindset. When you tell yourself certain foods are off-limits, you’re likely to think about them more—and once you start eating them, you may find it hard to stop. When you stop categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” and “healthy” or “unhealthy,” you can end the deprivation that results from these food restrictions and almost always leads to rebound eating. Instead, you can learn to enjoy all types of foods.

2.  Learn attuned/intuitive eating

Attuned eating, also known as intuitive eating, teaches you to reconnect with your body’s natural signals for hunger and satiation.1 When you’re hungry, eating what satisfies you is the key to developing a peaceful relationship with food. Once you take the judgment out of food and give yourself permission to eat all types of foods, you’ll discover the physical and psychological satisfaction that comes from “making the match.” You’ll also find that when you eat what satisfies you—and know you can have it again in the future—it begins to feel safe to stop when you feel satiated.

3.  Cultivate mindfulness

It’s important to pay attention to how food feels in your body. First, give yourself permission to sit down and savor your food, rather than grabbing a bite here and there as you try to avoid eating certain foods. Next, notice how your body feels. If you feel satisfied by what you ate, enjoy the experience! If you feel unsatisfied, ask yourself what would have felt better. Something heartier or lighter? Adding more variety? Use that feedback to help you decide what to eat in the future.

4.  Find self-compassion

Making peace with food takes time because you’re undoing years of dieting patterns. When dieters eat past fullness, they typically think, “As long as I’m eating ‘bad’ foods, I might as well keep going. I’ll get back on my diet tomorrow” (or Monday…or January 1). Instead, treat yourself the way you would treat your good friend or your child. For example, “You ate too much. Do your best to be kind to yourself and let the uncomfortable feeling pass.” If you find yourself turning to food for emotional reasons, you might tell yourself, “I’m not hungry, but this is the best way I have to take care of myself right now. I look forward to the day that I feel at peace with food.”

5.  Tune in to your emotions

Using food to calm or distract yourself in times of distress is natural for many people because it’s the way we’re soothed as infants. Keep in mind that it’s essential to end the deprivation of dieting before trying to address emotional eating. If you rely on food to manage emotional distress, ask yourself, “What am I really hungry for right now?” For example, you might discover that you’re hungry for connection or stimulation. Or you might notice, “I’m reaching for food and I’m not hungry. I wonder if that’s a sign that I’m thinking about or feeling something that needs my attention.”

6.  Nourish your body

Bodies of all sizes need adequate nutrition throughout the day. Your body can’t tell the difference between a diet and a famine, so when it doesn’t receive enough nourishment, it hangs on to much-needed energy, stores fat for the next perceived famine, and sends out signals to eat more. Rather than focus on taking away foods, you can consider what you want to add from a nutritional standpoint (for example, add fiber to help your digestive system). With the exception of certain health conditions, there’s generally no reason to exclude foods you like or include foods you dislike. If you do have a health condition, make sure that there’s robust scientific evidence to justify a change in eating patterns—for example, eliminating gluten if you have celiac disease or balancing carbs with other nutrients if you have diabetes.

7.  Reclaim your life

As you become more attuned in your relationship with food, you may discover that you’re also becoming attuned to noticing and meeting other needs in your life. As you embark on this journey, it’s helpful to find others who can support you, either in person or in an online community. Other supportive resources may include social media, books, and blogs that reject diet culture

Being preoccupied with food and weight takes up a lot of space in your life. Imagine if you felt at peace with food and your body. What would you think about instead? What would you do with that extra energy?

Want to learn more? In “The Making Peace with Food Card Deck,” Christy Harrison and I offer 59 anti-diet strategies to help you on your journey to end chronic dieting and find joy in eating.

About the author

Judith Matz, LCSW, is a therapist and a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of diet culture, binge eating, emotional eating, body image, and weight stigma. She is coauthor of “The Making Peace with Food Card Deck,” “The Body Positivity Card Deck,” “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook,” and “Beyond a Shadow of a Diet.” Her work has been featured in the media, including NPR, the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Psychotherapy Networker. She has a private practice in the Chicago area.

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