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7 steps to end chronic dieting

A man and woman eating healthy food in bowls.

 How many times have you promised yourself that 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.

The chronic dieting cycle

To break free from chronic dieting, it’s important to understand how the diet cycle works. No one ever 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 one-third to two-thirds of people end up higher than their pre-diet weight? The answer lies in the psychological and physiological deprivation that is 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 would 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 1st to find themselves eating larger quantities of food ahead of time.

Physiological deprivation refers to under feeding 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 your food to properly nourish it. 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 to you? 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 that 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. When you’re hungry, eating what satisfies you is 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 that 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? 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. Typically, when dieters eat past fullness, they respond, “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 1st).” Instead, treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend or a child. For example, “I ate too much. I’ll do my best to be kind to myself 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 since it’s the earliest 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. It’s just doing its job!  Rather than focusing on taking away foods, you can consider what you want to add from a nutritional standpoint  (e.g. add fiber to help your digestive system). With the exception of certain health conditions, there is generally no reason to exclude foods that you like or include foods that you dislike. If you do have a health condition, make sure that there is robust scientific evidence to justify a change in eating patterns (e.g 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 your life or in an online community. Other supportive resources may include social media, books, and blogs that reject diet culture. 

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

Want to learn more? The Making Peace with Food Card Deck has 59 Anti-Diet Strategies to help you on your journey to end chronic dieting and find joy in eating.*

*If you find yourself consistently undereating or bingeing, you may have an eating disorder, and should consider seeking out a professional who can help you make peace with food.

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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