Americans are obsessed with dieting…and food. Boston Medical Center estimates that 45 million of us go on diets every year, yet most will gain back the weight they lose. That’s because most diets are too restrictive to be maintained long-term, and because eating habits are about more than food.
But the pressure to reach our “ideal weight” is intense, as we’re bombarded with unrealistic images: Photoshopped models with longer legs, flatter stomachs and more developed abs than even the professionally body-conscious can achieve. We’re encouraged to equate success and happiness with achieving some socially determined number.
So we’re reaching for the unattainable, using tools that aren’t sustainable and that can cause both physical and psychological damage. It’s a scam that sets us up for failure. When we deprive ourselves, we’re beset by irresistible cravings. We feel guilty when we inevitably “fail,” which can lead to poor self-esteem, frustration, anger, anxiety, even depression and substance abuse. And since diets are solely food-focused, they don’t address the critical emotional issues that are fueling the food-related behavior.
In my experience, most people with weight concerns have been dieting for much of their lives, losing weight and gaining all─if not more─ back, many times over. Sadly, their self-worth is all too often determined by the number on the scale. Feeling powerless to keep off unwanted pounds has left them feeling discouraged, self-critical and desperate for a lasting solution.
Many clients I’ve counseled understand deep down that diets don’t work, but they still ask me for a “food plan” (code for diet) because they just don’t know what else to do. I know that behind this request is an urgency to relieve the pain of having “failed” so many times and to finally feel comfortable in their own skin. It’s my job to offer them hope that there is a better way, one which offers lasting, sustainable solutions rather than a quick fix. That’s why I encourage a non-diet approach that focuses on lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating rather than weight loss, and learning to manage difficult emotions without turning to food.
We begin by exploring the history of their relationship to food, their body and diets. This often involves their family’s attitudes, and many have body issues dating from childhood. Understanding those influences can soothe their depression and anxiety and alleviate feelings of shame.
Then it’s time to identify and attack the obstacles that have kept them stuck in old behaviors. I work with them to identify the emotions they were experiencing when they reached for that candy bar or engaged in binge eating. What feelings were they trying to numb? Stress from a relationship? Job worries? A traumatic memory?
Many use substances to cope with difficult feelings. As with opioids and alcohol, when we eat food, especially if it’s high in fat, sugar and salt, we get a rush of the pleasure-inducing brain chemical, dopamine, to temporarily ease our woes. I help clients to become aware of these underlying emotions as they occur and to develop effective coping mechanisms to manage them. They learn the difference between physiological and emotional hunger and how to challenge negative self-talk.
They begin to recognize and respond to their body’s cues for hunger and fullness, which may have become distorted by restrictive dieting or peer pressure. They set realistic goals for themselves and respect their personal “set point,” which is the genetically determined weight that they can comfortably maintain. This changes as the body ages and has different nutritional needs, so aiming for your high school physique is probably self-defeating.
I suggest that clients assess their overall eating patterns over longer periods of time, instead of focusing on daily performance. So when they choose to indulge in a big meal or special treat, they realize it’s something to be savored, not anguished over. As in managing a financial portfolio, success isn’t measured by daily volatility but over the long term.
I rarely ask them what they weigh, because healthy eating isn’t about a number. It’s about nurturing your body and respecting its wisdom about what it needs to thrive.