It's not about food: How to break free from perpetual dieting
Did you know that diets have a 95% failure rate, and only about 20% of people who commit to healthier eating habits stick to them? Did you also know that an average woman will have tried to diet over 130 times in her lifetime? If you identify as a woman, chances are, you have also probably started a diet at least twice this past year, and each attempt probably lasted a few weeks before you gave up. When you diet, you might feel so miserable that you end up binging, and then you start feeling guilty about your behavior, promising you’ll try a diet again. This is how the cycle of perpetual dieting and disordered eating continues.
Have you ever engaged in any of the following behaviors?
- You repeat an on/off cycle of dieting
- You’re constantly stressed about every meal
- You’re obsessively thinking about your next meal
- You’re binging in secret or at night after restricting yourself from eating
- You often experience guilt and shame around eating
- You “earn” your food by doing workouts or “being good” throughout the week
- You’re using food as a reward, or you punish yourself for eating “bad” foods
- You label food as “good” or “bad" in general
Know that all of these things are signs of disordered eating. And none of this has anything to do with the food you’re eating — it’s all about your relationship with food. No one woke up one day and decided to engage in disordered eating patterns. And most people don’t even know that their eating behaviors are dysfunctional or maladaptive. A few might be aware but don't know why or how to stop.
It's not your fault
There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not a failure. You’re not broken. Our eating behavior is shaped and formed by our environment. It is reinforced and punished by societal (and cultural) standards and expectations. The language you grew up hearing, the images you see, and how we respond when we eat certain things or look a certain way all affect our relationship with food and our bodies. Everything you do is a result of your experiences and practices, aka conditioning. This is repeated over and over again.
Our relationship with food is a reflection of other deeper-rooted issues. Anxiety around food is the biggest sign that you have a dysfunctional (unhealthy) relationship with food. An unhealthy relationship with food indicates an unhealed and unloving relationship with yourself. Understand that the longer you do something, the more ingrained it becomes in your body, and the harder it is to change. Over time, specific association pairings become a belief system. If you have a belief about something, it is likely deeply rooted and creeps up even if you’re doing “all the right things.” But remember, "harder" does not mean "impossible". It is absolutely possible to unlearn conditioned beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones.
How do you break this vicious cycle?
There are many things you can do to break the cycle of disordered eating and perpetual dieting, including:
1. Break up with diet culture
Rejecting the diet mentality found in our culture and society is not easy. But this is the first step to healing your relationship with food. Diets teach you to moralize your food choices. Thinking you’re “good” for eating salad and “bad” for having french fries moralizes your behavior, so when you opt for “bad” food, you equate that as doing something wrong, resulting in feelings of guilt and shame. Those thoughts and emotions impact your behavior, so you either go to the gym to “burn off the calories,” restrict (skipping meals, starving yourself), or engage in guilt or self-loathing, which can lead to other harmful thoughts.
2. Know that behavior change alone is not enough
Of course, you have to DO things differently. Of course, nutrition (quality and quantity of your foods) matters. But the truth is that behavior change alone will NOT get you where you want to be. Even with the best intention, and an amazing meal plan, the changes will likely not stick. Eventually, you’ll start to slip and fall back into your old “bad” habits of those intrusive thoughts, negative self-talk, comparison, and so on, and possibly end up developing an even more dysfunctional relationship with yourself. You need to understand why you are engaging in these behaviors on repeat. It’s crucial that you seek to understand your emotions around your patterns so that you can break your conditioned beliefs.
3. Start listening to and honoring your body
Part of healing your relationship with food is connecting back to your body. This includes tuning into your hunger and fullness cues, practicing mindfulness while you’re eating, and honoring what your body needs. That doesn’t mean that you give in to every single craving sensation. But rather, it provides an opportunity to ask yourself, “Is this something I actually want, or is my body in need of something?” That something can include healthier coping strategies for stress if, for instance, you tend to crave sweets when stressed. That can also include checking in with your nutrition, like eating enough protein and higher nutrient foods during the day. You should be able to allow yourself to enjoy foods you may view as “bad” without feeling guilty or shameful about them.
Remember that patterns of disordered eating are complex and require therapeutic work
Healing your relationship with food and your body takes time and involves ongoing work. The healing process is not linear and often not finite. The benefits, however, are worth it. On this journey, you will learn to practice self-compassion, develop unconditional self-love and self-acceptance, and trust yourself and your body. This, in turn, can also help you set and honor boundaries, raise your self-esteem and self-confidence, reduce anxiety and help you engage in fewer people-pleasing tendencies. Know that you do not have to remain a prisoner of your conditioned patterns and belief systems. And always remember that you are worthy of mental, emotional, and physical wellness.
Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavioral Health and Wellness Coach. Aleks strongly believes that our relationship with food greatly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental well-being, as well as our relationships with others. She combines principles of cognitive behavioral psychology and nutrition psychology along with other philosophies of mental, physical, and spiritual health to help her clients begin healing self-destructive patterns and habits and build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love by systematically improving their relationship with food and body.