I get a ton of messages and emails from readers asking me how they can lose weight.
While I can’t give professional advice to someone who’s not a client, I do have one recommendation:
Lose the diet mentality.
It sounds deceptively simple, but for a lot of people who have been living with diets for a large chunk of your life, rejecting them is a pretty tall order. I understand. I’ve had countless people sit with me and talk about how they’ve been dieting for decades, and how they can’t keep themselves from eating ‘bad’ food and that they feel like shit because they have ‘no willpower’ (even though losing weight has nothing at all to do with willpower). The first thing I tell them is that they deserve better than this, and in order for that to happen, we need to get them off of diets. Like, forever. I counsel clients on how to step away from the diet mindset and into a more gentle, happy place where they don’t have to fear food and eating. Where it’s okay to eat when they’re hungry, and where no foods are on the ‘don’t’ list. Doesn’t that sound better than some crazy fad diet?
We know that somewhere between 60% and 95% of people who go on a diet will not keep the weight off in the long-term. Most diets are punishing and eventually make us feel even worse about ourselves. We keep going back for more again and again, even though they practically set us up to fail.
Think about it: diets simultaneously captivate, reward, and punish us. In the end though, there’s a net loss. Not of weight, but of self.
Want to stop dieting and lose the diet mentality?
Here’s how to start:
No food is off limits, from this second on.
We all know the ‘forbidden fruit’ syndrome of wanting something we know we can’t have. Why, then, do we restrict ourselves from certain foods when we know that it will make us want them even more, then punish ourselves when we give in to our cravings?
It doesn’t seem reasonable, does it?
Sure, some foods aren’t as ‘healthy’ as others, but cutting them out of our lives generally doesn’t end well. It goes something like this:
1. Cut out a food (let’s use chocolate as an example).
2. Announce to yourself and others that you’re not eating chocolate because you’re trying to lose weight and/or be healthier.
3. You find yourself craving….wait for it….CHOCOLATE!
4. Because chocolate is basically omnipresent, you come into contact with it numerous times over the span of a few days or weeks.
5. Eventually, you feel upset and miserable that you can’t have chocolate, and you have that familiar tug of war in your brain about how much you want to eat chocolate, but how you can’t have chocolate, and how if you relent and eat it, you’ll be a failure.
6. You break down and eat chocolate, but because you haven’t had it in a while and know that you’ll restrict it again soon enough, you overeat it.
7. You feel guilt and shame for not having enough ‘willpower’ to resist what you’re not supposed to eat. This makes you cranky and miserable.
8. You resolve to stop eating chocolate.
9. (return to step two).
I know that the thought of not having any foods on the ‘don’t eat’ list may be petrifying at first – what if you go nuts and eat everything? – but stay with me here.
In the beginning, you may end up overeating your previously forbidden food a bit, and that’s okay. Doing that is better – physically and emotionally – than continuing to restrict and then overeat it for years to come.
Even if you do overeat it a few times, eventually you’ll see that nothing bad is going to happen to you. Something good likely will, though: you’ll stop getting nuts around this food. If you know you can have it anytime you want, it’s going to become a lot less attractive.
What if it doesn’t? We all have foods that call to us: for me, they’re Nanaimo bars and cake. I just can’t lay off them.
See? Dietitians have these issues too. Hey, woman can’t live on arugula alone, you know. Here’s a story:
When I was at a conference in Vancouver earlier in the year, I actually bought a return float-plane ticket to Nanaimo so I could search out the very best Nanaimo bars in the place where they were invented.
The flight was only 20 minutes or so, but the plane was 100 years old and it smelled like gasoline and it was pouring and I was SO nauseous. The pilot was flying through the storm drinking a coffee with one hand and piloting the plane with the other hand. I was pretty sure I was going to end up in a watery grave at the bottom of the ocean that day.
I only had two hours in Nanaimo, so I got over my airsickness ASAP, ran and bought eight of the best Nanaimo bars I have ever tasted in my life, got back on the plane, and flew back to Vancouver.
Bucket list item, checked!
That’s how much I love these little treats.
I manage my Nanaimo and cake issues by not bringing them into my house on the regular. I control my environment: if they’re around, I know I’m going to eat them, and I just don’t want to do that, at least not all the time. Do I still buy them? Hell YEAH, of course I buy them! I don’t want to live a life where I can’t have a half-melted Nanaimo bar that’s soft and delicious and sweet and…omg stop!
What I’m trying to say is, I still eat these foods, I just don’t do it all the time, and I don’t like having them around because I really don’t want them calling to me. I can deal with cookies, chips, ice cream, whatever..but these other foods, I’m going to want them if they’re there.
I’ve lived long enough to realize that about myself, and I’ve made my peace with it. I’ve tried the ‘off limits’ food thing, and I ate a heck of a lot more because of it. It also led to eating in secret, guilt, shame, and anger with myself. Not okay. Not even one bit okay. So I allow myself everything, and it’s a balance that works.
You might believe that my suggestion to keep ‘trigger foods’ out of the house is consistent with promoting diet behaviour, because some people who keep their trigger foods out of their homes generally do it because they’re scared of overeating them and gaining weight. I think that if there are foods that you really find difficult to be around, and you know you’re going to overeat them – and feel sick, and be less healthy, or you’re just uncomfortable having them there – then it’s fine to manage your environment and keep them out of the house. I don’t consider this to be promoting diet behaviour, and it’s a common recommendation that a lot of RDs make.
When I do eat Nanaimo bars and cake, I enjoy them a heck of a lot. Then I move on, because, who cares? We all overeat sometimes.
I don’t make it a big deal, or dwell on how many pounds I’m going to gain because of it. Over and done with. Resume normal diet.
Get reacquainted with your hunger and fullness cues and eat according to them.
I know you already know that it’s better to eat when you’re hungry (as opposed to eating all the time because you’re bored) and stop when you’re full, but it’s always easier said than done.
Some of you who are chronic dieters might not know what hunger feels like, and that’s normal. Try eating on a regular schedule and see when those feelings of hunger creep up. Hunger is a normal physiological reaction, so don’t be afraid of it. Likewise, try to eat slowly and without distractions, and be mindful of how you’re feeling in terms of satisfaction. A lot of us gobble our food down (I’m a fast eater too!) and fail to identify that we’re satisfied before we even finish what we’re eating.
You can use a hunger scale like this one to help you figure out hunger and fullness. The goal is to stay between 3 and 7 as much as possible.
Credit: Ohio Health https://blog.ohiohealth.com/how-to-keep-hunger-in-check/
It sounds like a basic thing, but if you’ve been dieting and counting calories forever, sometimes those things override hunger and fullness cues, and those things need to be relearned. And they can be.
But remember that sometimes we eat for other reasons, and that’s okay.
I know that some of you are going to think I’m nuts for saying this, but hear me out:
It’s okay to eat sometimes for reasons other than hunger. We all do it, and as long as you’re not using food as the only way to deal with stress or other emotions, let it go.
Emotional eating is usually associated with negative situations, but people emotionally eat due to happiness, too. Hello, birthday cake in the office break room! It’s a human thing, and while it’s not healthy to do it often, it does happen.
If you try and hold back from emotionally eating, you’ll probably feel guilty and more stressed out when you end up doing it.
The one caveat to this recommendation is that if you’re going to eat emotionally, eat mindfully. Know that you’re doing it, and for what purpose. Own your emotions instead of using food to bury them, and really enjoy what you’re eating instead of mindlessly stuffing.
Do not let yourself be talked out of the non-diet mentality aka self-sabotage.
It’s easy to feel as though you’ve ‘slipped’ or ‘failed’ if you happen to overeat at a meal, and this can lead to thoughts of hopping back onto a diet to ‘correct’ what you’ve just done.
No way! Stop! AHHHH!!!!
Do not go there.
Self-sabotage is a really common occurrence with many people, and it’s frustrating for them because it can put a difficult barrier into an otherwise healthy start. A good example is when people give up on trying to eat healthier because they feel that their diet hasn’t been ‘perfect’ enough or that they’ve been ‘bad’ at eating. Their next move is to search out another diet to fix what they perceive to be broken.
These people tend to feel more comfortable on a diet, because it’s their comfort zone: they feel as though they have better control over their eating this way.
That’s the unfortunate illusion of diets: in the end, food restriction and beating yourself up emotionally don’t put you in a position of control; those things end up controlling you. Not okay.
If your day or week or month didn’t go the way you wanted it to, that’s okay! We all have those times! In nutrition, there is no such thing as perfection. Also: that is life.
Remember: YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. YOU ARE NOT YOUR DIET. YOU ARE NOT A NUMBER. YOU ARE ENOUGH JUST THE WAY YOU ARE.
YOU. DESERVE. TO. BE. HAPPY. AND. NOT. ON. A. DIET!!
Getting back on a diet will take you back to square one, while simply resuming your normal way of eating will progress you.
If you find yourself self-sabotaging often, it’s a good idea to address this with a counsellor or therapist.
All foods are equal – there are no labels such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is really common, yet it’s inherently incorrect. What makes a food ‘bad’ or ‘good’, exactly? The meanings are so subjective, but the act of labelling food loads that food with more power than it should have and can translate into a judgement of the person eating it. Are you ‘good’ if you eat ‘good’ food, but ‘bad’ and wrong if you eat ‘bad’ food? Maybe you’re not consciously making these determinations about yourself, but are you sure you’re not subconsciously doing it?
Take away the labels and just eat food.
Deal with your demons.
There’s a reason why for everything we do, including why we eat the way we do. Sometimes, those reasons can be the result of some difficult stuff, and learning about and facing it really fucking sucks. Our eating habits are especially vulnerable to our emotions, and in many, many instances I’ve seen clients trying to stuff difficult feelings down with food. Most of them have been doing it for so long, they don’t even realize what they’re doing – they just know that they eat to feel better when they start feeling a certain emotion. They need to get to the why. Why do the feel compelled to diet. Why do they punish themselves again and again. Why don’t they feel good enough they way they are.
It’s at this point where my scope of practice ends, and I refer them out to a counsellor or psychologist that can help them dig and dig to expose and shine light on what’s actually at the root of their eating behaviours. This can be an unpleasant undertaking, but when it’s done, it defuses the reason and takes away it’s power.
Getting rid of the diet mentality is a process, so try to make incremental changes and progress at your own speed. Getting to the ‘why’ of your dieting and eating behaviour can be a great first step. Take your time.