I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it is so hard for people to let go of diets, even when they understand intellectually that diets don’t work, and they won’t work.
I've always loved the example Ellen uses about a person going to the doctor when they are sick. The doctor says, "I'll give you an antibiotic - there's a 2% to 5 % chance it will work." You may think the odds aren't very good, but decide to give it a try. But, when the antibiotic fails and you go back to the doctor who says, "Well, I have another antibiotic that also has a 2% - 5% of working," what would you do? Try again despite the very poor odds, or find another doctor?!!!
Well, those are the odds of succeeding in a diet.
In the most general sense, an addiction exists when there is an interference with daily life. When I meet with clients who are repeat dieters, one of the most common experiences I hear about is the amount of mental energy that thoughts about dieting, food and weight take up as mental energy. Sometimes concerns about food and weight also lead to avoiding social situations.
Why is it so hard to quit dieting? Here are some of my thoughts:
- Diets are extremely seductive. They promise that if you follow them perfectly, you can have the perfect body and the perfect life. Commercials constantly play upon this theme when they have a person say outright that before the diet, she was miserable, unloved and unsuccessful, but now that she has lost weight, her life has begun again with a new hope: she is now loved and can finally feel good about herself. The magic of diets is like a drug, offering a salve to the difficulties of life.
- Diets give a “high.” Anyone who has been on a diet knows the high that comes when you feel in control. There is a virtuous feeling; you are on top of the world. There is no doubt that this feels good, and therefore, there is a strong wish to repeat it.
- Diets do work in the short-term. To make matters more complicated, there is a sense of relief once the diet begins. Some weight is lost and you feel in control, leaving you truly feeling better. After all, whatever else is bothering you in life feels more manageable when you believe you’ve finally taken charge of your life and yourself. But like any addiction, the good feeling is short-lived. As the diet wears off, weight returns and overeating resumes, leaving you feeling worse, not better.
- The dieter doesn’t know what to do instead. If you spend a good portion of your life on a diet, then you will also spend a good portion of your life going off your diet! If being on a diet is about being in control, then being off the diet is about being out of control. But, being out of control with food never feels good. Therefore, the pull is to get back in control as soon as possible, leading to the next diet. The problem is that when you are addicted to diets, you no longer know how to eat instead.
- We have a culture of enabling. When it comes to addictions such as alcohol and drugs, our culture - made up of family, friends, doctors, mental health professionals and a wealth of written materials - strongly discourages dependence on these substances. The term “enabler” describes someone in a person’s life who actually supports the addiction in some way. When it comes to a dieting addiction, our culture is the biggest enabler of all. With messages coming from health professionals, commercials, magazines, colleagues, family and friends that dieting is a positive way to provide self-care to yourself, it’s no wonder that this is a tough habit to kick. This cultural pressure to diet is constant, but peaks in January as people are encouraged to make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, and in the spring when societal messages about dieting for bathing suit season abound. In fact, when you decide to quit dieting, you are likely to run into people who think you are doing something destructive.
What the diet survivor knows is that while diets are seductive, attuned eating feels much more satisfying and leads to a more satisfying life. The high of a diet is replaced by a consistent feeling of being in charge of your eating. Instead of the short-term success of dieting, you find ways to deal directly with the issues in your life, so that you feel stronger both physically and psychologically. You shift from the mentality of being on or off a diet to becoming an attuned eater in which you honor your hunger, match what you are hungry for, choosing from a wide variety of foods, and stop when you feel satisfied. You do your best to reject messages in the culture that tell you diets for weight loss are the only way to live your life, and instead, search out people, books, websites and experiences that positively reinforce your decision to give up dieting.
Eat well! Live well! Be well!