Resolve not to diet this year – it’s probably the healthy choice

The Thinker by Rodin

Since it’s the New Year, many of us have resolved to lose a few pounds, or more than a few pounds. Given the propensity of obesity in the country, many of us have probably resolved not just to take off dozens of pounds or more, but to permanently take them off too. Somehow this year, unlike all those other years, we’re finally going to summon the energy and commitment that ultimately we lacked in all those other years when we made similar pledges but ultimately failed.

Perhaps you’ve had the same conversation with your doctor that I’ve had. You go for a checkup, you are overweight and they suggest you lose weight for your health. I told my doctor lots of times that I’m great at losing weight. During my last big attempt in 2013 I lost more than thirty pounds in a little over two months. It was amazing how incredibly fast I lost that weight and without feeling particularly hungry. But that was more than three years ago. I’ve put it all back on and some extra.

This of course is the story of all my dieting over the years and probably yours as well. I might add that through all this dieting and not, I’ve never shirked staying physically fit. Most days I get my 10,000 steps in and I’m at the health club regularly. My latest blood test shows no issues with pre-diabetes, cholesterol or the usual things that alarm doctors. I’m basically a healthy overweight late middle age adult.

So I’ve been arguing with my doctors. They concede that with a few exceptions most of their patients who have taken off weight have put it back on and then some too. They really don’t have any solution to this problem other than to eat less and exercise more, something proven not to work for most people. If you are diabetic or have high cholesterol of course there are things you can do to address those issues. Obsessing about your weight is probably not one of them, but eating better and exercising regularly may be.

The evidence is clear for those of us that choose to see it: dieting almost always causes subsequent weight gain in excess of what you took off. In short, dieting works for a little while then it will recoil, exacerbating the problem. And you will doubtlessly feel guilty about the weight you’ve put back on, figuring it is due to some fault or lack of character on your part. Dieting then becomes not just a physical problem but a mental one too.

But here’s what the diet industry won’t tell you: it’s not your fault. Every time you diet your body sensibly thinks it is being starved and keeping it alive is its primary mission. It learns lessons by lowering your metabolism, so every calorie packs more punch. And because the body says, “I am not at the weight I should be” it will cause you to crave more food. The diet industry depends on diets to fail so you will start the cycle of concern and shame again and they can collect more money by building false hope.

In truth you don’t need to be a Skinny Minnie. And you don’t have to spend the rest of your life fighting cravings for food. The yo-yo dieting cycle will probably do more to kill you prematurely than being overweight and controlling your weight.

So resolve to stop dieting in this New Year. It’s counterproductive. Barring some new drugs that can reset your metabolism permanently (now there’s an area for some medical research!) you probably aren’t going to be a Skinny Minnie for the rest of your life. You may achieve it for a time, but the odds are you will yo-yo back.

Of course if you are overweight or obese and you continue eating the way you are now, you will probably gain more weight. But the reason you are eating more is that you have lost the ability to eat intuitively. That’s the premise behind Intuitive Eating, a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians, a program with more than twenty years of success. Dieting has caused our signals to get crossed. Among other things we have lost the ability to feel satiated.

Learning to eat intuitively again introduces natural control over diet without feeling like you are giving up anything. This should give you a feeling of empowerment, feeling you can enjoy food again and reduce the pointless guilt trips that come with diets that rarely succeed in the long run. After months of pondering where to go from here in my journey, it is the next logical step. I’ve enrolled in a local Intuitive Eating course and the book is our foundational text. I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s worth discussing what causes this destructive cycle in the first place. Part of it is clearly models, both literally and figuratively. Models are typically very slim and many have chronic eating problems of their own. We also tend to model actors, who are disproportionately slim and attractive as well. We project onto ourselves that they are examples of who we should be.

In fact, models and actors are the exceptions to the rules, freaks really compared to the rest of us. Those who are not dealing with their own eating disorders though are at a normal weight mainly because they are intuitive eaters. I have an older brother who is an intuitive eater. He always ate slowly and has been skinny his whole life. The rest of us: not so much. What they are doing is not all that special. It’s something they’ve had their whole life and no events have come along to set it out of kilter. Moreover, because they have not yo-yo dieted, their metabolism is relatively inefficient, meaning they can eat more of the same foods the rest of us do and by processing it differently they will convert less of it into calories.

The second part comes from body shaming. Parents seeing their children getting overweight will often start them on a rigorous exercise regime, often with calorie restrictions. This is the beginning of a destructive, often lifelong yo-yo dieting cycle, one that will likely cause a lot of mental distress, and drive overeating and insecurity. One of the worse things parents can do is restrict food choices for their children. Instead they should make food plentiful and available when desired and children will eat intuitively.

For those of us for which all this is too late, learning how to eat intuitively again makes a lot of sense. While we are unlikely to be Skinny Minnies again, we will regain weight control, stop the chronic craving that cause us to overeat, bring our metabolism into balance, lose the guilt, enjoy food again and feel we have control over our lives again.

That sounds like a resolution I can keep.

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