If diets were the key to good health and happiness, we’d all be ‘on one’. But they’re not. They’re doomed to fail and make us feel miserable in the process. We all know the diet industry survives because it is doomed to fail: diet companies need you to fail in order to get repeat business. When you fall off the wagon, they get a nice fat cheque in the bank. And as one diet becomes old news, a new ‘miracle’ diet will spring up, conning women into thinking this is the answer to all their prayers. Just as the last one did, and the one before that, and so it goes on…
Now let me quickly caveat this rant by saying that of course there are some people in the world who do need to go on a ‘diet’ – the morbidly obese, for example, should probably undertake a fairly drastic diet as they do need to lose weight and fast. A woman suffering from gestational diebetes needs to control the amount of sugar she consumes for her own and her baby’s health. But for most of the women out there on a diet, is it really a physical need or a psychological one?
‘Diet’ is not a happy word, is it? Does anyone want to be on a diet for the rest of their lives? What a ghastly thought. No, ‘diet’ is a synonym for ‘control’. Going on a diet is a (often desperate) choice you make when you feel your eating habits are out of control and you need a book, a mentor or a calculator to tell you what you can or can’t eat in order for you to maintain control over your eating. It’s a desperatre surrender of freedom of choice. You are no longer allowed to decide what you put in your mouth because you’re such a greedy, fat cow you can’t possibly stop yourself gorging on all that your eyes feast upon. Isn’t that a bit depressing? No, it’s more than depressing, it’s bloody awful! Why should we have to take seige on our own bodies, trying, forcefully, to put them in their place? Why do we punish ourselves for being so ‘weak’ and ‘greedy’ because we can’t resist the delicious culinary temptations around us? (Our awful bodies are tricking us into thinking we want that cake but we know better… We won’t let them win! We must control ourselves!) Why do we have so little faith in ourselves that we need someone else to tell us how to eat a ‘normal’ amount of food?
Eating shouldn’t be a game of count by numbers (if I only eat half of this sandwich I’ll have 5 points left for a bite of cake later..wooo!). Eating should be pleasurable. Eating should be sociable. Eating should be nourishing. Food is what gives us life. We need food to survive. But it’s also one of life’s most simple pleasures! Enjoying a meal out with friends, cooking for your family, tasting the delicacies at a local market, enjoying a bowl of popcorn in front of a good film… I don’t know about you, but those are the things I need in life. Those things nourish my soul, as well as my body. To deny myself those things would make life not worth living.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve felt the pressures of this diet obsessed society as much as the next girl.I know very well that desire to control what I eat or how much I exercise because the prize of a body like Eva Mendes’ seems to hold with it the promise of total joy, confidence and admiration from all. I’ve overeaten, undereaten and everything in between. I think nearly all women (and increasingly men too) struggle with their bodies and with food at some point in their lives, often in silence, and especially when moving from that difficult stage of teenager to adulthood. And probably again later in life after having children and wanting that ‘youthful’ figure back. The messages around us telling us that thin = beautiful are incredibly powerful and often all-consuming. They’re terribly hard to ignore. But we have to try.
There is so much more to life than the size of our thighs or the wobbliness of our bellies. Yes, I advocate healthy eating and regular exercise, because done in the right way, in a way which means you are in tune with your body and enjoy it, this will help promote health in your body and your mind. But once food and exercise become mechanisms of control over our own bodies, we’ve lost the battle. If we let ourselves constantly obsess over food, then the diet companies have won, the advertisers and fashion companies who tell us that portruding bones and washboard stomachs are the definition of beauty have won. And at the end of the day, the only person you’re punishing is youself because this war is internal: you versus your body.
The answer I have to all of this is conversely very simple and yet extremely hard to achieve. It takes perseverence and trust and belief in oneself to get there. But the rewards are far better than any diet.
You’ve heard it a million times before, but it’s true – the key to a healthy life is balance. Balance is incredibly hard to achieve – whether it be balancing work life with home, a love for clothes with a tight pay packet, or a love of chocolate with a desire to be a size 8. If you want to lose weight (and have a need to i.e. you have an unhealthy BMI) or you just want to adopt more healthy eating habits (good for you), then I strongly recommend you first of all educate yourself on what foods are healthy, then take steps to make more positive eating choices. Not everyone’s needs are the same – some people suffer terribly from lethargy after eating wheat for example. Others break out in spots at the mere sight of dairy products. You may find it helpful to seek advice from a nutritionist if you have specific allergies or medical requirements. But most of us could do with just educating oursleves on nutrition.
The psychological part is also key. See food as a fuel but also a delight. Eating the right foods for your needs will increase your energy levels, stave off hunger pangs and prevent blood sugar crashes, therefore increasing your productivity throughout the day. Plus, eating the right foods for you will improve your mood and make you happier. And there’s nothing wrong with having a treat every now and then. Allow yourself the freedom to decide what is healthy for you and if you decide that you want some ice cream, then have it, and damn well enjoy it! Make a choice not only to eat more healthily, but also to enjoy what you eat. If you’re conscious of the food going into your mouth and enjoy every morseful, you will feel fulfilled afterwards and you won’t need to gorge on more later. If you can learn to listen to your body and understand what it wants, you will be able to fuel it efficiently and enjoy the food you eat. But one of the most important things to remember is not to punish yourself for the food you eat. So what that you ate that whole bag of Kettle Chips last night? Yes, that wasn’t the best decision you’ve ever made, but is it the end of the world? What good does it do to beat yourself up about it now? Instead, why not make youself a nice cup of green tea and then go for a walk in the park later to shift the balance towards health again today.
OK, rant is nearly over. I do hope I haven’t offended anyone by ripping apart the diet industry. I know that some diets out there are designed to provide a framework around eating more healthily, and perhaps those ones are positive and give people who’ve stumbled into negative eating patterns some guidance and direction to a path of healthy eating. That’s great – that’s in effect what a nutritionist would provide. But these meal-replacement shakes and cabbage soup diets I just can’t endorse. Surely that’s unachievable in the long run and will only make you miserable when you put the weight back on. Then starts the cycle of self-hatred, guilt, binging and starving all over again. It’s just not good for you and it won’t make you happy.
Now I’m not a religious person at all, but I did once start reading a book once on Buddhism and found some of the lessons really resonated with me. They’re very apt for this discussion too. From what I understand of Buddhism it’s about achieving consciousness in life. If you see everything around you and within you (your thoughts and feelings) then you can understand and accept yourself and others. What we tend to do however is trick ourselves or talk ourselves into thinking things we don’t really feel or believe and block out our true feelings. If you can connect your mind with your body and be truly aware of what you think and feel, it actually becomes quite simple to understand and feed your needs and desires.
“Nature has its checks and balances. We tend to override them with our thought. We can, however, make a conscious effort to see, and let the balance restore itself.” (Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen)
Maybe true enlightenment is ending the war with our bodies over food?