Diets: a rant and another way of thinking

It’s time for a little bit of a rant. But it’s a bit more serious than that though because I actually think what I’m about to say will touch upon nearly every woman’s life. You may completely disagree with my views, but it’s a subject worth thinking about, so that’s ok. All opinions are welcome.
I’ve noticed a lot of talk recently on Twitter about diets. Everyone and their mother seems to be on one, and frankly, some of them sound damn unhealthy. I’m not trying to patronise anyone by saying you’re doing the wrong thing, because who am I to judge your needs and choices. However I do have an opinion on diets and one I would like to share because health and natural beauty are very important to me.
By health I mean physical and psychological health. And that’s the point I want to make here. By and large (there may be a few exceptions), diets are not good for your health – both physical and mental. And some of the recent chatter I’ve seen has confounded a belief I’ve had for a long time – that diets, and the very existence of a society obsessed with dieting, doesn’t help women (or men). It breeds panic, insecurity, control issues, and an increasing obsession with eating (or not eating as the case may be).
diets don't work

diets don't work

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.

step away from the scales

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)

relax

Maybe true enlightenment is ending the war with our bodies over food?

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5 thoughts on “Diets: a rant and another way of thinking

  1. First three things…
    – I am a guy
    – I have the opposite problem of most and struggle to put weight on. Don’t hate me – it’s not fun
    – I can’t agree more with what you’re saying with regards to the mental health aspect of a diet

    I was ridiculously skinny as a teenager to the point where I was bullied pretty badly for it. As such my confidence in myself and my body was low. This mental baggage has played a massive part in my obsession over eating healthily – I feel like in order to be healthy in mind, I need a body which fits with the stereotyped lean, muscly man that most celebrities seem to have these days. To some extent this is still something that I do but I have toned it down so that it doesn’t dictate my life.

    It’s a tough truth to realise for many but everyones body is different. It’s not a one size fits all philosophy. As you say finding your individual balance is the key.

    Unfortunately celebrities are the cultural elite. Their nettle soup diets are going to get the coverage and pictures in the glossy mags (both men and womens) and unfortuntaely we’ve proven that we’re an easily influenced bunch…

  2. I actually think we’re using “diet” incorrectly most of the time. We think of it as something to limit the amount of calories when really the definition is only what you’re eating. Example: My cat has a diet of Fancy Feast and dry food. Everyone’s on a diet because everyone eats. It’s just are they on a program or not. (Yeah, I’m getting picky).

    I have to watch what is going into my body and coming out via exercise because it’s the only way I can get myself healthy. I’m counting, but I do it in such a way that allows me to still have fun and socialize with my friends. I’m teaching myself to make healthy choices. And I am exercising every day.

    I have never been able to maintain when I’ve done a popular diet (like Jenny Craig). Which is why I’m just going the journaling and calorie counting route this time. When I get to maintenance I’ll continue, but I’ll just be doing a different level. I don’t intend to stop this habit. It has become part of my lifestyle. And that I think is the real key to getting to a healthy weight.

    And yes, sometimes the control has cause me more anxiety than I would normally have, but my overall happiness has increased exponentially by watching what I’m eating and adding in exercise. You can ask my husband. He will agree. Everyone around me will agree. If it makes you miserable, then it’s not the right thing or you. Period.

    Do try boxing. It’s a blast. Even just a program that does shadow boxing in your living room. I do Turbo Jam and love it.

    • Hey Sarah. Yes you’re right, we’ve adapted the word diet to mean something which I think has commercial and negative connotations. But you’re right, your diet is just what you eat. It sounds like you’ve found a “diet” or healthy eating program which works for you and that you an maintain, and that’s great. I’m glad you’re seeing results and are happier for it. Everyone is different and having a controlled diet does work for some people I guess. It’s probably wishful thinking that none of us need to have that kind of control because once you’ve developed ‘bad’ eating habits it’s very hard to reverse. Anyway, thanks for your comment :-) And I may just try boxing x

  3. I could not agree more. I suspect it’s because I practice a martial art and have done since I was quite young (with a gap in the middle!) but I value my body for its strength, rather than its thinness. I also see food as fuel, primarily – I like things that taste good, but I don’t like fatty/sugary foods much, I prefer things that will help my body to perform at its peak, and there are plenty of healthy foods that taste good too. That’s not to say I won’t occasionally eat a cake, but I don’t feel compelled to eat anything just because it’s there. I think diets take away control and make it harder to make rational choices after you come off the diet.

    • Yes I totally agree. They set you up for failure because you can’t possibly keep it up. Once the diet is ‘over’ and you return to ‘normal’ life, food is just going to be a terrifying minefield because everything is ‘forbidden’. But it shouldn’t be.
      I agree on the exercise front too. If you can see your body grow stronger through exercise you’ll feel more in tune with it and appreciate it for the amazing thing that it is. Speaking of which I am guilty of not having found a regular exercise routine which I really enjoy and can keep up. But it’s on my to-do list! I’m trying to go to the gym a couple of times a week to do some running. Sometimes I feel amazing afterwards but sometimes I struggle, then feel defeated. But I will persevere. I need to find a class I enjoy. Maybe I’ll give boxing a go – looks like a good stress reliever!

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