When Your Life Is Challenging, Dieting Is Not the Answer
When life feels out of control like it does now, it’s understandable for us to look for some predictability. One place our minds immediately go to is our bodies and their perceived faults. We think that if we can control the food we eat and our exercise, even in the name of health, that we will find greater happiness.
The problem: altering our bodies is never as simple as diet and exercise gurus promise.
If you’ve been dieting off and on for much of your adult life, when life gets tough or the world feels out of control, our knee-jerk reaction often involves making our bodies’ smaller.
Here’s a little secret: dieting is not the answer.
There’s a lot to worry about right now:
- Are my kids actually learning anything this year?
- Will our election transition be peaceful?
- I hate my job!
- Can our nation find racial justice and harmony?
Those are just a few things that might be keeping you up at night. So many of these things are big questions without simple answers. And processing them can feel so overwhelming.
There’s something I need you to know:
Dieting is a coping mechanism! And an unhelpful one at that.
Think about it this way:
Dieting allows you to have magical thinking that takes your mind away from the hard stuff in life. When you are obsessing about your meal plan, spending hours in the kitchen, ignoring feelings of hunger, and counting calories or macros, there is much less time for you to think about many negative things in life.
Diet culture also makes lots of promises: Eat this + move this much = lose this much weight.
You probably know it’s not that simple, but when we are drawn back to these false promises
So many clients ask me:
- “Can’t you just give me a meal plan?” OR
- “I need the control that comes with a diet. Intuitive Eating just seems to have no rules!!”
And in the beginning, when it’s still new and exciting, a meal plan feels so comforting.
You know exactly what you can eat.
There are no decisions.
It feels almost effortless!
But, what has your personal experience with dieting taught you?
If you’re like many of my clients:
- It affects your social life: you either skip social gatherings or throw all your rules out the window because you are “off” your eating plan.
- It affects your mental health: The initial comfort is often replaced by increased stress or boredom. Binges or periods of overeating are also common and that leads to feelings of guilt and shame.
- It affects your health: Stressing about food and your weight isn’t healthy. Stress has an incredibly negative effect on your overall health.
I know that it can feel comforting to fall back to old solutions, but if you examine your past, you’ll most likely find that these aren’t really solutions at all. Diets leave you with guilt shame and at a higher weight than where you started,
Instead of repeating your old patterns, why not try something new?
Here are my dietitian-approved recommendations that can improve your health and help you feel more in control – and none of them involve dieting:
1. Meal plan with flexibility.
For most people, having no meal plan for the work week is a recipe for disaster (no pun intended!). Having food in the house and some meal options is imperative to help you establish a feeling of security and stability around food. The degree to which you plan will vary on your personal needs, but here are some guidelines.
- Start your day off right by having 3-4 different breakfast options that you really like in your rotation. Too many women have their coffee and then grab something without much thought, if they even eat breakfast. That sets you up for mindless snacking later in the day. Not sure where to start? Download my 4 breakfast ideas PDF download!
- Use some downtime to sketch out some ideas for lunch and dinner. But, don’t assume that you’ll be cooking from scratch 7 days a week, especially if you’re not cooking at all.
- Plan for some take-out or use meal kits to lighten your load some days. For some suggestions of my favorite meal kits and delivery services, check out my prior article, 4 Simple Solutions for Delicious Meals When You Are Short on Time.
2. Practice some self-care.
Before you throw up your hands in frustration or roll your eyes, stay with me for a bit! Most of my clients are taking pretty good care of themselves, physically, at least. But, self-care is more than manicures and massages. I urge you to strive for some practices that feed your emotional and physical needs too.
- Some examples non-physical self-care are:
- spending time in nature
- finding a hobby
- having boundaries
- meditation, and prayer – just to name a few!
- Some examples non-physical self-care are:
3. What Are Your Real Needs?
Dieting is often a distraction that keeps you away from the harder things in life. Part of the reason we are pulled back towards dieting is that diets, meal prep and planning take up lots of time. They also have us so focused on our future, perfect life, that we check-out of our current life and body. And when we are incredibly busy and hyper-focused, we don’t have to think about all the scary, uncontrollable things in our life. But using intense control around our food isn’t healthy in the long run. Don’t run away of your emotions with distraction. Remember, emotions aren’t bad, and you don’t have to fear them. They can actually help you live a healthy, fulfilled life. Sit down and breathe through your challenging emotions.
- Not sure where to start?I love the Calm.com breathing bubble! Check it out here: calm.com/bubble
- Struggling with emotional eating? Check out my recent article, A Simple Solution to Overcome Emotional Eating.
- If you are struggling with feeling your emotions, and/or have a history of trauma, working with a therapist can really help.
4. Move your body in a way that is not about calories burned.
Maybe you are person who only feels like exercise ‘counts’ if it meets certain heart rate or time goals. Or perhaps you hate exercise. Whatever camp you’re in, I encourage you to mix things up. Find an activity you have never done, or you might not even consider exercise, and experiment with it in a curious way.
- Here are some guidelines for moving your body: there’s no minimum time; if you’re not sitting or lying down, it’s movement.
- Some unconventional ideas: playing tag or hide and seek, hula hoop with kids; gardening; throwing a ball to your dog; dancing. Can you think of other things?
5. Pick a few health behaviors that don’t involve weight.
Perhaps you have heard me say this before: weight is not a behavior! If you are truly moved to improve your health, perhaps there are some non-diet behaviors you can try?
- Eating more fruits and veggies;
- eating your meals without distraction;
- spending some time outdoors every day;
- exploring joyful movement; or
- getting 8 hours of sleep a night.
See! There are things you can do to improve your health that don’t involve numbers on a scale or a tape measure. All of the above (and more) are research-backed solutions to improve your health!
If you have been struggling with your body image for years, you know the toll it takes on your life. It is possible to improve your body image and start to treat your body with respect, no matter where you are now.
I’ve created a free PDF with 5 simple, actionable steps you can take to jump start your body image journey. Grab your copy here:
P.S. I know dieting feels the right thing to do when you’re unhappy with life (and your body). But, trust me, dieting only temporarily distracts you from the things you can do to legitimately improve your life. So, follow the road less taken, ditch dieting, and work towards real health.
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”