DITCH the Diet!

UPDATE! If you missed last night’s programme on ITV – “To diet or not to diet” its well worth watching. Much of the thinking fits well with what I wrote last month in this blog post. You can find it here

Last year 27 million people in the UK went on a ‘diet’ to try to lose weight. Many started on January 1st (sound familiar?). Magazines and newspapers bulging with dieting and detoxing advice in January – all fighting to offer us the ‘best’ new fix. Well, I’d like to suggest that you do something different in 2014 – that you DITCH the idea of dieting to lose weight once and for all – and here’s why …

5 GOOD REASONS to NOT ‘diet’ in 2014

1. DIETS DON’T WORK – and there’s plenty of research evidence to back this up. In fact the first study dates back to just after the WW2. Ancel Keys documented how men who had been on severely restricted diet for 6 months gained back the weight they had lost and MORE  much quicker than expected. It seemed that their bodies were overcompensating for the period of partial starvation.

More recently, a review of over 100 clinical trials of different diets from the past 30 years found that the average amount of weight lost over a 2-5 year period of dieting was LESS than one kilogramme. Shocked (I was!)? Plus Professor Traci Mann and her team noted that between one and two thirds of dieters actually ended up weighing MORE than when they started. Overall their conclusion was that if you’re looking to reduce your body weight over the longer term, diets just don’t work.  (Mann et al (2007) “Medicare’s search for effective obesity Treatments – Diets are not the answer”, American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association p220-233).

2. DIETS SLOW DOWN YOUR METABOLISM. Your body needs a certain amount of energy each day to keep everything ticking over and in working order. Some people are naturally fast burners and others suffer from slow metabolisms and are inclined to gain weight. The amount of fuel (measured in calories) it needs to meet these requirements varies from person to person, typically slowing down after the age of 40. The message that weight loss is simply a matter of calories consumed versus calories expended just isn’t accurate enough. It is a much more complex equation.

Your body has evolved over millions of years to keep you alive in times when food is scarce. Overeating is a very recent issue, really only emerging towards the end of the last century. By depriving yourself of calories when you ‘diet’, you run the risk of slowing down your metabolism as your body enters survival mode, using up only the essential amount of energy required to keep you alive. A well adapted body is not going to shed your fat stores rapidly because it doesn’t know how long the food shortage is going to last. Plus, once the calorie shortage comes to an end, as Ancel Keys’ study demonstrated, your body is likely to start to store fat MORE rapidly, just in case there’s another famine coming.

3. ANY RESTRICTION WILL HELP YOU TO LOSE WEIGHT (at least for a while). In Jacques Peretti’s documentary “The men who made us thin (part 1)” (well worth watching if you haven’t seen it), Professor Jules Hirsch explains how ANY diet will lead to weight loss to start with, especially if it is novel and includes complex instructions to follow. Hence the popularity of all those special new diets in the media in January – they are ALL likely to work! Hirsch explains that it doesn’t really matter WHAT you do, if you think you’re on a diet and you stick to it, you are likely to lose weight for about 26 weeks …. but then it will creep back on again, and you’ll most likely end up heavier than you started (because diets don’t work! See 1 and 2 above!).

4. DIET DEPRIVATION LEADS TO GUILT – Dieting is all about deprivation and will-power. If you feel you are having to be ‘good’ or depriving yourself of what you really want to eat, no matter how cast iron your resolve, you are  bound to fall of the wagon and binge at some point (isn’t that what has always happened in the past?). If you feel like you’ve failed, you’re MUCH more likely to overeat … and then the whole guilt thing starts. Sound familiar?

Well instead I recommend that you embrace the 90:10 rule. Make good choices about food 90% of the time and relax for the other 10% (relax doesn’t mean binge!). If you start listening to what your body is asking for and try to work out what is driving those requests or cravings, food and weight will become much less of a drama. I encourage my clients to keep a cravings diary – once you understand WHY you crave something (is it for comfort? are you addicted to it? is it just a habit? are you tired and need a quick source of energy? etc) it is much easier to make an intelligent choice about whether or not you’re going to eat it or whether there is a better,  healthier alternative that will be just as satisfying. If you decide you ARE going to eat it then ENJOY it to the full. Slowly savouring every mouthful – eating should be about pleasure not guilt!

5. DIETING IMPACTS ON OUR CHILDREN – I have worked with numerous women who have spent 10, 20, even 40 years either ‘on a diet’ or about to start one (again), in a repetitive cycle of yoyo dieting – gaining and losing the same few stones over and over again. When asked how they started, the overwhelming message is that they learned how to relate to their bodies and food from their mothers (and other significant adults around them). Yes – daughters’ (and sons’) attitudes about dieting and body image form from an early age (and its getting younger and younger) through watching and listening to the adults around them (especially their mothers) talking about their weight, food and dieting plans. Author Kasey Edwards has written a moving account of her experiences with this in “When your mother says she’s fat”.

The most worrying thing is that most of us don’t even realise we’re doing it – the negative way we talk about ourselves is so deeply ingrained that it has become automatic. I had a client recently, who told me her computer log-in was “I am Fat” (but not until we’d already been working together for 6 months). Every day she had been typing and retyping that negative message to herself for years. Its a form of self-bullying. We wouldn’t stand for it if someone else talked to us in this way (see more in this video). So I’d like to suggest that instead of dieting (and any negative ‘fat talk’) in 2014, you resolve to  call a truce with your body and instead take the time to really listen to what it is asking you for. Trust your instincts. Your body knows what it needs.

Focusing on weight loss misses the point 

Weight loss does NOT automatically equate with being healthier. It is perfectly possible to lose weight in a really very unhealthy way. So in my opinion, focusing too much on weight loss as your health-goal somewhat misses the point. When you start eating what your body really needs (and no excess), and you are active, weight loss is a common side-effect (in the same way that weight gain is often a side-effect from an unhealthy lifestyle). You will find your ideal weight naturally. It might take a little longer than you’d ideally like, but it WILL happen.

So this January, I’d like to suggest taking a good look at the ‘bigger picture’. What changes can you make to your lifestyle as well as your food choices that will help to improve your overall physical and mental wellness? Factors such as exercise, stress management, sleep, how much water you drink, and how nutritious the food you eat is can have a huge impact on how you feel. Instead of asking yourself ‘how can i make the numbers on the scales go down?’, try asking what long-term habits you can create that will really work for you and you’ll be able to stick to. Indefinitely. As a way of life. By raising your game across the board, your body will perform better all round AND (as a side effect), it will find its ideal weight.

Baby steps in the right direction

Every mountain climb has to start with a few small steps. Changing your diet and lifestyle might seem like a huge feat, but if you start small and start realistic and keep moving in the right direction you will reap tremendous benefits. Find something tiny but totally do-able to change and then stick to it. Then once its a habit, you can find the next thing and the next thing. As you begin to notice the benefits you’ll start to actively WANT to make the better choices – not because you’re ‘being good’ or punishing yourself for prior indulgences, but because you want to. You like how it makes you feel. Make 2014 the year you start treating your body as an ‘adult’ that you respect and listen to rather than a wayward teenager that you are constantly battling with!