Diet Is a Four-Letter Word

Mother and young daughter cooking“I have tried everything and cannot lose weight!” How often have you heard this from clients or patients? How often are they contemplating extreme diets or surgery as the last ditch effort? Upon further inspection, how long have they tried to make changes before giving up? A week? A month?

The more restrictive the diet, the faster people quit. Dieting in our society has become a four-letter word. People treat diets like they are being sent to prison. It seems like this is for good reason. Looking at 99% of the diets available, they are full of restrictions. No flour, no sugar, no fat, no calories, no carbs, no meat, all meat, only certain colors, the list goes on and on. All I hear is no, no, no. We start sounding like 2-year-olds.

In its original meaning, a diet simply refers to what we eat. Over time, however, it has morphed into a verb calculating how much we should eat. Search on the Internet for the word “diet” and it doesn’t come up with the definition but rather with a vast array of popular diets for losing weight. Our society has become so weight conscious, but most dieters are like hamsters spinning their wheels. It feels like they are working but are not getting anywhere. At least not for long. Even if someone does lose weight, which is unlikely with some of the diets boasting preposterous claims, they almost inevitably gain it back plus about 10%.

The reason for this is simply that most people start a diet to lose weight but only for a specific amount of time. They are looking to shed some weight before an event, so they can fit in an outfit, so someone will find them attractive, or because the doctor has advised it, etc. It is almost ALWAYS due to something external. They will use the diet until they see a specific number on the scale. They are biding their time until they can go back to their normal eating habits. The same thing happens with exercise.

Research shows that emotions are responsible for 75% of overeating, and overeating is directly responsible for being overweight. When we turn to food, we feel good. From a young age, food is used as a coping skill. Our well-meaning parents often gave us treats to distract us when we were unhappy. What happened as a result is a strong connection with food as a soothing mechanism. So, often when we think about making changes to our eating habits, the thought of letting go of that coping mechanism is scary. By learning to cope with our emotions in more effective ways, we find that it isn’t necessary to use something like food as an escape. Emotions hold less power when we actually deal with them directly. By addressing the emotional eating component, making changes for permanent weight loss becomes easier.

With my clients, I adamantly encourage them not to diet. In my experience, as soon as we use a diet to restrict ourselves, our preoccupation with food is like an oppositional teenager. The more we fight, the more we lose. This is why I like the approach described in a book called Intuitive Eating. These principles help people to make peace with food. Intuitive eating was created by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians who recognized the emotional component to eating and wrote books about their insights. Intuitive eating along with cognitive behavioral therapy can be tremendously powerful for weight loss because it helps to remove the emotion from food and the irrational beliefs that contribute to emotional eating and low self-esteem.

Instead of looking at a diet as a short-term solution until we can return to familiar behaviors, we need to look at lifestyle changes that make our bodies feel good. Making small changes over time that incrementally build rather than sudden life-altering changes helps us to maintain our progress, which then builds confidence in our ability to keep making changes. Instead of choosing a diet that tells you everything you can’t have, choose a way of living where you can eat anything you want, but learn to moderate. By keying in to hunger and fullness, really enjoying food, and letting go of the emotional attachment to food, you can begin to look at food as fuel (albeit enjoyable fuel) rather than a comforting friend. While diet obviously is a four-letter word, it doesn’t need to be a four-letter curse word. You also can begin to look at exercise not as the enemy but rather as an outlet for stress and something that makes your body feel good.

Related articles:
Emotional Eating? HALT the BS
Reward Children with More than Food
New Year’s Resolution: Lose Weight. Not!

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michelle Lewis, therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • tiff

    tiff

    March 2nd, 2012 at 4:21 PM

    This is from the mouth of a woman who lost 100 pounds. I did nto go on a diet but instead had to commit to making a total lifestyle change.

    You can’t be “good” everyday. There will be some stumbles and falls. But you get back up and get going again. That was always my motto.

    A diet does not have to be a bad thing, but it does have to be a different way of thinking about food and of thinking about taking care of yourself.

  • daniella C

    daniella C

    March 2nd, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    aaah the word diet. . . now that is a word that makes me want to cringe! And run in the other direction as fast as I can! ;)

  • StressMom

    StressMom

    March 3rd, 2012 at 5:38 AM

    What i wish for society is that we could all just get over the whole diet thing and learn to live happy yet healthy lives. If we did not take the opportunity to overinduldge so much then there would be no need for the word diet to have such a negative connotation. We have given this word this kind of horrible emotional power over us, and it all boils down to the reason that we are all confronting so many of our worst health fears. We can enjoy food without enjoying it too much, but there are too many of us who struggle with that as a problem.

  • Amon

    Amon

    March 3rd, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    I think we are all kidding ourselves with this whole it does not have to be a diet thing. Yes it does, that is the only way that some people who have serious issues with food and their weight are going to make the connection that something in their lives has to change in order for them to get healthy. They have probably tried the whole eating what they want and doing nothing and sat around and got bigger and bigger. We as a society can’t keep sidestepping this- this ia a real problem that we have and one that is going to catch up to all of us very very soon. I think that we all need to go on a diet for the most part and purge the unhealthy habits that we have from eating to spending and everything in between. But that takes a lot more discipline than I think most people are willing to put forth.

  • Jeni

    Jeni

    March 4th, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    it might be a four letter word for some, but quite the lucrative venture for others- a lot of gurus have made a lot of money off promoting their own version of that four letter word, and we continue to buy into it. we won’t get rid of that connotation until we stop looking for that quick fix for weight loss and realizing that there is no quick fix, that it is mind over matter. it takes so much more than that little four letter word to have power in the area of losing weight. when we own up and take some responsibility, or maybe even better take care of ourselves then it will lose that strange power that it seems to have.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    March 5th, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    we make a diet a dirty word, so that means that people associate getting healthy with being something hard and that they would want to avoid

  • SH

    SH

    March 5th, 2012 at 11:32 PM

    Diet is not a course that you begin and end, diet is everything you eat and drink.’Changing your diet’ i s more precise than ‘being on a diet’.Stick to healthy foods and youre on a good diet.Simple as that!

  • Sally

    Sally

    March 6th, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    I couldn’t agree with you more Michelle, and thanks for the poionter to the book on Intuitive Eating. As you say, the CBT approach is excellent and I can highly recommend “The Rules of ‘Normal Eating'” by karen R Koenig. for me I have decided that this year will be the year that I let my body become the weight it is meant to be, functions well at and that i can maintain naturally. i’ve used slimming clubs before, and with some effect, but of course not in the long run. Last year I made some changes in my life, including finding the ways I love to move my body (rather than aiming to ‘get fit’ or alter my body – although both of those have now happened. ) It now feels as if the natural next step is addressing my tendency to overeat and use food to ‘treat’ tiredness or to dampen strong emotions. Food is becoming what it should be – a way of nourishing and nurturing myself; a way of sharing with others sometimes. I am starting to be able to buy and keep in the house all foods I might enjoy, including occasional treat food like chocolate, knowing that i will not ‘lose control’ and eat it all at once just because it is there. Food is becoming just food – but crucially this has not been as a result of focusing on what I eat, but other areas of my life.

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