Updated: May 17
Society is obsessed with diets and we are bombarded with images and ideals of who we should be. Throughout our lives we are practically brainwashed to believe we should always be dieting and you are more indoctrinated than you even realise. Because it’s everywhere it makes it difficult to see and recognise it. It has many faces. It is labelling food as good, guilt or sin-free or telling yourself “I want to lose X pounds so I can look amazing at a party”. Of course it’s ok to lose weight for health reasons or a personal choice, what is not acceptable is that weight loss is being imposed on us. We think it is normal and acceptable to hate our bodies. Each new diet seems to have the answer to all life’s questions and offers that one special solution only to be achieved if the rules are followed.
I was recruited early
Since my teenage years I am not sure I can remember a time where I wasn’t dieting, thinking about starting a diet or feeling dissatisfied with myself because I wasn’t following a diet. For a lot of my life dieting and food has occupied most of my thoughts and energy. On the surface I know the constant pursuit of fat loss was a major driver but looking deeper it was also the excitement of dieting and taking steps to be in control of myself, ensuring I cared about my appearance and wouldn’t ‘let myself go’ as well as being part of the dieting clique. Having trained women for the past six years I now know I am not alone and that this behaviour has become our normalised way of being. I think we would all agree that our time could be spent doing something more purposeful and fulfilling. We’d also agree that we want to be free from dieting. However we can’t stop because we’re made believe we can’t trust ourselves around food. It’s not true, life can be lived and enjoyed diet free.
Just One More Diet
It takes time to understand our own personal reasons for why we find it so hard to stop dieting. We all have our perceived valid reasons and we have convinced ourselves we are in control.
Firstly there is an anticipation of achieving the perfect body. We reason with ourselves that we didn’t try hard enough last time or that we’ve done the wrong diet. We throw ourselves into diet after diet praying to finally get results or hoping to have developed better willpower. After believing for so long that our bodies are not good enough then it seems logical to diet and try to change the image of ourselves that we have.
Secondly we have the innate urge to diet to make ourselves feel better. When you’re feeling down it feels good to experiment around with diets and evoke a change in our lives. Summer Innanen describes dieting as a normalised drug and the hopes of changing our bodies ‘stokes our dopamine’.
We get stuck on the diet rollercoaster but never really improving our relationships with our body. We never seem to feel any better, any more confident and the results don’t seem to last. Even though we want to stop feelings of guilt and shame we can’t see the solution. We believe that we can only really appreciate our body if it fits diet culture’s ideal. Therefore we will delay working on our body image, emotions and negative thoughts until we’ve fitted into a certain clothes size or we hit the magic scale number.
As so we’re conditioned to diet
Even though we know diets don’t work we live in constant hope that the next diet will ‘fix us’. The culture around dieting is damaging and we unfortunately, as Innanen describes, are addicted to it. Serial dieters want to know the latest, the best and the fastest way to get results. We are obsessed with what others are doing, what they eat and how they look. But we’ve tried them all and they haven’t worked so why do we get excited about starting a new diet?
We get a thrill from stepping on the scale and seeing the number has gone down, from adhering to a meal plan perfectly and resisting eating something we really want but ‘shouldn’t’ have’. This rush momentarily validates our ideas that the happy life we want to have is only one where we are completely in control, constantly losing weight and following our food rules.
This high is short lived because we simply cannot follow these rules forever or eventually our body resists the restrictions and we go ‘off track’. But the cycle continues and we get back on the diet rollercoaster and start again. Going through each step again and each one is a mini thrill. We plan then organise then lose some weight until again it’s no longer sustainable.
These beliefs are part of what persuades us to begin another diet but there are also external influences.
Externally, we have been brainwashed to be believe that we should be dieting. It is portrayed as the normalised way to exist. The ideas are perpetuated by advertisements, endorsements, influencers, TV shows, family and friends and even those who we’d hope would look out for us - health and fitness professionals. We are told that if we reach a certain weight, if we don’t eat ‘bad’ foods or if our clothes are a certain size that we will have all the privilege, virtue and opportunities of ‘Thin’ people. We are led to believe that losing weight will help us gain status and when we have this status we will finally be happy.
Recognising Diet Culture
Shohreh Davoodi defines diet culture in 5 Tools to Help You Ditch Diet Culture for Good:
Diet culture is a system of beliefs and values that prioritizes body weight, shape, and size over health and well-being.
Diet culture places a moral value on behaviours, products, and goals that are designed to achieve a specific body type.
It also transcends much further than this blog topic. Diet culture promotes a single body type and bodies that conform to Western beauty standards by contributing to a long history of white bodies being seen as the benchmark while all other bodies are seen as less desirable and worthy. With health and fitness being pushed no matter the financial cost, diet culture also has origins in classism. Those who can’t afford the right food, have food poverty or cannot afford the latest training gear are seen as less worthy of the status of being fit and healthy.
We use our diet beliefs as a way to pass judgment on others for what food choices they make or how much they eat. Our own ingrained prejudices influences our own behaviours too. We feel compelled to justify our own choices, maybe you have heard yourself refuse or accept an extra portion, cake, chocolates or biscuits with the phrase ‘oh, I shouldn’t’. We feel the need to explain that we ‘know’ the behaviour isn’t as virtuous as is expected. Or maybe you’ve compared yourself to another body and thought ‘if only I didn’t have such an appetite I would be like them’.
Is dieting really that bad?
There is a lot of research which states that dieting actually affects our mental health, that we end up gaining more weight and our physical health is affected. I’m sure there are many more but here are two every day ways we might be affected by constantly dieting.
Our relationships suffer
With no flexibility in your eating behaviours it is easy to imagine or perhaps you already feel anxiety around social events, date nights or family celebrations. We are controlled by our diet plan and don’t know how to eat or don’t trust ourselves and so we experience anxiety. There may even be times that we decide to avoid these situations. Unconsciously we are letting our relationships suffer and missing out on vital social interaction. Our relationships are important to our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
We prioritise our time poorly
Over thinking food choices, quantities and qualities may distract us from education, relationships, and resting - to mention a few. If we put all our energy into dieting 24/7 and are constantly looking to improve ourselves then there must be a trade off somewhere. In order to maintain our diets what are we avoiding or missing out on? Think about the time you have spent on Instagram for example, comparing women, bodies and diets that time could have been put into something you’re really passionate about, time with a loved one or an early night. Laura O’Shea has undertaken a really interesting piece if research into Instagram and diet culture she states ‘The obsessive nature of Instagram means always returning to it and thereby always returning to diet culture.’.
Breaking the addiction - My experience
When Covid-19 forced the gym closures personally my pace of living changed dramatically. Being on the go from 6am to 8pm and constantly on the go meant I was ultra prepared and living to a schedule. I was quite content being in completely control of what I ate, knowing what time I would eat and allowing very little room for flexibility. When I stopped and I was able to step back, I could think about what I was doing rather than continuing on autopilot.
Although this is still a work in progress for me, my focus has changed. My food choices now only have to meet these criteria; how can I satisfy my taste buds, can we eat as a couple and enjoy food together, will this satisfy me and all while still eating nutritiously and feeling strong. Everyone’s values will be different but for me this has changed my quality of life a lot.
I still like to plan and be organised, you will still see me with my detailed shopping list, but when things don’t go to plan I don’t get upset or panic and I can allow for flexibility.
As well as this I have spent time working on my body image and what I believe about myself. Improving your body image isn’t about being happy all the time. It doesn’t even mean you have to love your body. Realising that being thinner doesn’t actually make you happy all the time or be more successful will free a lot of space in your mind for other things. I’m less and less stuck in the comparison trap. Whether that’s comparing myself to my ‘old’ self, to other women or to anyone on social media. The focus has shifted to making sure my deep beliefs and priorities are being met.
Trusting Yourself around Food
The fear is there that if we are not on a diet then we are not caring for our bodies, eating uncontrollable amounts of food, overeating and gaining weight. We believe that without the rules we will without question gain weight. Being on a diet is a false sense of security and we don’t know what to do without a plan when the time comes. We’ve been told that we cannot trust our own bodies but it’s not true.
It is however possible to learn to live without over thinking food. Imagine going to a social event and feeling in control of your body instead of over eating because you feel hungry all the time and this is your only chance to have the ‘forbidden’ foods. Learning to live without diets means the following day you wouldn’t have the feelings of guilt or shame, whether you over ate of not, you simply move on with your life.
The process of freeing yourself from diets means working hard on what you really believe about your body. This is a better way of living where we could actually use our time to do something more purposeful and fulfilling.
I am now better able to help my clients become more aware of what is going on inside their own body, learning to trust themselves and to trust their bodies through good nutrition habits and fun exercise programs.
If you feel like dieting is overtaking your thoughts and affecting your daily life visit https://www.bodywhys.ie/directory-results/services-list/psychologists-psychotherapists-counsellors/ where you can find a list of professionals that can help you talk through what is going on.
Ultimately the decision is yours but if you tired of diets draining all your time, energy and money then I encourage you to challenging the norm and trust yourself to live better.
Summer Innanen, ETR 194: Body Image Series: Why It’s So Hard to Stop Dieting, SummerApril 19, 2021. https://summerinnanen.com/194/  Summer Innanen, ETR 194: Body Image Series: Why It’s So Hard to Stop Dieting, SummerApril 19, 2021. https://summerinnanen.com/194/  Shohreh Davoodi, 5 Tools to Help You Ditch Diet Culture for Good (girlsgonestrong.com/blog/articles/5-tools-to-help-you-ditch-diet-culture-for-good/) Accessed: April 2021 Laura O’Shea Diet Culture and Instagram: A Feminist Exploration of Perceptions and Experiences Among Young Women in the Midwest of Ireland http://www.nuigalway.ie/media/researchcentres/womensstudies/womenstudies2020/Dearcadh_2020_OShea.pdf, Accessed: 11th May 2020