You're making things too complicated.
Do you find that despite your best efforts to lose weight, your insecurities rear their ugly head and you end up breaking your diet and overeating? If so, you’re not alone.
As a therapist specializing in eating and weight issues, I’ve worked with thousands of people caught in the diet-binge cycle, and I’ve spent a lot of time studying the research related to dieting, weight and health. We know that the vast majority of people who go on a diet will gain back the pounds — and that up to two-thirds end up heavier than their pre-diet weight.
Even though you’ve probably heard the phrase “diets don’t work,” breaking the diet mentality isn’t easy. Yet the very things you’re doing to lose weight may actually have the opposite effect.
Here are 3 strategies commonly used by dieters that can actually result in weight gain – and what to do instead:
1. Overriding your physical hunger.
Do you know that feeling when you manage to eat very little — or avoid eating all together? Usually it’s a sense of being “in control” and maybe even a virtuous feeling. Many people find that they can “control” their eating during the day, only to find themselves overeating or binging at night.
You never want to starve your body.
Many of my clients describe eating “healthy” during the day: perhaps a yogurt for breakfast and a salad with veggies and chicken for lunch. When they arrive home from a day at the office they find themselves heading straight to the pantry and overeating chips. Or they’re at home with their kids, make it through a portion-controlled dinner of salmon, baked potatoes and veggies, and then find themselves binging on cookies and M&M’s after they put their children to bed.
Are they lacking willpower? Absolutely not! Is this emotional eating? Maybe. But the first order of business is to make sure your body takes in enough energy to be adequately fed.
People who diet often get really good at suppressing their internal cues for physical hunger. When you don’t get enough nourishment during the day, your physiology — which is ultimately stronger than your willpower — will insist that you get those calories. What feels like a lack of willpower is actually the wisdom of your body making sure that you get enough food.
When your body says its hungry: Listen.
Instead, check in with your body every 15 to 30 minutes and try to reconnect with your natural signals for hunger. Focus on identifying an empty or gnawing feeling in your stomach, which indicates that you’re hungry and need to feed yourself — if you experience physical symptoms such as a headache, light-headedness, irritability, fatigue or shakiness it means you’ve waited too long.
Make sure your meals and snacks provide adequate energy to keep you comfortably fed. When you eat according to your physical hunger throughout the day, you’ll notice that the amount of overeating later on significantly decreases.
2. Making foods off limits
Every diet plan has some sort of restriction. Typically, you’re being asked to give up some of the foods you love. It may be that you’re restricting carbs or fats. It may be that you’re giving up certain categories of foods such as sweets or gluten.
When people go off their diets or foods plans, they don’t go running for carrots, apples, or salads! Instead, they find themselves overeating the exact foods they’ve made forbidden.
Don't try to make your favorite foods disappear.
When I speak at conferences and workshops, I often ask my audiences: “Imagine that starting tomorrow you can never have ice cream again. What will you do tonight?” The typical answer is that people will eat ice cream — whether they’re hungry for it or not — and that they’ll eat much more than their bodies need. This is a natural response to the feeling of deprivation, and it happens every time you go on a diet – or even think about going on a diet.
Deprivation always leads to overeating.
Instead, give yourself permission to eat all types of foods. (Of course, if you have dietary requirements for health issues or philosophical reasons, it’s important to honor those needs. That’s different than the deprivation that results from the pursuit of weight loss.)
Think about a time you started to eat something that you “weren’t supposed” to have on your diet. Let’s say you have some cookies, and then you tell yourself that since you can’t have them again, you might as well finish the whole box now. That’s a normal reaction to deprivation.
Instead, if you relearn how to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full (we’re born into this world knowing how to do that!) then you can have a very different relationship with cookies. Perhaps you notice you’re hungry for something sweet, have the cookie (s) that satisfies that need, and stop when you feel satisfied. It may be hard to imagine, but over and over I’ve witnessed people who never thought they could eat sweets without binging find that they can now take pleasure in having some — without feeling out of control or over-full.
When you’re hungry, ask yourself what you’re hungry for. I’ve never met anyone who only wants cake, and cookies and candy. I’ve also never met anyone who only wants fruit and vegetables. Our bodies like a wide variety of food, and learning how to end the deprivation of diets and, instead, eat all types of foods, lead to feelings of satisfaction and peacefulness as you develop a healthy relationship with food.
3. Yelling at yourself.
When you break your diet — either by eating more of something than you meant to or eating something you “weren’t supposed” to have — there’s a good chance you start an internal dialog with yourself about what you did. And chances are you’re not very nice to yourself.
What are the things you tell yourself when you overeat? Maybe you call yourself names and maybe you tell yourself that you’re worthless. Perhaps you feel flooded with shame.
That critical voice sure can be harsh, but screaming at yourself does no good.
The internal yelling that’s meant to help you feel in control actually leads to the opposite. Often, the feeling is “I’ve already blown it today so I might as well keep going.” You decide that you’ll eat the entire pizza or finish the pint of ice cream. After all, starting tomorrow, next week, next month…
And then tomorrow comes, and you either punish yourself by deciding not to eat all day to “make up” for last night (setting yourself up for the next binge) or you continue to overeat because you know that you’re gearing up to take away the foods again. Either way, you end up feeling uncomfortable both physically and emotionally.
The antidote to yelling at yourself is twofold.
Just like you’re learning to identify your hunger, you also need to stay mindful and pay attention to fullness, which is the signal that it’s time to stop eating. Keep in mind that if there’s no signal of physical hunger to start eating, then there’s no signal to stop.
Next, learn to speak to yourself with compassion. Here’s what some of my clients have learned to say as they begin to notice that they’re eating more than their bodies need:
“I’m overeating again and getting too full, which is going to make me physically uncomfortable. The sooner I stop, the better I’ll feel – and the sooner I’ll get hungry again. I know I can have these chocolates the next time I’m truly hungry for them. In fact, they taste better when I’m physically hungry. I’ll stop now and do my best to wait for the next sign of physical hunger.”
“I’m reaching for food and I’m not physically hungry. I know that there’s something making me emotionally uncomfortable, and this is the best I can do to take care of myself in this moment. I look forward to the day when I no longer need to turn to food to deal with my feelings.”
As they end the deprivation of diets and learn to honor their physical cues for hunger and fullness here’s what emotional eaters may say:
“I’m reaching for food and I’m not hungry. I wonder what I would think or feel if I didn’t eat right now.” This becomes a window into learning more about their psychological dynamics as they stop translating the language of feelings into the language of food and weight.
Just ending the yelling slows down overeating. When you yell at yourself, you make yourself feel bad. And what do emotional eaters do when they feel bad? That’s right, they turn to food!
If yelling worked, wouldn’t you be where you want right now? Instead, work toward honoring you signals for hunger and fullness, and speak gently to yourself when you find yourself overeating.
Eating healthy and working out is a life change, but one that will leave you feeling happier, confident, and more content with yourself.
And no matter where your body settles, you’ll discover the physical, emotional and spiritual well being that comes from developing a healthy and satisfying relationship with food.