You know diets don’t work in the long term. But you are almost certainly on a diet right now and you don’t even realise it.
Diets suck. They suck the joy out of healthy eating and the soul from your social life. Any weight loss and health gains tend to last about as long as a celebrity marriage, leaving you with yet another failure. Giving up dieting is the best thing I ever did; and the first step to quitting dieting is to learn how to spot a diet in disguise.
Don’t worry, most people diet by mistake. Every day, I meet crazy-smart-funny-talented people who are on a diet and don’t know it. Traditional diets are easy to spot; the word diet is often in the name, which is a dead giveaway. These diets come with a set of rules and a meal plan to follow, and if you don’t pay for the plan you are usually expected to buy foods and supplements to help you along the way.
Yet most diets aren’t as dizzyingly obvious as this and, unfortunately, the most damaging diet is the diet in disguise. These days many diets are “undercover”. Marketers and social media starlets got the hint that diets were out and “balance” was cool. To capitalise on this new approach, they hype their highly profitable books and programs as “a fad-free balanced approach to nutrition without diets”, but read on and you’ll soon be told to cut out gluten, sugar, wheat or fruit. This, my friends, is a diet in disguise and they’re the worst.
Diets are often well-camouflaged as “healthy eating”, but take note when you see words such as foods to avoid, clean eating, detox, grain-free, sugar-free, superfoods and toxic. These are clues that you may be looking at a diet in disguise.
For 10 years I dieted by mistake and it kept me struggling with my weight and caught in the vicious emotional-eating cycle. If you’d asked, I would have told you confidently that diets don’t work and that I was simply “eating healthily” or “trying to be good”.
What I didn’t realise is that I was controlled by dieting rules. For as long as I believed that I shouldn’t have carbs after 5 pm, that I should eat six small meals a day or that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I was on a diet and would continue to struggle with my weight. I truly believed the rules kept my weight down and I feared that if I stopped following these rules, my weight would spiral further out of control.
I was wrong. Once I stopped trying to control food, food stopped controlling me. And it was so liberating. Dieting rules, not my willpower, had been the problem the whole time. Diet rules made me fear perfectly nutritious food, made me obsessed with health and left me feeling guilty when I deviated even slightly from “the plan”.
Dieting (by mistake) was the reason I was out of control around food and was struggling with my weight. A lot of recent research has shown that dieting leads to weight gain in the long term. This is because restrictive diets:
- Slow your metabolism
- Make you feel deprived
- Increase cravings for “forbidden foods”
- Cause you to obsess about food or think about food all the time
- Trigger binge and emotional eating
- Set you up for a disordered relationship with food
The truth is that all diets work. The question is: do you want to live on that diet for the rest of your life? If you don’t want to fast for two days of your week or avoid your favourite foods for the rest of your life, then there isn’t any point doing it for a few weeks because you’ll quickly regain any weight you lose—plus more!—when the diet inevitably ends.
It’s not your fault. Diets set you up for failure.
It’s thought that as many as 95 per cent of diets fail in the longer term. That’s seriously terrible odds! It’s like a parachute that fails to open 95 out of 100 times. If you were one of the lucky people who survived, you’d be celebrated in the media for beating the odds. And this is exactly what we do when people successfully lose weight on a diet. Their stories are splashed across news sites and magazines. As a result, you come to believe that every day, people just like you are having success with diets. This reporting bias causes you to overestimate how successful you’ll be on a diet and tricks you into thinking that This diet is different and it will work. But it’s all a trick.
So you try yet another diet. At the start, your motivation is high, but soon you hit a roadblock—you don’t lose weight as quickly as you thought you would, you get too busy to exercise, meal prep begins to feel too hard—and your motivation starts to dwindle. With each new diet attempt, your ability to sustain motivation slides. That’s because each time you try to lose weight on a diet, it’s harder and harder. The weight is more stubborn, your body is more reluctant to let the fat go and your willpower diminishes with each new attempt.
So instead of losing weight and keeping it off, each time you try another diet, you end up losing willpower, and then you regain more weight than you lost in the first place. Over time, your relationship with food gets worse, and your weight goes up and up.
It’s not your fault. Diets set you up for failure. The good news is that once you become aware of diets in disguise and decide you’re ready to live a truly diet-free life, without restriction, counting kilojoules or clean eating, you can learn how to keep it real, stop obsessing and never be a victim of diets again. The first step is to ditch those pesky dieting rules that keep you stuck in the emotional-eating, food-guilt and body-hate cycle. To do this, you need to become aware of all the food rules you currently subscribe to.
Like getting over an ex, the less time you spend thinking about it, the easier it is. Dieting rules often make you think about food more, which does not help you eat less or more nutritiously.
From now on, notice when you start to ask yourself, Am I allowed to eat this? Asking this question is a symptom of being stuck in the diet mentality. Because of course you’re allowed to eat it. The more important questions are: Do you want to eat it? How will eating it make you feel? Food must be a choice, not feel like a prison sentence.
Changing the question to I am allowed to eat that, but do I really want to? is the key. The distinctions are subtle, but can make an oh-so-significant difference.
Images and recipes from The Nude Nutritionist by Lyndi Cohen, Murdoch Books, RRP $35.00. Photography: Cath Muscat (macrons), Leah Stanistreet & Luca Prodigo