ARTICLES

Dieting - Why do we do it?

Diana Lalor
Psychologist
Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Perth, Western Australia

Dieting has become common and normalised in our society with many of us having an unhealthy or disordered relationship with food. Studies indicate that up to 82% of the population is 'sometimes' or 'very often' on a diet.

Our culture has been brainwashed into thinking that 'ultra-thin' is equal to beauty. In the course of history, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. At many points in history, natural curves, and in fact being very curvy, were regarded as normal and to be admired, as it is in many cultures today, other than our own.

As a result of our current emphasis upon thinness the dieting industry has exploded. What we often don't consider is that the growth of the dieting industry has been so rapid, because of the dieting failure rate - ie diets don't work. 95% of dieters regain their lost weight. The 5% of 'successful dieters' are generally found to be successful because they have adopted a new lifestyle of healthy eating and exercise rather than have stuck to their diets.

Why Do Diets Fail?

A typical diet begins with a wish to lose weight - it might be for a special occasion where we want to look our 'best', but more often there is a striving to adjust our body weight to match that of images of very thin models or celebrities that we see in the media. We imagine that if we can only look like them, then we will feel happier, be able to wear the clothes that we want, be more attractive to others and to ourselves, and be able to enjoy our life more.

A typical diet ends when we have achieved our goal weight or when we are no longer able to sustain the diet regime that we began.

Dieting failure occurs as a result of the body and mind reacting to what it experiences as a state of semi-starvation. When energy intake (calories) are restricted, the body's metabolism naturally slows down in an attempt to conserve energy, resulting in calories being burned at a slower rate.

At the beginning of a diet, the body loses water and muscle mass, as it is not possible for the body to burn fat tissue at a fast rate.

The mind becomes preoccupied with thoughts of food and the craving for sweet, energy high foods increases. Sustaining a diet is difficult as our bodies are designed to fight weight loss to ensure our survival from the threat of starvation.

When we stop dieting the urge to over eat is common as our body attempts to restore itself to a state of balance and typically we regain the weight we have lost, or our weight increases beyond our pre-diet weight. This may lead to feelings of discouragement and failure where we blame ourselves for having insufficient willpower, setting up a cycle of 'yo-yo' dieting that may ultimately damage our overall health or lead to serious eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

Getting Off the Dieting Roundabout

Mindful Eating

There are many events in daily life that involve food including socialising with family and friends and in the workplace. If our relationship with food is fraught with guilt, shame and anxiety, it can take the pleasure away from enjoying the simplest things in life. Learning about Mindful Eating can assist in developing a healthy body image and a healthy relationship with food.

Understanding Mindfulness and Mindful Eating
The healing and transformative effects of mindfulness practice have been understood in the Eastern traditions for many centuries. Mindfulness is most simply defined as "being present, in the moment with awareness, openness and acceptance". Mindfulness encourages us to attend to our bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts and has been demonstrated in psychological practice to enhance both psychological and physical well being. Mindfulness practice can assist us to become aware of our emotional and physical states and our need to ease our feelings of discomfort by eating. It supports us to experience awareness of what we are feeling without judgement.

Mindful eating encourages us to understand the impulses and the history that drives our urge to eat for comfort or distraction. We learn to tune into our bodily sensations and decide whether or not we are physically hungry. If the answer is yes we are physically hungry, we can eat while paying attention to the appearance of the food, the smell, the taste, and what the mind is thinking about the food that we are eating. If we understand that we are not physically hungry but are responding to historical impulses to comfort or distract, then we are able to attend to the urges and the meaning behind them; to develop the knowledge and skills to eat in the way that nature intended and to develop a healthy relationship with food.

The core premise of mindful eating is 'it is not what you eat but the way you eat ', (Albers, 2008).

Some Reasons for Eating

  • To sustain life
  • To provide the body with nourishment and energy
  • To satisfy physical hunger
  • To comfort and nurture ourselves
  • To manage overwhelming feelings
  • To manage the effects of childhood/family-of-origin issues
  • Because it is safe
  • Because it is reliable
  • To provide a distraction.
  • Because we don't know what else to do.

Eating is necessary to sustain life and to provide us with the nourishment and energy to live life in a fulfilling and satisfying way. Eating is pleasurable and an integral part of family and social life. Food and eating can also become problematic when we use it in some of the ways listed above. Many of these reasons for eating are valid ways to manage our feelings when we are unsure of other ways to manage or cope. When we are using food in this way, it is common to experience a sense of shame and an urge to be secretive about our eating habits. This can lead to disordered eating, including dieting and crash dieting.

If you would like to get off the Dieting Roundabout and for more information about Body Image and Mindful Eating, please contact Diana.



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