In my office, I often meet with clients who tell me that they aren’t dieting. Debbie is a typical example. “I’m not on a diet. I just try to eat healthy,” she stated firmly. I asked her what “eating healthy” meant, and she rattled off a long list of foods and macronutrients that are restricted. “I try not to eat processed foods…” she started off. “Carbs are inflammatory so I try and avoid those, along with sugar because it’s also inflammatory plus it’s addictive and once I start with sugar I’m totally out of control, fruit is basically just candy so I try and stay clear except I do allow myself some blueberries on occasion, nightshades are toxic so no eggplant for me even though it used to be my favourite, I don’t eat any red meat, I try to eat organic as much as possible…”
Debbie went on for several more minutes listing all the foods on the naughty list as she described her ‘not-a-diet’ diet.
Dieting has become so normalised as a way of life that many of us are dieting and don’t even think we are dieting. In recent years, dieting has fallen out of vogue. As the general public became increasingly savvy to the fact that diets don’t work, the diet industry scrambled to rebrand itself, hiding under the guise of “wellness” and “health.” “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change! It’s just healthy eating!” diet companies proclaim, trying to convince us that they are all about health, not weight loss, despite promising customers that they will lose weight.
These companies are smart and spend tons of money on market research; they know, despite all of our disillusionment with dieting, people still want to lose weight, and if they convince us we can do that without “dieting” customers will flock back. SlimFast and Atkins have given way to cold-pressed juices, raw food meal delivery services, boutique fitness classes, detoxes, “clean eating,” even jade eggs for people’s vaginas! Weight Watchers changed its name to “WW”, adopted a new tagline (“wellness that works”), and tried to gaslight us all into believing that they were no longer a diet company—now they’re a wellness company. The same old diet companies are still there; it just may be harder to recognise them.
We are told that “strong is the new skinny” and “healthy is the new skinny,” but when we look at the images of wellness culture (read: young, thin, white, conventionally attractive cis women), one thing is really clear: skinny is the new skinny. Health has just become a code word for thin.
Dieting means we prioritise messages from the weight loss industry while ignoring messages from our own body. Dieting refers not only to the following of a specific commercial plan, but also to a broader “diet mentality” that tells us that certain foods are good or bad, and that we are good or bad based on the foods we consume. Our self-worth becomes determined by what we eat; our moral value rises with lettuce and falls with pizza. Who we are and what we do is eclipsed by what we eat and what our bodies look like.
If you have a list of foods that are good/bad, clean/toxic, restricted/permitted, if you judge yourself as being good or bad based on what you eat, if you try to avoid entire food groups, if you feel guilty after eating, or if you decide what to eat or not eat based on an external set of rules, you are most likely on a diet. Most of us are on some kind of a diet. To be raised in diet culture and not have a dysfunctional relationship with food is a rare experience.
Not dieting doesn’t mean that we must eat all foods or that we don’t have certain ways of eating that feel best in our body. It just means that we are eating in accordance with our body and letting our internal signals be our guide. This way of eating tends to be flexible, peaceful, and compassionate. Being anti-diet does not mean that we are anti-health.
Here are some exercises to help you start your journey to breaking up with diet culture, and healing your relationship with food – and your body…
Journal about your relationship with dieting
Answer the following questions:
- In what ways have diets worked for you, and in what ways have diets failed you?
- Are you ready to say goodbye to dieting? Be honest with yourself. It’s okay if you aren’t ready yet. In fact, it’s important to acknowledge that. Dieting offers tastes of the good along with the bad, which can make it hard to part ways. There is a lot invested in convincing us that we need dieting.
- If you aren’t ready to say goodbye, are you ready to take a break from dieting for the duration of this program?
Write a breakup letter to dieting
Try to identify both the positive and negative aspects of dieting. How has dieting helped you, and how has dieting hurt you? Think about the good times and the bad. Be sure to consider the full diet cycle, both when you are on the plan and when you go off. Are the lists lopsided? What feelings come up when you think about not dieting? What are the fantasies or hopes that you are holding onto about dieting? This letter should end with a final goodbye or a “let’s take a break,” whichever you feel more comfortable with.
One of the key elements of this exercise is to identify both your positive and negative associations to dieting. We wouldn’t diet if it wasn’t serving us in some way, and you probably wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t harming you in some way. It is important to identify both sides of the conflict so that we can process our complicated feelings about dieting and move on with our life!
List your fears about not dieting
Write down what you worry will happen if you don’t diet—“I’ll be completely out of control, I’ll gain a ton of weight, I’ll binge nonstop, I’ll feel lost,” or whatever you’re feeling. Now go through this list again and make a check mark next to each item that also occurs with the dieting cycle—feeling out of control? Check! Weight loss followed by weight gain? Check!
List your reasons for wanting to lose weight
If you have the goal of losing weight, write down why you want to lose weight. Then go back over this list and mark each item that can be met independent of weight loss. For example, you may have listed “have more self-confidence” as a motivation. Is it possible to increase self-confidence in any way other than weight loss? Hint: quieting your harsh inner critic and being more compassionate toward yourself usually helps. If you listed “improve my health,” consider: are there any ways that I can work toward improving my health now, in my current body? There are many ways to improve health that don’t involve losing weight.
Try the “thin picture” exercise
Have you ever weighed less than you currently do? If so, find a picture of you at your lower weight. This could be either a photograph or a mental image. Journal about what your life was like at that time. Try to remember this period as fully as possible and imagine yourself back there.
What were you doing to achieve this lower weight? Were you truly happy? Did you feel emotionally fulfilled? Were you living a life of pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction? Or did you still not feel good about your body? Did you still want to lose a few more pounds? Did you socially isolate yourself? Were you preoccupied with food, dieting, and exercise? Was the regimen or weight loss sustainable? And if so, was there an associated cost? What was the process by which you regained the weight?
You may also want to take some time to mourn the loss of that thinner body and the privileges you may have been granted as a result. Try to allow yourself to feel whatever emotions may arise.
Allow yourself to grieve
Ending your relationship with dieting can feel like a loss. After all, dieting has accompanied you through much of your life and provided a source of hope when things felt bleak. In our darkest moments, dieting promised that thinner, better days lay ahead. It symbolised a clear and simple path to improving our life (even if that path turned out to be paved with hot coals and shards of broken glass). This fantasy comforted us and served an important psychological purpose that we can honour, even if we are no longer dedicating ourselves to dieting. There is no one right way to feel during this process; try to allow space for whatever emotions may arise, including feelings of loss and grief, in this process of ending (or taking a break from) your relationship with dieting.
Remember, the problem is diet culture, not your body
Our body is wise. It may not always do what we want it to do, but it is doing what it needs to do. If you are unhappy with your body size, that makes sense. We live in a culture with pervasive fatphobia and weight-based discrimination. It is hard to live in our world in a larger body. Be as kind to yourself as you can.
From The Diet-Free Revolution: 10 Steps to Free Yourself from the Diet Cycle with Mindful Eating and Radical Self-Acceptance by Alexis Conason, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of publisher.