It's that time of year again folks... time to make that all-important New Year's resolution. I feel like the odd-one-out by having a different goal for myself than to lose weight. In fact, the phrase "On Monday I'm starting my diet" has become so common place in our culture, no one bats an eye when they hear it... no one but an eating disorder specialist, that is!
When I hear someone say they are "dieting" my skin crawls and I want to shake some sense into them. How can millions of Americans still be lulled into dieting by the promise that "this time it will work?" It's like a mass delusion we are allowing ourselves to buy into. It truly makes me crazy!!
In order to break out of our delusion, we must acknowledge the crucial fact regarding dieting and weight loss -- dieting does not work. At any given moment, some 20 million Americans are actively dieting, and 95% of them will regain that weight and probably more. Most people will blame themselves for their failure to lose weight, without seeing that they were set up to fail by thinking that losing weight by dieting was plausible. Here are two main reasons why dieting doesn't work:
1. Set Point -- The human body has a variety of survival mechanisms designed to maintain its optimal weight. These mechanisms perceive a restriction of food intake as an emergency, like starvation, and make adjustments so that the body holds on to precious pounds instead of letting them go. Everyone's body has a particular weight range of between 5 to 10 pounds at which our bodies are the healthiest and work the most efficiently. This "set point" can be influenced by diet, heredity, age, health, and activity level; but generally speaking, each of us has a natural weight our bodies want to be. In fact, our bodies fight to maintain this optimal weight (homeostasis).
When we restrict our calories through dieting, this is interpreted as starvation, which causes our metabolism to decrease and our body to slow down to preserve calories. On the flip side, a larger amount of food is a signal to speed up the metabolism to compensate for calories that are not needed. This is the way our bodies are designed to work in order to keep us at a natural, healthy weight. Now this weight might be higher or lower than you think it should be, but it's the one your body wants to maintain as optimal. As long as you are not starving (dieting) or stuffing (binging) yourself, you can eat a variety of foods -- more on some days, less on others -- and stay a stable (homeostasis) size. This is the hard part for most of us...this size is not yours to determine, it is only yours to accept and ultimately love. This is where all of your hard work needs to go, self-acceptance and self-love, and not be wasted on dieting.
2. Water Balance -- Rapid water loss accounts for almost all of the weight decrease during the early stages of a restrictive diet. When the body is deprived of blood sugar via restrictive carbohydrate consumption, the liver will first break down its own stored sugar (glycogen), and then converts amino acids from muscle protein into sugar. Now, here's the "science" part; the glycogen and amino acid molecules are both surrounded by water which is released from the cells, passes to the kidneys, and is excreted as urine. This is the reason dieters initially can lose several pounds of (water) weight quickly. However, the kidneys adapt to this loss of water by retaining sodium and consequently, water. It's this adaptation of the kidneys that causes dieters to experience a weight loss "plateau."
And so it is that this water-retaining principle combined with a decreased metabolism can cause a weight rebound when you begin to eat normally and your body perceives that it is no longer in danger of starvation. In order for any type of weight loss to be successful, your body needs time to adjust to a new way of life, whether that means incorporating more movement and less overall calories or movement and calories coming from healthier sources, wherein the balancing of water and metabolism are crucial. (Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery)
Oprah's weight struggles exemplify this principle. The major problem Oprah faces is not obesity, but body-acceptance. It's clear that Oprah's body was never meant to be comfortable at a set-point that makes her a size 6. Unfortunately, with each new "failure," the desire to be this unnatural size consumes her.
I recently read an interview where she states how disappointed she is with herself for gaining back the weight she had lost... and why did she gain it back? Because she was fasting on liquids which her body interpreted as starvation, her metabolism slowed down, so that when she began eating solid foods again, her metabolism wasn't prepared to make use of them. Oprah has done vigorous exercise and healthy eating regimes to lose weight as well. I suspect this has not worked in the long run for her because of the time commitment to exercise, not prioritizing her life around exercise, and her inability to incorporate her favorite "comfort foods" regularly enough that she doesn't feel deprived. If she doesn't have the experience of "deprivation" she most likely will not need to binge on these foods later on. Then comes the work around self-acceptance and love. This is so important to self-worth that unless this is in place, no amount of weight loss is going to make her happy. Clearly this is the challenge before her... not looking for self-esteem through an idealized body image.
Her struggles with weight and dieting must be a cautionary tale for all of us. It's the dissatisfaction with self that leads so many from dieting to eating disorders. Over the next 12 weeks, I will be laying out a recovery plan that, if followed, may free you from the chains of dieting for good. Originally I called these The 12 Steps of Recovery from an Eating Disorder, but you don't need to have an eating disorder for them to work for you. You are welcome to write me here at HuffPo or on my website to share how these steps are working in your life. After all, as the famous cat, Garfield once said, "Diet is Die with a T."
The 12 Steps of Recovery from an Eating Disorder
1. Admit you have needs that haven't been met.
2. Seek help and support.
3. Look for answers... don't stop until you've found them.
4. Look for solutions... stop submitting, stop rebelling.
5. Practice gratitude daily.
6. Develop a balanced point of view.
7. Share your stories with others... you are not alone.
8. Clear away the wreckage of your past... mourn the lost opportunities.
9. Continuously revise your life story.
10. Practice honesty and compassion for self and others.
11. Meet your needs... communicate honestly and directly.
12. Knowing that you are not powerless, food will fall into its healthful place.