I am the mother of three daughters. I am also a psychotherapist with a 25-year practice working with adults and children on a variety of issues, one of them being eating problems.
In my former life, I was a dancer. The reason I am compelled to write this piece now, is that this time of year is particularly filled with diet information in your face. "This is how you will lose weight" is basically the promise set out in every magazine cover, every daily news show segment, every commercial.
What I always wonder about however, is this: "If we were such experts at weight loss, why is this such a recurring problem for most people?"
For most people, diets don't work. Plain and simple. If they did, you would never have to try another one for the rest of your life. There wouldn't be a market of chronic users.
Diets are easy in that they are prescriptive; they take the thinking out of the equation. You just follow the directions and they promise you weight loss. Almost always works.
You do in fact, lose the weight. Then what? Life happens. Regular life. You want to have one, you go out, you have holidays, birthdays, vacations, you can't work out or get the "right," "healthy" food and boy are you ever sick of eating it all, anyway. Or you end up getting so rigid that when your friends are having pizza and fries, you are left wanting. Or you crack and then promise you won't have that tomorrow.
The problem with this "good" and "bad" idea or thinking about food and eating is that it leads to weight gain over time. You end up on that yo-yo cycle. Even if it is not a ton of weight, you gain and lose that amount over time and you simply train your body to weigh more. Plus you're miserable, thinking you are the failure and that it is simply your lack of discipline and self-control that is the problem.
Wrong! Dieting is the problem. Unless you change your relationship to food for life, you will continue to believe in your victory (when you are on your diet) and failure (when you eat what you want to eat).
Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece: When I was a dancer, I too was a dieter. A pretty radical one, at that. I believed, like many, that there were "good" foods and "bad" foods, and that to stay thin, I had to stay away from these "bad" foods.
"Bad" foods became pretty powerful. If I was preparing for a show or audition, I would stay away from them, and then when I had the chance, boy, I would eat them! Now I did not eat them moderately, because of course I was always facing that next audition, so I would tell myself this:
"I won't have this tomorrow, or starting Monday."
Little did I know, that very thought somehow gave me a weird permission -- or even mission -- to eat more of that food I had allowed myself, than I even felt like having at that moment. I stopped listening to whether I was satisfied or even full, because of course I was not having that food again. Or certainly in the near future. I better get it all in now.
That put me in this constant "on-off" cycle of eating. It made me think about what I was eating and how I was going to get it, and took up way too much space in my brain. I always say that if we could harness the amount of mental and psychic energy people spend thinking about whether they should or shouldn't eat that and what they've eaten and how much of it, etc. etc., we really could cure cancer!
Aside from the bind of this, I was still never happy with my weight. I always thought I was too big (until I got a job with a dance company where the choreographer said she almost didn't hire me because I was not as large as most of the women she likes to choreograph on!).
Fast-forward past my dance career, and I am now working as a therapist and in a psychiatric hospital. I get to wear clothing, and I figured: "Hey, clothing! Not just leotard and tights! I can hide some parts of my body I am less than thrilled with! I can experiment with eating the foods that I used to think are "verboten," and see how it goes. No biggie if I gain a few pounds."
My rule was this: I could no longer say to myself that I would "start that diet tomorrow and stop eating that food." I had to say this to myself: "I can have this food now, but I need to really think if I want to eat it now, or have some of it later."
I practiced really checking back in with my body and thoughts to make sure that I wasn't continuing to eat out of the habit of thinking: "I won't have it tomorrow." This was key, as we are fed by every message and most people believe that there are foods that are unhealthy and fattening, and that we "shouldn't" eat them. These are powerful beliefs, and until you have mastered a new approach that shows you that you can lose weight or keep it off by changing this, you won't trust it. You don't trust yourself yet, and you don't have the evidence to go on to prove it works. However, you probably have the evidence that chronic dieting doesn't end up keeping your weight down or help you feel free from worrying about eating.
Continuing with this led me to -- ironically -- a lower weight overall, but more importantly, freedom from over-thinking food. It also fueled my passion to help free others from worrying about food for the rest of their lives.
So here is how it goes -- try it, see what happens:
When you are confronted with the idea that what you are eating -- or want to eat -- isn't what you "should" eat, say:
"The belief that I cannot eat this is old. It does not end up helping me because I end up wanting that food again, and it feeds this belief that I have no control over this food since I always end up eating it compulsively, bingeing on it, or simply overeating in general."
"The behavior that leads me to believe that I cannot eat the food is not the issue that I have to keep focused on. It is the belief that this food that I want to eat will no longer be available, makes me behave with this food in a way that reinforces my belief that I have no control over the food, and am a failure. I need to change my belief that I can't have this food."
"The belief that I cannot eat this or that is what leads me to disconnect from my body and give me permission to eat it all and anything else that gets in my way, because I will stop tomorrow. That is the problem that leads to the behavior I need to change."
Here is a new belief and skill to try:
"I can eat that food, but I am not allowed to tell myself that I won't have it tomorrow. In fact I can have it again tomorrow, but my rule is that I have to really feel like I need to have it now."
"I need to continue to stop and consider how I am truly feeling -- in my body, and my head. How satisfied, or done, or full am I? Not yet, perhaps it will be in a few bites, after another helping. My job is to stop to consider how I am feeling and delighting in eating this."
New skill to practice: Stay connected to how satisfied you are. Knowing that you can stop whenever you choose, because the food is still there, allows you to practice waiting. In this process of waiting, you can play around with how you feel:
"Do I want half now, and save the rest for an hour later? A few hours later? Perhaps tomorrow." "Let me see how I feel later on." Knowing that it is still there, and truly believing that, will help you to check into your body and practice seeing whether you really want it, or is it just an old habit that you follow because of your old belief: "I shouldn't eat this therefore I will have no more after today."
This sounds easy, but is actually something that takes practice. I still have to remind myself never to diet or deprive myself if I want to drop the pounds I gained over vacation. I trust that the process of regular life, eating, works. The proof has been in the pudding, but I still have to override that tape loop that tells me that staying away from ice cream will be what helps me lose those few pounds. It never works for me, makes me just want ice cream and stop listening to when I'd like to stop.
Not dieting works. It works, because it radically changes your relationships to what you eat. To how you eat. It give you the power back, the food no longer has the power over you.
If you really practice this, you will see how you end up spreading out your calories. You will keep your metabolism stoked as you keep yourself fed, no more on/off cycles that train your body to hold onto weight -- and best of all, you gradually stop over-thinking your food.
Not to sound like an infomercial, but this has worked with hundreds of people in my practice -- from a woman who had gained and lost hundreds of pounds, failed gastroplasty surgery, and now has maintained her hundred-pound weight loss differently. She says it was "easy." She is simply "different" with food, and can leave the pastries, and former binge food lying around. It helped a lifelong bulimic who thought she was addicted to chocolate and had failed every treatment. It worked with all people who were sick of over-thinking their food and wanting something that isn't a diet, but transforms their relationship to food for life.
Sounds radical, huh? Radical and simple: Don't do the diet. Spread the word.
No more New Year's resolutions.
Visit me at: http://donnafish.com
For more by Donna Fish, click here.
For more on weight loss, click here.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.