Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
International Eating Disorder Referral Organization
The Appeal of Dieting?
How many times have you started a new diet, the appeal fresh and exciting as the last one that failed extravagantly like its many predecessors? What is it about the cycle from diet/deprivation to free-flowing diet-breaking and bingeing, weight loss to weight gain, that feels so incredibly hard to break? Why is all the pain and suffering that precedes the diet start-up so easily vanquished by the promise of weight loss? The feeling of a new beginning, so powerful, creates false hope of success in the face of a great deal of evidence to prove diets don’t really work.
There are many reasons why weight loss seems to be the only way to enhance self-esteem: It is an external measure trying to heal an internal problem, and this can seem much easier and less scary than trying to regulate food based on hunger vs. emotional needs. For those caught up in the restricting-overeating cycle, learning how to regulate the physical—hunger, fullness and the emotional can be a lot of hard, confusing, and time-consuming emotional work whereas starting a diet is familiar and enticing. The amount of attention a woman receives for weight loss may be unparalled only to be overcome by the equally strong feelings of shame if weight is regained. Diets are billed as making us “good” people, who control base urges, while diet breakers feel like “bad” people, sloppy and lazy. (or much worse)
Aside from the deprivation and restriction that dieting supports, the good and bad food dichotomy it sets up, dieters who are prone to disordered eating or eating disorders can tend to find that they are more obsessed with food in general, and especially the foods they are trying to restrict the most. There is a cruel irony here that is very painful to realize. That is why so often dieting actually causes weight gain in the end. As with many self-defeating behaviors, realization of the behavior and understanding its origins can be very helpful, but also very scary. Psychotherapy can help with the self-understanding and the fear and can help you learn new, more durable eating skills. It’s important to remember that the difference between starting therapy and starting another diet is that therapy has a better chance of helping in the long-run if you can hang in with it and find the right support-team.
Eating disorders are extraordinarily emotionally painful, humiliating, and humbling problems. Although not everyone with an eating disorder has tried to diet, the restricting-craving-bingeing with or without purging cycle is familiar to many. One of the hallmarks of an eating disorder is its good-bad/all-or nothing dichotomy of thinking. This thinking also contains a lot of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. It is usually very self critical with perfection being the goal. Again, the cruel irony is that “permission”, the opposite of eating disordered thinking, is the opposite of dieting and the most promising for recovery. I don’t mean to imply an eating free-for-all. Structure and loving limits (a term I like from the Don’t Diet, Live it Workbook by Andrea LoBue, LMFCC and Marsea Marcus, LMFCC) are really different from self-castigation and unreachable perfectionistic goals.
I want to add more thoughts on shame. Shame is one of the most difficult feelings because it strikes at the core of who you are rather than embarrassment over mistakes you have made that might be able to be corrected. There is so much shame associated with weight gain and overeating for many reasons, but to a great degree, I believe dieting and the weight loss industry are big contributors to shame and body hatred. How many of you reading this had someone in your family try to put you on a diet when you were young? Instead of having the chance to experiment with food and learn your body’s desires and limits naturally, you may have been taught to feel restricted with food and shamed about your body from an early age.
And now, for the subject that is possibly the number one topic of interest for many or maybe most women: weight loss. How, you ask, are you going to lose weight if dieting doesn’t work? And what about the “obesity epidemic” and health concerns and prejudice about size? What about gastric surgery and is weight watchers not really a diet anymore? How about Overeaters Anonymous and abstinence? As with any global subject, there are going to be many answers for different individuals. Lately, there have been more voices speaking out about letting the body find its own weight rather than trying to force a preconceived number on each and every body. There is a concept called “weight neutrality”—the idea that your weight is neither good nor bad but what it is. In her article, “Are you a weight-ist” Dr. Sari Shepphird states that weight discrimination is a prejudice more prevalent in our society than racism. Here are examples of weight-ism Dr. Shepphird notes: "fat people are unhealthy and lazy", "losing weight is just a matter of willpower”, "thin people are more in control and disciplined", “thin = healthy”, "fat is unattractive; thin is attractive". Our society has been indoctrinated with these ideas so deeply that it is easy to forget that they boil down to nothing more than outright prejudice and discrimination. And this toxic negative thinking gets turned on the self as well as others.
“Do I have an eating disorder?” This is a very important question, and I believe you need to take an honest look at this rather than returning to the security of another diet. If you believe you do have an eating disorder, (there are many websites that address this with questionnaires) your direction around weight loss may become a little clearer because addressing an eating disorder needs special attention and care. If you do not have an eating disorder, you may have some signs of disordered eating. These are the kind of questions that a therapist may be able to help you with.
Some of the special attention and care I mention above points towards learning how to take better care of yourself. Why do you eat the way you do and how can you understand the role of emotions in your eating patterns? Why are you so focused on weight loss above all else? If you had more tools, skills, and support to handle compulsive eating would you possibly eat less in the long run than if you were on a restricted diet? Why do you (if you do) move your body in harsh and exhausting ways? Are there ways for you to be able to move and move in your body that you could start using right away to feel better about yourself? What is it about self-enhancing activities like yoga that feels threatening or creates resistance in you? How could you find avenues towards inner self-esteem enhancement? Is it true or false that losing weight can bring you inner peace? Geneen Roth’s first book has “breaking free” in the title. Of course this is a really difficult and complicated project, but will dieting get you there?
If you have read this far, then here is a question: have you ever stopped to think about why dieting hasn’t worked for you? Take a moment to sit down and look at your own experiences. If you are currently dieting, this may feel very threatening. However, there are usually moments on a diet when you aren’t as sure why you are doing it. If you are not currently dieting, are you romanticizing or glamorizing what actually happened the last time you were on a diet? Did the diet help you with your self-esteem, or did it cause negative feelings or excessive worry that got filed under the rug? Did you feel anxious about being “bad”? Did you feel very anxious about starting to “maintain” your weight loss? Or did you increase the number of times you purged or took unhealthy drugs?
If you are open to it, I would love to hear about your dieting experiences and any insights you may have into how you really feel about dieting. website: www.womenstherapyservices.com. Feel free to contact me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and are presented without editing. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of EDReferral.com, and no official endorsement by EDReferral.com of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.
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