By Jaclyn Chute, RD
Meet Rayna. She wants to lose weight, so decides to get serious about clean eating. After doing some research, she has a plan. Talking about it with a friend she says, “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. I know which good foods to include, which bad ones to avoid and the exact portions I need to reach my goal weight.”
Rayna decides that tomorrow will be day one of her new eating plan. With a mix of excitement and sadness, she gathers all of the now forbidden foods in her house and piles them onto the kitchen counter so she can get rid of them. She thinks, “Wow, I am really going to miss chocolate and chips and cookies. It would be a waste to just throw them away. Maybe I’ll just eat them this one last time.” At the end of the night, she tosses a stack of wrappers and boxes, and goes to bed with a stomach ache from overeating.
Rayna wakes up feeling bloated and uncomfortable from her “last supper” the night before. But it’s day one of a whole new Rayna! She carefully portions out all of her meals and snacks. Throughout the day, she snaps a few pics for Instagram, highlighting her super healthy food choices. The likes and comments from her followers make her happy.
Fast forward a couple of days. This isn’t as easy as day one. However, Rayna is sticking to her list of good foods and still getting affirmation from social media. The thing is, when she meets a friend who is enjoying her favourite cookie at the coffee shop, Rayne finds it really hard to say no to enjoying a treat as well. And, later, when her stomach grumbles an hour after eating her perfectly portioned dinner, she chides herself about her lack of willpower and unruly hunger. But she doesn’t give in; she is following the plan.
Now it’s the weekend. She made it! On Saturday night, Rayna goes to a friend’s birthday party. On the table is a big bowl of chips beside a fruit tray and a beautifully decorated cake. “I’ve been good all week. I’ll just have a couple of chips and some fruit, no cake,” Rayna reasons. The chips are so good that Rayna discreetly goes back to the table and grabs another handful. She eats them fast while no one is looking, and hardly tastes them. She thinks, “I shouldn’t be having this,” then sees her hand reach for one more handful. For a moment, she enjoys the feeling of fullness from a food she likes and misses. Then as the cake is served, the downward spiral of thoughts kicks in. “I can’t believe I did that. I’m such a failure. Why don’t I have more willpower? I hope no one saw that; I’m so bad for eating this way.” Saying no to the cake, Rayna tries to have fun for the rest of the evening, but can’t shake her negative emotions. She excuses herself early, and stops at a store on her way home. Armed with a cake to make up for the one she missed out on, chocolate and wine, she tries to quiet her feelings with food. The food works only for a moment, and Rayna goes to bed feeling down and discouraged.
Waking up with a food hangover, Rayna reflects on her slip up. “Why did I binge? I really regret my choices. I am so weak. I can do better.” And with a renewed commitment to buckle down, eat only the good foods and be meticulous about her portions, Rayna begins the cycle again.
What’s actually happening in Rayna’s story?
I hear this story a lot, and guess you probably have seen or experienced it too. As a dietitian, I recognize the dieting cycle. Sadly these days, many plans are marketed as a “lifestyle change” when in fact they are just a diet in disguise. Restricting food and dieting lead to feelings of deprivation, hunger and a desire for forbidden foods. When you give in to temptation, it feels good in the moment; but then you may feel disappointed and experience negative emotions, such as guilt, shame and anxiety. At this point, many people believe the answer is still to restrict foods. However, in reality, another restriction will just kick off the cycle again.
Is more willpower the answer?
In a word, no. The truth is that restricting food and dieting set you up for failure. It’s these practices of deprivation, not your willpower, that are the problem. If you are not getting enough calories (i.e. you are under-eating), the body’s natural response is to produce a strong drive to eat. This urge often shows up as overeating or binge eating, especially later in the day. A dieting mentality is hard on your mind and your body, and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. When it comes to your best health, restriction and dieting are not the answer.
How to break the cycle
Choose health over weight loss
The first step to breaking the cycle is to choose health over weight loss, and aim for your best weight. Your best weight is described as the one you reach living the healthiest life you enjoy. It’s not the life you can suffer through hoping to reach a certain number on the scale, but the one where you are intentional about self-care, respect your body and envision yourself happily living the lifestyle you choose for the rest of your days.
Try intuitive eating
Next, explore intuitive eating, which has three core principles:
- Eat for physical rather than emotional reasons. Find ways to find comfort without using food (e.g. walk the dog, journal, garden, take a bath). Food does not fix feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, depression or anger. Because eating does not solve problems, it is advisable to deal with the source of the emotion.<
- Rely on internal hunger and satiety cues. Honour your hunger. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Being too hungry may lead to overeating or making choices that aren’t in line with your body’s needs at the time. Get in touch with your body and listen to your internal signals.
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Respect your body and feel good about who you are. Rebuild trust with yourself and food. Get away from labelling food as “good” or “bad” and having a list of “forbidden” foods. Enjoy eating your food.
Finally, seek support. Look for registered dietitians who specialize in building a healthy relationship with food, or have training in intuitive eating. Follow their blogs or social media pages, listen to their podcasts or consider working directly with them. The encouragement of others on your journey towards better health and a better relationship with food can be very helpful.
This article was originally posted on Nourish Move Thrive I’m good all week, so why do I binge on the weekend?