I started writing this blog on Monday, without knowing that Tuesday was International ‘No Diet Day’. Great! A day when we are officially allowed to stray from our diets and treat ourselves to a positive body image – how generous! Does this mean though, that today, we’re supposed to go back to grazing on lettuce leaves and hating everything we see in the mirror? What on earth has the world come to that necessitates a ‘no diet day’? Unfortunately, it’s the diet industry – and the £2million revenue it generates in the UK. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve fuelled that industry to the tune of around £2,500 on diet club subscriptions alone, let alone diet foods and supplements. But I’ve recently started to question the long term benefits of such diets, and the relationship they teach us to have with food.
My main diet of choice over the years has been Weightwatchers , and I have seen their approach to ‘dieting’ change over the 20 years or so I’ve been following it on and off, and yo-yoing in weight. Now I think they call it a ‘way of living’ and not a diet. But it’s only recently I’ve realised just how artificial ‘diets’ or ‘healthy eating plans’ actually are. To all intents and purposes they are teaching us to ignore the signals our body is giving us. When a baby is hungry, it cries and is then fed until it needs no more. So at what age and why is it that these signals stop working and we start to ignore what our body needs?
Years ago, I read Paul McKenna’s I can make you thin. Just another desperate attempt to try and shed the excess weight I was carrying. What he was saying made complete sense – eat slowly, eat consciously, eat the foods you want to eat, stop when you’re full. What’s hard about that – straight forward, surely? And to begin with it was – I listened to the CD daily, and started to notice a difference in what I was eating. I enjoyed food more, and was listening to the signals my body was giving me again, just like I did when I was a baby. However, things soon started to change as there wasn’t a set formula to what I was eating, and I didn’t feel I was in control. I wasn’t counting points or calories or weighing everything I ate, and I was allowed to make choices in the food I was eating. So, sadly this new way of eating soon spiralled out of control as I started to ignore my inner signals one more time and reverted to my old binging and dieting habits.
One lesson I learnt here – I needed to feel in control. I needed to have rules and regulations. I needed discipline and will power, and I was feeling scared by this freedom I had been given all of a sudden. This was a very strange feeling for me, and one I couldn’t sit with for long. As soon as I stopped listening to my body, the good effects wore off, and straight away I ran back into my Weightwatchers comfort zone. Phew, I was in control once more. I could congratulate myself when I’d had a ‘good’ day. I could be cross with myself when I’d been ‘bad’. But it was all ok, because I was in control.
And so, I successfully lost a lot of weight by being in control and artificially managing my relationship with food, but perhaps to the detriment of other relationships. Being ‘in control’, as I have found out doesn’t necessarily make you much fun to be around, and often meant that I would decline invitations to social gatherings that would involve eating or drinking, in favour of a night at the gym followed by a calorie controlled dinner home alone. Invitations I did accept, would often involve me briefing my host before I went on what I was and wasn’t allowed to eat, or sitting watching others on a night out tuck into a bulging burger while I was sulking with a spindly salad.
While this was what I needed to do at the time as I was so desperately unhappy with my weight, perhaps I missed out on some fun times, all for the sake of being thin.
Thank you to my wonderful friends and family who put up with me watching over them as they lovingly prepared my dinner so I could see exactly what was going in, and add up the points later, or make sure they didn’t put too much oil or butter in. Thank you. And I’m sorry.
Weightwatchers certainly served a purpose for me, and I am living evidence that it works, and it has allowed me to feel happier about myself and my appearance. But I’m now realising that I wasn’t really in control at all – someone else was controlling what I was eating, and to let the real me be in control would be a frightening and unusual step for me to take.
I had always believed I could never be one of those people that could just eat what they wanted – I maintained for a long time that I would always have to watch what I ate. But a lifetime of counting points, declining dinner invitations, weighing myself twice a day, binging at the weekends and getting ‘back on it’ on Monday doesn’t sound like much fun to me – is this really my purpose in life?
With this question in mind, I have embarked on an experiment to dump diets, and I’m beginning to wonder if I may just have turned a corner with letting go of habits and routines I have loved to hate in favour of a more flexible and liberating way of living.
Dumping dieting is like ending a relationship you’ve been in for years that’s not going anywhere, isn’t good for you anymore, and isn’t sustainable. It had some good times while it lasted, and served a purpose at the time, but deep down your gut is telling you – IT’S JUST NOT RIGHT! Having been in this relationship for an incredibly long time, and food having been my companion, my enemy and my comforter for all those years, it’s so hard to let go and fly solo, and you have to ask yourself the question – is being on your own better than being in a toxic relationship? For me, the answer is always, yes! This has been an incredibly complex break up for me to have with many conflicting emotions.
I have recently started having sessions with a personal trainer, which has been a real turning point for me, both in terms of confidence about my physical fitness, but also in sparking interesting discussions about food and nutrition. One of the first questions I was asked was about the foods that I like to eat. And strangely, that was a very difficult question for me to answer. I started thinking about the foods that I have been eating through my calorie controlled diet for many years.
A typical day for me –
Breakfast: cornflakes with skimmed milk
Snack: cereal bar & low fat crisps
Lunch: salad with a piece of ham (maybe treat myself to some couscous or a pitta if it’s a gym night!) & more low fat crisps
Pre-dinner snack: even more low fat crisps (Really?!?!)
Dinner: Tuna, pasta, veg in tomato sauce
Post-dinner snack: Low fat chocolate bar
In addition, there are an extra 49 points to spread over the week, which I usually saved for the weekends, binged on alcohol and chocolate, and then started afresh on Monday. So in my head, the weekends became ‘binge’ days, and weekdays were ‘good’ days. If you caught me on a weekend, you were lucky to experience the relaxed about food, chilled out Helen. Not so lucky if you got me on a weekday.
When you look at that food diary, it doesn’t look like a healthy, balanced diet to me at all, and while it had the desired effect of me losing weight, what was it actually doing to my body? I should point out; that kind of typical diet is not what weightwatchers encouraged at all, but it was how I felt like I wasn’t on a ‘diet’ and that I wasn’t denying myself forbidden foods. One thing they do insist on though is the ‘use it or lose it’ rule. You must eat all of your points otherwise you’ll lose them and in turn you won’t lose weight. So yet again, we’re being encouraged to ignore our bodies – we’re being ordered to eat regardless of the need to do so.
Of the foods I listed above, I can’t honestly say to you that I love any of them. I am now re-learning how to eat. I’m learning about the foods I love, and have a fridge full of fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish (previously I would have felt that there were too many points in meat which would mean I wouldn’t be able to have a low fat chocolate bar after dinner!) and cupboards full of nuts, seeds, pasta, quinoa, and even chocolate. I’m learning to be satisfied by delicious, fresh, colourful foods, and really appreciating the smells, textures and tastes of new and adventurous foods I’ve shied away from for so many years. I’m eating mindfully and consciously, rather than sitting in front of the television mindlessly eating my dinner and not even realising that I’m full because I haven’t been paying attention to my stomach.
And as a result, here are 5 things I have done in the last month I’ve not done for a long time (if ever!)
- Left food on my plate, and left food in the saucepan for lunch the next day
- Made a bar of chocolate last more than one evening
- Eaten full fat yoghurt
- Cooked food without weighing out the food first
- Really thought about the food I wanted to, rather than ‘should’ eat
It feels so empowering – listening to my body, and trusting that I will make the right decisions. The result of which is I’m feeling nourished, and craving less of the sugary foods I have always longed for and binged on when temptation takes over.
I have a couple of books to thank (and my PT for the recommendations) for helping to confirm my suspicions about diets, and for allowing me to get this far. I won’t go into detail here about the content of the books (I wouldn’t do them justice), and some may find them slightly controversial. All I would say is that if you are an eternal dieter like me, read the books, and they will at the very least get you thinking. It has been incredibly enlightening reading for me.
Solving the Paleo Equation – by Matt Stone and Dr Garratt Smith
Diet industry lies that make you gain weight – by Lianda Ludwig
There are also some articles about International diet day here and here if you’re interested!
So, what’s the key to all this – what’s the magic solution? When I find the answer, I will be sure to let you know, but I’m still working it out. I’ve tried most things already – diets, detoxes, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy. But sadly there is no miracle pill and no instantaneous cure. It’s trial and error. Trusting your instincts, letting go, chilling out. One thing is for sure, a good place to start is working out why you’re in this toxic relationship in the first place.
For me, it has been so scary to let go of something that has been a focus of my life for as long as I can remember. What will I worry about now – where will I focus my attentions? What will I think about first thing in the morning when I wake up and last thing before I go to bed at night? Perhaps this is evidence that I hadn’t yet been ready to fill this space with something else. And yes, an empty space is a scary and daunting one, but there are so many exciting things other than food it could be filled with, which I am now discovering.
I mentioned earlier the conflicting emotions of dumping diets. While there have been some really positive effects of this new way of thinking about food, it’s not all been easy. It’s very hard to think about what you’ve eaten during a day, and then add up in your head the number of calories or points you have eaten with the knowledge that you’re going over what you should be eating to lose weight (my advice would be, don’t do it!)
A little glimpse of a conversation between two voices inside my head yesterday might help to demonstrate:
A: So how are you going to lose weight with this new way of eating?
B: Well maybe I don’t have to lose weight?
A: Oh, but you do. You’ve always been trying to lose weight. You should have seen yourself in the mirror today – did you see those bulging thighs and, goodness that fat around your midriff? Who on earth is going to want a personal trainer who looks like you?
B: But I’m confident that I’m fit enough to do it, and I’m a good teacher – surely I can motivate and inspire people by what I’ve already achieved?
A: Well… maybe. But didn’t you see people looking at you today and thinking how big you are?
B: Err… no!
A: Right. But I still think you need to get rid of that fat around your belly. So what are you going to do about it?
B: Err… I have absolutely no idea. HELP!
And it’s internal conversations like that that leave me wavering, and wanting to pick up my phone and text my old diet relationship. Since we’ve broken up, we’ve hooked up for a night here and there, which was good at the time, but of course I’ve since regretted. I now need to find the strength and determination for us never to get back together again, not even for a fling. Which will take time, belief, resilience and perseverance.
I’m ready to dump dieting for good, and to focus on other more fruitful and nourishing relationships in my life, which with time may or may not lead to a thinner, happier me. But either way, I think I’m ok with that. I’m by no stretch of the imagination over this break up. This is just the beginning. Watch this space.