Ever wonder if other people experience the same thoughts and feelings as you do when it comes to your perception of yourself, your weight, your fitness, and your food?
The diet culture has sunk its fangs into our general psyche with the belief that all your problems with weight and self-image can be impacted by going on a diet to become a better you.
Diet culture often wants to tell you that you aren’t capable of change unless you decide to stop eating carbs, never drink alcohol again, and never have tasty treats after dinner.
For many, the diet mindset is something that has been ingrained from a very early age. Some clients can report on being on their first diet when they were pre-teens!
Before we get a chance to understand ourselves and our bodies, the diet culture seeps into our families as parents who are looking out for the best interest of their child.
This cycle then repeats itself...those kids grow up to be parents themselves who then believe that this is the only way to be healthy, the only way to find yourself is to find a diet that works for you.
Today I want to talk about 5 different ways that the diet mindset shows it’s ugly face and how you can know if you subscribe to these thoughts and feelings. I’ll give alternative beliefs around dieting that can hopefully guide you into a better direction if you find that the diet mindset no longer helps you.
What is a diet?
First thing’s first here - let’s define what I mean when I talk about diet and the dieting mindset.
A diet is defined in the dictionary as: the kinds of foods that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
When speaking about one’s diet, generally this just reflects the types of foods you eat. If I say that I include peanut butter in my diet, this simply means that peanut butter is part of my normal eating pattern.
I am NOT talking about dieting in this way. This is just one way to describe eating habits. However I do think that most people won’t think of diet in this way but rather…
A diet is almost always understood as a style of eating with the intention of losing weight in mind.
I know this...you know this...when someone says “I need to go on a diet” they mean exactly that...a style of eating that will promote weight loss. Often this is in response to a scary medical diagnosis, prompted by family members who are worried about one’s health, or simply looking in the mirror and being unhappy with how you look naked.
So then as we go through this article let’s assume the latter...a diet will be defined as a style of eating that promotes weight loss.
What then, is the diet mindset?
When was the last time that you muttered those words, “I need to go on a diet!”? Was this your gut response when you noticed that you’ve gained a little weight over the holidays and look a bit thicker in the mirror? (No pun intended!)
Oftentimes this will result in the thought of wanting to “fix” yourself. You look at yourself and you self-deprecate. You tell yourself nasty things about yourself so that you will feel bad enough about yourself, that you finally decide to make that diet change.
You might remember back to that infomercial that stated that in 7 days you can lose 15 lbs if only you do this. You might remember that time in college when you decided to only eat fruit and vegetables and lost 10 lbs in just 10 days. You might go back to that time before getting married and remember that vigorous exercise regime you did to burn calories, lose weight and fit into that dress!
On one hand I can celebrate any positive change in body...however at what cost did you attain these results?
The diet mindset is powerful in this...one of the biggest indicators of this mindset is the belief that true changes can happen very quickly.
The diet industry has sold us on this belief - lose weight fast so that you can get to your goal in no time!
More importantly is the impact that these thoughts have on us throughout our adulthood. If you started your first diet as a teenager, you’ve grown up with the thoughts and beliefs that dieting is the answer to any body image and health issue that might arise. It’s what you were bred with, what you’ve been familiar with for so long. Of course you are going to go straight to weight watchers once you start to feel you are “falling off track”.
This diet mindset has been cultivated to keep you in the diet cycle.
Take a second and think about if this is true for you:
Has your weight and body fluctuated greatly over the past 10, 15, 20 years? Were there many swings in weight each year? You were up 10 lbs, down 10 lbs, up 15 lbs, then down 30 lbs, then back up 40 lbs, then back down 10 lbs?
This is the diet cycle at it’s best.
This will happen naturally however keep this in mind…
I’m not saying it’s not normal to fluctuate in your weight and body image over the years. It has been estimated that on average adults will gain 0.6 - 1.7 lbs annually every year after 30 years old. This assumes that you move less, eat a less nutrient dense diet, and burn less calories because of muscle loss.
There is no doubt that in high school you probably moved around a whole lot more just because you were a kid and were more active. As we get older and get into our career, we become more sedentary, have less time to cook and plan what to eat, and are more likely to get an injury that prevents comfortable movement.
However the swings in weight are often due to going on a diet that is out of line of your normal eating, sticking to that plan for X amount of time...then when you start to get tired of that diet you tend to go back to your normal eating habits that you had when you were heavier. You then slowly gain the weight back and wind up back at square one...or worse!
If you do a quick google search on the effectiveness of diets, you’ll find that after 5 years of time, 95% of dieters gain all their weight back.
95%!! This is crazy, how can a diet be called effective if 95% of people resort back to where they were on day 1? Isn’t the whole point of changing your food intake, to be in a better position for your life?
Some of you may argue that while yes, you will eventually regain your weight after 5 years, the loss in the moment will be worth it and feel good.
I would ask those who believe this - what is the purpose of making a change in your life? Are you only looking to make a change that lasts for part of your life, and then be back to where you are after 5 years?
Is it worth it to you to go through this emotional journey of losing weight, gaining it back, losing it, gaining it back?
So without further ado - here are the 5 red flags that fall in line with the diet mindset!
5 signs of the diet mindset
You see foods as good or bad.
Diet culture has taught us that there are foods that provide no inherent value to us. Diet’s normally will teach you their “basics” by vilifying a food group. Think about the diets you have been on in the past - what do they teach you about food?
I know that diets teach you that a particular food group is bad. Fat is bad, carbs are bad...animal protein is bad! These things are seen in an all-or-nothing state. A bad food will result in poor health, weight gain, and should be avoided at all costs.
Take for example a tasty dessert like Ice cream...many will see this as an unhealthy food, something that doesn’t provide anything for the body. However ice cream might bring about comfort, be a pleasurable experience, or a family tradition that brings everyone together. Is this really “bad”?
A common theme that I see in clients is the belief that carbohydrates are “Bad”. You might make a proclamation “I’m never eating carbs again!”. The belief that carbs can lead to weight gain is misguided, however it is something that many, many people believe.
Now some of the savvy dieters may say something like “processed carbs” are bad for you. You can eat whole grain bread but you can’t have white bread! You should replace pasta with the whole wheat version of pasta.
Reality check: White rice, and pasta are not bad for you - it won’t cause cancer, it won’t cause you to balloon and gain 10 lbs in a week. Food does not have the power to do this, and I hope as you read through the rest of this list you’ll understand how these thoughts and feelings have become part of your normal thinking patterns!
For a deeper discussion on this topic, check out a past blog here.
You believe exercise is a way to “make up” for your eating habits
Exercise is a powerful tool that can transform bodies, and transform your life in such a positive way. Getting into a routine of strength training alongside cardiovascular training is a great way to not only look better but feel better as well.
However exercise can often be used as the crutch that we lean on when feeling guilty about food choices and weight gain. Exercise becomes more about burning calories then it has to do about making the body feel good.
If you’ve ever thought “I need to do extra cardio to make up for that brownie last night” you are effectively telling yourself that you need to “pay up” for your transgressions! You might force yourself to do an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill solely because of what you ate.
We believe that doing this extra work will lead us down a better path but instead what often happens is that we burn out, get consumed with trying to over exercise, and ultimately fall back on bad habits of binging food, exercising to exhaustion, then binging on food!
Reality check: Exercise is supposed to make you feel good. Exercise is something you are doing to treat your body with the utmost respect and love. When moving the body you are essentially taking action to improve muscle function, muscle strength, cardiovascular health, joint health, and mobility. Exercise should be an act that causes great pride and excitement...don’t use it as a remedy for your eating habits!
You feel guilt and shame when eating certain foods
This one coincides with the idea that there are good and bad foods...how many times have you felt guilty after eating a meal that you would deem “unhealthy”?
If you’ve ever had the thought of
“I’m really disgusted in myself for eating that meal…”
“I just can’t avoid the ice cream at night, I’m never going to get the body I want”
These thoughts are manufactured! These come from the belief that there is something inherently WRONG with the actions you take surrounding food and health.
It’s no wonder why the diet industry is a 71 BILLION dollar industry. The industry is founded in this belief that there is something wrong, you need to fix it, and if you don’t fix it then you haven’t tried hard enough...and now try this diet instead…
When we feel guilt and shame we are far more likely to believe we are less than what we really are, and therefore we might end up overeating in response. This again, is a sick cycle that perpetuates itself by the idea that you should feel bad when you have cake for dessert!
Reality check: You get to choose how you react to situations, including how you react to eating food. You don’t need to beat yourself up every time you eat a dessert that you “said you wouldn’t”. It’s extremely tough for us to treat ourselves as nicely as others….but think about how you talk to others about having a piece of cake. Would you tell them that they are no good, not worth the effort and will never get out of their own way? No I highly doubt you would say that to someone you care about...so stop telling yourself that!
Your weight determines your value
Diet’s are so focused on weight that it’s hard to separate weight and fitness. Weight is ever changing and it’s something that can swing 5 lbs in a day based solely on what you’ve eaten and drank (more salt = more bloat = more water retention = higher number on scale!)
Now if you’ve been a dieter for a while you might have been to nutritionists and doctors that have made weight the primary driver for motivation to change.
If you are 10 lbs overweight according to the normal scale of age + weight, you might be insisted on losing weight to be in better health.
This is important to note, weight loss (if overweight) will help with your overall health, mobility and impact those precious blood pressure, and glucose numbers.
The problem arises however when we start to only see ourselves as our weight. We constantly compare ourselves to people who weigh less and we deem ourselves not as worthy if we aren’t the same weight as others in our peer groups.
When we have these thoughts - just like with anything negative thought we are far less likely to act in a positive way to make the necessary changes we ultimately want to see.
Weight becomes the key factor in how we feel about ourselves.
Is this you?
You wake up, weigh yourself and see that you’ve lost 2 lbs since the day before. Hooray! You feel good about this and decide...hell I’m going to enjoy that snack that I’ve been keeping out of my diet since trying to change my weight.
You wake up, weigh yourself and see that you’ve gained 2 lbs since the day before. Crap! You feel bad about yourself and start to ask yourself, “is this even worth it?” You might indulge in a feel good meal/snack without truly thinking about it.
In both cases, your day is determined by your weight. You immediately judge yourself and your worth and then take action to either reward or punish yourself based solely on a number on a scale.
Reality check: Weight is not a good judge of value, there are many different things in life and specifically with fitness and health that you can judge. Ask yourself - how do you feel? Are you energized and excited about the behavior changes you are doing?
Although weight loss is important for those seeking it - it is not the only measure of progress. You can find just as much value in the fact that you’ve done some movement everyday for 20 minutes, that you included an extra vegetable each day in your normal routine, or that you’ve taken 5 minutes each day to breathe deeply and get in touch with your inner self. Focus on those things that make you feel good and motivate you, not the things that can deter your focus and leave you feeling like crap.
You focus on how you look, rather than how you feel
The final way to know if you are in the diet mindset... when you start to only focus on what you look like in the mirror.
Most people start diets because they want to look differently. We get these notions from others around us, from celebrities on TV, and from influencers showing how fit they are.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to look better naked, I know this motivation personally and understand the importance of this.
However it’s when this becomes front and center is when the diet mindset really shines through. Dieting again has taught us that there are strict rights and wrongs. Bodies should look like this...bodies shouldn’t look like that.
It’s the focus on body image that has become so rampant in our society. This belief takes away from the ever more important factor for awareness and long term change...and that’s reflecting on how you feel.
Reality check: Everybody has different genes, different body types that should be celebrated uniquely. You will never look like somebody else that you see, because you aren’t them! You don’t have the same bone structure, the same muscle composition, the same inner processes breaking down food and storing it. Some people are more prone to storing fat in different places, some people hit the genetic lottery and have been blessed with the vision of this “perfect” body type.
Once you begin to focus on how you feel, you might recognize that a diet is leaving you feeling exhausted, withdrawn, and lacking in confidence. You have the best idea of what works for you, what builds you up, and what makes your body and mind feel the best. If you are on a weight loss journey and have been seeing slow progress but you wake up excited each day and feel proud of the dietary changes you are making...this is far more important for long term change than looking in the mirror and focusing on how little your body has changed in that time.
Ditch the diet mindset
I’ll wrap this up by simply asking you to think more deeply on what’s important to you. I’m here to only give you the information you need to make good decisions on what to do with your health and fitness.
The diet mindset is something that has been cultivated over many years, it’s something that many of us grew up with and have since believed. It takes TIME to change this.
I’ll offer this bit of advice...be PATIENT with this.
Just try to first question your beliefs about health, fitness, and what it means to be on a diet.
Ask yourself and honestly answer these…
When do I feel my best physically?
How well have diets worked in the past for me?
Who do I want to be in 1 year?
Who do I want to be in 5 years?
Who do I want to be in 10 years?
It’s up to you to decide how you perceive and change your attitudes and judgements about what a diet is, what it can do for you and how you can live life without it!
Not everyone is perfect and I for sure cannot say that I always avoid these diet mindset traps discussed above. There will be times when you slide back into looking into the mirror and feeling bad about what you see. There will be times when you feel you need to exercise extra because of a weekend of binging and drinking.
Where you can make the change is how you move forward from there. Do you decide that you need a new diet or do you decide that enough is enough and you are ready for something different?
The choice is yours - it’s your life, your health. It’s one of the most important decisions you can make. Give it time, remember to be patient and move forward with the right plan for you!