Every January, you vow to go on a diet, get fit, and lose weight. And every February, you lose steam and feel like a failure. Sound familiar?
Here’s the thing: it’s not your lack of willpower or self-control that’s the problem, it’s the dieting mentality itself. Diets and food rules set us up for failure and more than 90 to 95 percent of people who lose weight on diets will regain it back.
The Science Behind It
Our bodies are smarter than we think. As soon as we try to restrict yourself, by saying that we won’t eat a certain food or food group, the more our brain focuses on those foods. This has been extensively studied and can be explained in part using the science of food habituation. Habituation means that the more you are exposed to something, whether that be food, noise, or a certain smell, the less you notice or care about it. For example, after living in New York City for nine years I’m completely habituated to loud sirens and don’t even register that sound anymore.
The same thing happens with food. The more you are exposed to a food, the less your brain thinks or cares about it and the desire to eat it diminishes. This has been studied with all types of food including pizza, potato chips, mac and cheese, even chocolate. These are the same types of foods that people often say they can’t have in their house because they’ll go overboard and eat too much. Ironically, by keeping it out of your house, you’re training your body to want these foods even more. If you were to keep these foods around you all the time your brain would place less of a reward value on them and the less you’d want to eat.
While having chips in the house may cause you to overeat at first, over time your brain gets used to the exposure and will start to crave them less and less. For example, say someone said you could eat mac and cheese every night for dinner. While that may taste great for a few nights, by night five or six the mac and cheese will have lost it’s allure and you’ll wind up eating less that you did the first night. Just as I’ve adjusted to the city’s street noise, you too will adjust to foods the more you eat it.
The opposite is also true. When you don’t have access to certain foods your brain focuses more intently on them. This could be actual lack of access, like when you’re traveling in a foreign country, or it could be a self-imposed lack of access, like when you’re on a diet.
The restrictive thinking that epitomizes diet culture labels foods as “good” or “bad” and makes the “bad” foods off-limits. While this restrictive behavior may work for a few weeks, eventually your brain will focus more and more on the foods that you aren’t allowing yourself to eat. These foods remain exciting which causes you to start to have cravings. Your brain, and your body, feel deprived, so when you finally do have access to these foods the chance you’ll overeat is very high.
The Guilt-Deprivation Cycle
There’s another piece to the puzzle of why diets don’t work: guilt.
We have become so inundated with messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat, that when we do eat the “wrong” foods or when we overeat that we end up feeling guilty and bad about ourselves. That guilt leads us to deprive or restrict, trying to be “good”, which eventually leads to overeating, followed again by guilt. And the cycle continues.
What To Do Instead
It’s time to break free from diet culture. Instead of starting another diet this year, learn to build a better relationship with food and your body. Here are seven ways you can do this today.
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