A friend of mine was recently lamenting yet another week of eating and drinking more than she should: how she had broken her diet yet again and she felt awful about being such a failure … even more so because this was part of a regular pattern where good days or weeks deteriorated into bad days or weeks, and she felt completely helpless about ever being able to crawl out of this depressing cycle. The story struck a particular chord with me because I feel that this emotional rollercoaster can often be the biggest problem facing a dieter … yet, in terms of behaviour it’s something we all experience – dieters and non-dieters alike.
Unless someone is utterly focussed, single-minded and ruthless in their diet (for example an athlete at the peak of their training or a celebrity on their latest fitness DVD’s promotional circuit), surely there are occasions for us all where we do not eat optimally for one, two or several meals? Where instead of reaching for an apple we reach for a ferrero rocher (box of). Or at the supermarket instead of just filling our trolley with spinach, broccoli and lean chicken we add a pack of Club biscuits for nostalgia’s sake or a deep pan pizza because suddenly melted gooey cheese is what we need more than anything in the world.
Surely this behaviour is generally the same for all people, regardless of weight? Just because you are at optimum weight for your height, it doesn’t mean you don’t crave a treat (and give in to that craving). I believe the difference is that a person who considers themselves overweight will associate that bad choice with failure, whereas the person who does not have weight issues will simply see their ‘bad’ choice as the opportunity to treat themselves, knowing that it won’t lead to a spiral of guilt, depression, self-loathing and continued over-eating.
We all know that if you want to lose weight you have to create a calorie deficit – use more calories than you consume. The average women needs 2,000 calories to maintain her weight, and it is generally considered that a diet of 1,500 calories per day for an average women will result in a loss of approximately 1lb per week.
Some diets like Atkins restrict different food groups to create this deficit. Others like Weightwatchers give a points value to each item of food so that you can eat anything you like as long as you don’t go over your total points allowance every day. Generally, they work as long as you follow them religiously, because they simply follow the rules of science.
However, what they do not allow for is the fact that life quite often gets in the way of diets. Either you are meeting your friends for dinner and can’t control exactly what is going to be on your plate or in your mouth. Or you have had an awful day at work and didn’t have time to eat lunch, so when you get home that evening you don’t even care that you are eating half a packet of biscuits before you have even taken your jacket off. Or, you just bloody well feel like a pizza followed by a big bar of chocolate because sometimes that is just a nice thing to do when you have the house to yourself for a change.
Do any of these things suddenly make you a bad person? Should eating a piece of cake make you feel like you are a complete failure and you are always going to feel bad about yourself? Of course not, but that is frequently how a dieter ends up feeling.
Why is that? In my view, dieters are so constantly aware of their weight that a pound or two gained one week is an instant sign of failure, whereas a few pounds lost (because half a pound loss is never good enough) is a sign of success. Often it is a hard for a dieter to say that it’s okay they ate a packet of biscuits for breakfast because they will draw a line under it and start eating healthily FROM NOW ON because crap happens sometimes and it’s not the end of the world. Instead they say I am a failure – why can’t I even do something as simple as keeping my hands out of the biscuit jar?
In fact, there is rarely any perspective for a person who is dieting. That one ‘failure’ reinforces the way of life which may have made them overweight in the first place – the lack of self control, lack of self belief, lack of self confidence (or all three, or many more factors) and they immediately feel terrible about themselves, berate themselves, and feel FAT(ter).
That same behaviour for someone who doesn’t have weight issues provokes a different reaction. Whoops, did I really eat that whole packet of biscuits – that was naughty – I had better not do that again. Case closed. It’s already forgotten.
And to me that is the fundamental problem with dieting. Don’t get be wrong, it’s important to eat in moderation and I don’t condone binge eating or justifying a bad diet by saying you just can’t help it. What I do think is that dieters lose perspective about what is normal and what is bad. Everyone eats things they shouldn’t sometimes – that is life. You shouldn’t feel bad about it, but you shouldn’t keep doing it either. If you do keep doing it then yes you will put on weight. If you stop doing it, then you will lose weight or maintain your current weight.
I feel that it is often more important to focus on eating good sized portions of healthy foods and snack on nutritious items. If you want a treat (eg a bar of chocolate or a glass of wine) have one, but remember it is a treat and therefore you shouldn’t have one after every meal, or ten in one night! Ultimately, a person of a healthy weight is not slim because they are on a diet their whole lives – they are slim because they eat everything in moderation. Maybe genes have something to do with it, but generally the people I know who have lovely figures achieve that weight because they watch what they eat quite naturally. Often when I see them we are out having dinner and therefore they are eating cheese laden carbs and creamy desserts – but the rest of the time they naturally cut back on the naughty stuff and not checking their weight every morning to see if they have suddenly got fat because they had cheesecake for pudding.
I have spent the last 3 weeks eating a bit more than I should due to various celebrations, meeting friends, and a bit of pure greed whilst I was at it. Have I put on any weight doing it? Yes, probably around 4lbs over the last few weeks of eating too much of something naughty every day. Do I feel bad about it? Well, that’s what this blog entry is about really. Making myself see that I should not have done it really, but it’s not the end of the world. I enjoyed the treats. My slim friends who ate the same dinner as me last night are not worrying about the impact the burger and fries (and cheesecake) will have on this week’s weigh in (because they don’t bother about weighing in every week), so I shouldn’t either. I should (and do) recognise that I haven’t been eating as well as I could have been eating, and so I am going to be careful this week and eat more sensibly. I am not going to berate myself for what I have eaten, or believe that those bad days have turned me into the chubby girl I once was.
I want to remember that food is – and always will be – my friend, and a little of what I fancy every now and then won’t do me any harm in the long term.