If you were to describe Christmas in 10 words, what comes to mind? Santa. Fun. Decorations. Jolly. Joy. Giving. Gifts. Family. Friends. Food.
But when you think of the new year, the words associated with this time paint a very different picture. It’s all about ‘new year, new me’. Better work it off. Veganuary. Better do the detox. Better join the gym. It’s such a shame that a wonderful celebration like Christmas is followed by immense pressure to be different, to do more, to give up all the things you’ve enjoyed in that celebratory time.
When we start a diet in the new year, we do so in the name of our health. But scientific evidence shows that diets don’t work. Instead of improving your quality of life, dieting actually negatively impacts the relationship you have with food. It negatively impacts the relationship you have with yourself, and that in turn means that your physical and mental health is negatively impacted.
So many of us spend January measuring our personal success and self-worth against our ability to stick to gruelling regimes. Our happiness can be taken away in an instant if the weighing scales doesn’t reflect what we’d like to see.
So, why do we put ourselves through this time and time again?
Why dieting can be harmful to your health
A big reason is that many people mistakenly believe that dieting and weight loss are intrinsically linked with health and wellbeing.
When people come to see me, I ask them why they decided to sign up, and the response I usually get is: “I want to be healthy”. They believe that healthiness equates to dieting, and that’s what they want help with. But I can’t give that, so we rewind a little and I begin to explain what health actually means.Health means that we are tending to and serving the needs of all aspects of ourselves; not just the physical self, but also the emotional, the mental, and the social self.
Let’s put this in the context of Christmas. If we forego all the things that we enjoy about this time so that we can get more nutrient dense foods into our bodies, that’s not healthy. By the same token, if we spend all the time having fun with our family and forgetting about getting enough foods into us, that’s not healthy either.
So, health and the word ‘balance’ comes to mind – as fatigued as we may be with this term! Health is simply finding a balance between these four parts of yourself.
The skinny on dieting
As I dig deeper with my clients and try to get to the root of why they’ve come to me, I often find that they have a deep desire to lose weight or be in a thinner body.
The reality is that we’re not wrong for wanting this, because we have been conditioned to believe that the person in the thinner body is healthier and happier. They’re more successful. They have all the things that perhaps we’re wanting in our lives, but we believe that we can’t have these things until we fit the shape that society has set out for us.
We’ve been sold this message for a very long time. It came at us when we were young, and we were getting the “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” message courtesy of Kate Moss. Even people in small bodies felt the pressure to be skinnier, to meet this ideal.
In spite of this, I recently read that roughly only five percent of people in the world can genetically meet this ideal that we’re all pursuing. It baffles, doesn’t it? There’s an industry out there that is keeping this machine going: the pursuit of happiness through thinness.
What this very industry is unlikely to ever tell you, is that 80 to 90 percent of people who go on a diet will regain the weight within two to five years. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the science behind it.
The science of dieting
Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt recently gave a Ted Talk about intuitive eaters and controlled eaters. She brought it back to evolution, explaining why the body’s resistance to losing weight makes sense in this context. Our bodies are genetically hardwired to rebel against restriction; it was a survival mechanism during periods of history when food was less abundant. Although times have changed, our bodies are still wired in the same way.
So, when we restrict our food intake as part of a diet, our body perceives that as starving, and it starts to store the energy. How is it stored? When there is no longer enough room in the organs that are designed for that purpose, it will begin to store it as fat on our body.
Our brain is also affected by these restrictions. It becomes laser-focused on the foods we’ve told ourselves that we can’t have. Every time you look at a food and say, “I better not eat that now, because if I have one, I’m going to have them all”, that represents the intense craving that restriction brings into your body. Your body will strive to meet that need.
Diets don’t work, that’s the simple, proven truth. It’s not your willpower. It’s not that you’re not capable of eating and enjoying foods. It’s so much more complex.
The negative effects of frequent dieting
Long term, what dieting does, is it grows a disbelief within yourself. It grows the feelings of guilt and shame and failure. Every time you start a diet in January, you reaffirm that message. You become disconnected with yourself, disconnected with your body, disconnected with life, disconnected with people around you. Your self-image and your self-worth decline because this diet, this means to achieve health and happiness, keeps letting you down.
You need to remember that your body is an amazing vessel. It does so much. I studied computer engineering for a short time in my past and I realised that there is no machine on this earth that’s as intriguing, as amazing as the human body. It deserves love. It deserves compassion.
Dieting is not love and compassion. Dieting is not nourishing and nourishment. Dieting is not supportive of your health. And no matter what the diet is – keto, paleo, intermittent fasting, Atkins – they are not supportive of your health. They are not supportive of this amazing machine that we get to live in every single day.
The reality we all know is that bodies are not perfect. Bodies come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and they are worthy as they are. Weight is not equal to health. People in larger bodies can be perfectly healthy, just as some people in smaller bodies may be unhealthy. We’ve attached meaning and worth to health in the form of body size, and we know from the science – and from our experiences of people around us – that this isn’t necessarily true.
Five steps to wellbeing this Christmas
Rather than focusing on a new year detox regime, why not instead take proactive steps in the run up to Christmas to ensure you’re in a more positive space – physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially – once January comes around?
Here are five things you can do for you ahead of the festive season.
It sounds simple but committing to that will be really powerful for your body. When you consume enough food – and most women I work with don’t consume enough food – you are fuelling your body for the activities that you want to do. This will support you to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger . So, let’s do this together; let’s commit to three meals every day from now until Christmas – and beyond
So often I see people saying, “Oh no, I better not eat that second slice of toast because I’ve probably had enough”. Is that really a reason to stop? Eating to satisfaction means that you’re eating to satisfy the tastes that are in your mouth in that given moment. When you deprive yourself of the food in that moment, you might feel like you’ve won in the short term, but it does backfire. It may be a couple of days later, when the craving is stronger and the desire heightens, so you eat more of that food. So, eat to satisfaction as you run into this Christmas.
What does mindful eating really mean? It means that we’re more aware of what we’re eating, that we eat to more comfortable levels, that we’ll stop when our body feels at its most comfortable, rather than maybe pushing past this or not eating enough. It does have an impact on us when we eat more mindfully, so as you go about your eating experience, maybe stop and take two or three breaths. In that way, you’ll get more oxygen into your body. You’ll already begin to start fuelling those cells that will produce the energy. You’ll kick off the digestive enzymes, and you’ll also calm your body so all that good stuff can happen.
We all talk about stress, and we talk about the mountains of things that we’ll be doing over Christmas. It is a busy time, but oftentimes it’s the stress of the everyday issues that affects us most. The food that we’re eating; keeping up to this restrictive eating pattern; the exercise we must do; maybe the loneliness that we’re feeling inside; the guilt and the shame if we haven’t eaten the foods that we thought we should have. These all create stress in our body, and that prolonged stress can create more health risks for us than the food we could have given ourselves permission to eat in order to satisfy that craving within us at that moment. So, be intentional with creating more calming activities in your day. They don’t have to be grand – they just need to be plentiful.
As I’ve mentioned already, Christmas is a time for being together, for enjoying company, for enjoying activities. Emotional eating is normal at times. Overeating is normal at times. What’s not normal is the guilt, shame and stress that we put our bodies through afterwards, by not forgiving ourselves these minor indiscretions.
Remember the reality of indulging over a couple of days is not going to harm your health however the feelings of failure and guilt can have a far more significant impact on your mind and body.
Rewrite the resolutions
Now that you are perhaps looking at things a little differently, what might you do in 2022? What could be different if you allowed yourself to be happy by ditching that pursuit for thinness?
I always like to remind myself that for every person that changes, they say there is a domino effect for 100 other people. So, if you make a positive change to your mindset this new year, you could impact many others in turn. How powerful is that?
To find out more about how you can ditch diet culture by embracing intuitive eating, get in touch today to book a free 30-minute discovery call.