Dieting and why it increases anxiety.

I was a shy insecure ‘superstitious’ girl.  I would cling to my rituals each day in order to feel ‘safe’ from unwanted attention.  Ironic really considering my only aspiration was to be a model or actress! I know now that I was suffering from OCD.  The day I discovered dieting was the day I fell into a pit of self-loathing and the need to always feel in control.

I distinctly remember telling a friend at age 17 (by then a veteran dieter of 4 years), “I have no idea what it’s like to not be on a diet.  Can you imagine how huge I’d be if I didn’t watch my weight?”  By then I was already extremely body obsessed and most of my thought process revolved around food.  It was getting harder and harder to control my appetite.  My ability to stick to a diet was decreasing.  I would restrict all week then binge on booze, pizza and ice-cream on the weekends.

Fast forward 15 years.  My diet book cemetery had grown considerably.  I had attempted and failed the Body for Life program (which is how I discovered strength training), Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Liver Cleansing diet and South Beach diet to name a few.  My theory at the time was ‘one day I’ll find the perfect diet for me.  One’s that effortless and the fat will just fall off’.

Then I started working in the fitness industry.  It was the perfect hiding place for my disciplined eating.  At the time I had no idea that ‘fearing’ certain foods and favouring foods for their health benefits was a form of disordered eating.  People would compliment me on my physique and in turn, I felt the need to look the part.  When friend’s voiced their concern about rigid training and eating habits, I accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate hiding-hole to mask my obsession.  Competitive body building.

My heroines became athletes who look like superheroes.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that these superheroes devoted their entire lives to looking that way.  They had no time to save anyone or anything.  And then they are judged in competitions by people who all have their own motives, yet their decision will shape how they feel and their future in the sport.  Some athletes can compartmentalise their feelings and simply use these competitions to reach their personal goals.    I was not one of them.

It took a long time for the penny to drop.  One day I realised that I was exhausted and strung out for no apparent reason.  My workload wasn’t huge.   I had very little responsibilities or commitments.  Yet I always felt like I was busy.  In my mind, I was constantly mapping out my training and food prep for the day or week.  Not only that but I was fuelling my obsessions by reading, watching and listening to diet and beauty messages encouraging me to change.  No wonder my relationships and work were suffering.

I feel like I have wasted a whole heap of time ‘dancing with the diet devil’.  I hope I can save you a bit of time by sharing my musings.  Here are my observations on how my experiences with dieting have turned me into a watered down version of myself.

Dieting – the ultimate way to affirm you are a big fat failure!

How many diets have you sustained since you started?  Most of us go through phases of dieting to look good for an event or we have a spur of motivation.  Very few of us stick to the same diet for longer than a few months.  Have you noticed how hard it seems to stick to a diet the longer you remain in diet phase?  It’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because your body’s reaction to deprivation is powerful.  Far more powerful than your will to be a smaller dress size.  If you’re an anxious soul, this is one more worry you don’t need.  Yet, as females, we are force-fed messages from parents, friends, partners and the beauty industry that make us feel inadequate.  Our thoughts become so disordered we then believe in order to be accepted we must be tall and thin.  Diet and beauty companies that sell you diet products and foods want you to fail.  That’s how they keep their pockets full.  The reason why the so-called ‘ideal body types’ are so impossible is no accident.  What we’re really failing at is the need to nourish the body and soul.  We need to seek out the real reason why we want to look different in the first place?

If you have to work that hard to ACHIEVE the body you want – how hard do you need to work to MAINTAIN it?

I often refer to my happy size (I don’t believe in the word ‘weight’ or weighing one’s self), my happy genetic set point size is where my body defaults to when I fall off a diet, have a binge phase and then revert back.  In the past, I would have referred to it as my ‘unhappy’ size because it wasn’t my dream body.  If you have to fight so hard to achieve a size that’s unnatural for you, you’ve got to wonder – how the heck are you going to stay that size?  If you’re an anxious person, to begin with, you better believe controlling everything you eat, fitting in the intense exercise above all your other daily duties will be difficult.  So then you start searching for short-cuts.  Expensive ones at that – appetite suppressants, laxatives, supplements, prescription or controlled drugs.  Yes, they are out there, will work, but can you afford them and more importantly what are they really doing to your health and actual wellbeing?

If you love to feel in control – avoid dieting!

You may think that dieting is the ultimate way to feel in control over your body, but I liken it to a wound-up rubber band.  The longer you stretch it the higher the chance it will break or slap you in the face.  As I mentioned above, it’s almost impossible to restrict, deprive and limit your free will for an extended about of time.  Our brains are just not wired that way.  Humans need to eat to live if you mess with this instinct be prepared for the fallout.  I had to ask myself ‘what am I really searching for?’  The perfect body?  The perfect life?  Or am I just a sucker for punishment?  It can be really scary to let go of these habits, especially if you believe they could give you everything you desired.  I had to ask myself ‘how have these habits worked for me?’  ‘When will I truly feel happy?’  I certainly wasn’t when I was 8% body fat and my skinniest of skinny jeans hung off me.   Why? Because I was dreading the next workout and shitty meal I had to endure to stay that way!

Dieting creates and feeds the fear of feeling pleasure

How often have you caught yourself or your friends saying ‘I’m so bad, I just ate (add delicious food here)?  We refer to certain foods as good foods or bad foods.  If we pig out on the bad foods this automatically makes us ‘bad’ too.  So we tell ourselves in order to be happy and achieve our dream body we have to avoid pleasurable foods and activities.  Social media is bursting with quotes saying it takes ‘hard work’, ‘discipline’ and ‘sacrifice’ to get a rockin’ hard bod.  So we put these fitness models on a pedestal.  Obviously, they are mentally stronger than us because they can withhold from pleasure.  But food is supposed to be pleasurable.  What we are really fearing is our inability to limit ourselves also known as ‘the binge session’ – yet this is spurred by our long-term deprivation, to begin with.  When I was doing the Body for Life program, I noticed something very curious.  The eating plan involved 6 days of 6 (clean – unprocessed, low sugar and saturated fat) meals per day.  On the 7th day, you were allowed an entire ‘cheat’ day.  I took this to mean BINGE day.  During the week I would collect ‘bad’ foods so I would have a feast to enjoy on Sunday.  Saturday night became like Christmas eve – I could hardly sleep because I was so excited.  Then to my horror one Sunday I had no appetite. None.  I laid all the amazing ‘bad’ foods out on the table but couldn’t stomach the smallest amount.  Then like magic, on Monday morning my raging appetite would return.  It wasn’t my body that was confused.  It was my mind.

Do you know when you’re actually hungry?  And when did I start craving pickles?

If you’re like me and have lived a life of constant deprivation and binge cycles, you may have lost touch with your true hunger signals.  When I was on one particular diet, I experienced the mental mind warp that occurs when you mess with your body’s true cravings.  Once you’re armed with nutritional knowledge it’s hard to forget.  We know the calorie values of all foods and we know the one’s that are better for us than others.  So how do we shut this off?  Well, this is the mind-blowing-scary-shit for any hardcore ex-dieter.  If you feel like food controls your life, this is your chance to reclaim that sanity.  You may have to talk to yourself like you’re a toddler, but trust me, it works.  It’s a matter of asking yourself how hungry you are.  Telling yourself to slow down, think what foods you really want to eat and sitting quietly to enjoy (without guilt or shame) your favourite food.  In essence, you eat only when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.  So simple, but yet hard to do until you’ve let go of the diet mentality.

When I am this lean and weigh this much, the world will fall at my feet!

‘I will be so happy once I’m in my dream body’!  Well, you might be happy for a little while until you realise that guy still doesn’t notice you and you still can’t get your dream job.  So then what?  You might decide you need to be thinner, fitter or more muscular, or you might go on a crazy 2-week binge because ‘why does it matter anyway!’  There will always be another flaw for you to focus on.   Something that helped me a lot was thinking back to a time when I felt my most happy and confident.  For me, it was fleeting, but it was when I was focused on goals that didn’t place any emphasis on my appearance.  When I worked in radio it was a great time for me.  No one ever saw my face or body, my job was purely to entertain.  It was then I discovered the joy of making people laugh or challenging the way they think.  Another game changer for me was editing the body image bull shit out of my life.  It is your choice to politely remove the influences from your life that don’t serve you.  Do you spend a good deal of time pouring over images of bodies and diet plans on social media?  How does it make you feel?  I’m guessing not good right?

What if you took it upon yourself to look at diverse and inspirational images of women?  Consider shapes, sizes and ethnicities and don’t forget the women who are respected for their work, cause, art or skill.

Quitting the diet doesn’t mean you commit to a life of complete non-sexiness, hell no!  You can still focus on being physically strong, fit and healthy, but save your energy for the important stuff.  Think about all the time you’ve wasted living in the diet trap when you could have been truly present.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Erica McKean…

“You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilisation in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’”

Article by: Alex Hannam

Alex is a health and fitness blogger living in Whangarei, Northland. She combined her passion & experience in fitness, film & broadcasting to create website. ‘My goal is to enable women to feel empowered & feel ‘at home’ in their own bodies again. So often I hear from ladies who are distressed, confused & at war with their physiques. I’ve experienced my own struggles with anxiety & self-image challenges. I know how hopeless & frustrating it can be to feel ‘not enough’ (no matter what you try). I saw the need to share my story & discoveries to shine a light on a happier path to optimal health & body confidence’. Alex offers online lifestyle & wellness coaching.

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