by Nicki Isaacs
Have you ever wondered why you can’t stop thinking about food and how much you want to eat as soon as you decide to go on a diet? Or worse, have you noticed that as soon as you resolve to starve yourself and lose those holiday kilos you actually gain weight?
It's a common trap into which many dieters fall. Those who restrict their food intake engage in dichotomous “all or nothing” thinking and behaviour. They yoyo between restricting food intake dramatically and then bingeing on the forbidden food. Various studies into this behaviour have been conducted over the last few decades. Often when people stop themselves from eating certain foods (usually favourites like chocolate), they subsequently overcompensate and completely indulge.
A study was conducted where dieters and non-dieters were both given milkshakes. Following the milkshakes, both groups were offered ice cream. The dieters were more likely to eat the ice cream; believing that they had “blown the diet” so may as well completely sabotage it. In contrast, the people who were not on a diet were disinterested in the ice cream because they were sated from the milkshake.
When we resolve to diet we are suddenly aware that we will be missing out on something we enjoy (eg. favourite foods) so we focus on it more than we usually would. The more we think about it, the more we want it and the more we eat! Some dieters are perfectionists and simply give up at the first sign of a diet going off the rails, or when things don't go precisely to plan. For others, the “bingeing” type behaviour is self-punitive. That is, the dieter wants to punish himself/herself for over eating and thus continues to eat as an expression of anger and self-disappointment. In addition, there may be physiological and psychological issues surrounding the body reacting to perceived starvation. Overcompensation occurs as a protective mechanism.
When you deprive yourself of food, a subsequent binge becomes more likely. Extreme dieting can lead to irritability, decreased concentration, poor self-esteem, weight and body preoccupation, in addition to various physiological effects. Of course many of these issues may pre-exist the dieting behaviours.
Some people use food in an attempt to alleviate negative feelings, more commonly known as 'comfort eating'.
A range of emotional and situational factors often precipitate over indulgence. Examples include boredom, anxiety, depression, circumstances (eg. a party), stress, frustration with dieting and other frustrations etc. Clearly these behaviours can trigger someone to eat, which then intensifies the negative emotions, which then stimulates the person to eat and so the cycle continues. Weight gain and negative feelings often result.
Help break the cycle by trying the following:
• Adopt the policy: “everything in moderation”. Indulge occasionally and in a healthy, reasonable way. Complete abstinence will make it too much of a seductive forbidden food. Occasional guilt-free treats will reduce the risk of reactive bingeing behaviours.
• Forgive yourself if you “slip up” with the diet. No one is perfect! Accepting this attitude may help prevent the self-punitive binge.
• Revise your approach to dieting. Learn about healthy long term eating behaviours to maximise your chances of losing and then maintaining weight in an appropriate way.
• Adopt a long-term approach, which ensures regular balanced meals that manage hunger and provide healthy nutrition.
• Ascertain whether you're dealing with emotional or psychological difficulties, which are influencing your eating behaviour. Try to address some of these if possible. Consider accessing social support or professional support if things are really tough.
We can see that the “all or nothing” mentality can actually be counterproductive to eating in a balanced, healthy way. Especially if weight loss is your aim. So enjoy eating small amounts of unforbidden yummy food and plan a long term healthy eating lifestyle.