Updated: Apr 4
(Hint: it’s not just about weight loss)
Please enjoy this month’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia, below!
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There is so much information about dieting, and about how to stop dieting — but why do we diet in the first place? Why is it such a compelling topic?
On the surface, we pursue dieting because we want to lose weight. We live in a culture that explicitly values thinner bodies, so this is certainly a valid part of our motivation for wanting to control the size and shape of our bodies.
But weight loss alone is not the whole story.
There are deeper reasons for why we feel SO compelled to lose weight, and they don’t have much to do with weight at all. Because weight is socially sanctioned as meaningful, anything we project onto our weight is like saying “hey, this means something to me!” Healing your relationship to food and body size involves figuring out what your core issues are (we’ll get to examples of those later), and addressing them more directly.
Even after doing that work, you may experience times when dieting still feels like the answer. This is not a sign that dieting is the answer, but that another core issue has come up and may require more investigation.
Take my client Nicole, for example.
Nicole came to me in the beginning of 2020 looking to heal her relationship with food after decades of dieting. After nine months of working together, Nicole was binge-free and had mental space to focus on her actual life goals, which included starting her own branding business, enjoying time with her husband, and being an aunt to her new niece and nephew. By the end of our sessions, she reported feeling more at peace with herself than she had felt in her entire life.
Nicole and I kept in touch after that, but almost a year after our program officially ended, she reached out to say that she thought she might need another round of coaching. While she was still binge-free and feeling miles away from where she had been just two short years ago, she said she was grappling with self-doubt and thoughts of returning to dieting.
“I’ll never go back,” she said, “but I keep thinking about doing another round of Whole30. I know how that will end, so why is this happening? I was doing so well.”
I reminded Nicole that she was still doing well — despite feeling the seduction of diet culture’s promises, she wasn’t obsessing about food around the clock or falling into patterns of restriction and bingeing that controlled her life. (Sometimes we forget how difficult life really was inside of that cycle!)
I offered Nicole a few clarity sessions to see if moving ahead with another coaching package was warranted, but within a few weeks it was clear that Nicole wasn’t experiencing a shift in her value system like she had feared. Instead, Nicole was dealing with family boundary issues that had been dormant during our work together during the pandemic. Now that her family was physically more present in her life, the old issues were creeping back in. As a response to feeling a lack of boundaries, her mind went straight back to dieting, which historically gave her a feeling of control and insulated her against her mother’s comments about her body.
Nicole didn’t need an intuitive eating overhaul — she just needed a recalibration.
She had already learned that dieting wasn’t the answer to her life’s problems, but she hadn’t fully challenged the quick-fix-diet-response in regard to this particular trigger. After about four sessions, Nicole was able to access her empowered voice again and focus on boundary setting with her family instead of unnecessarily eliminating entire food groups from her diet.
This is just one example of how diets lure us in by promising to fix areas of our life that feel out of control, uncomfortable, or downright painful. Lacking boundaries (with others, ourselves, our time, or our environment) can leave us feeling like we have no control over where we end and something else begins. We may respond by channeling the desire for boundaries into a clear meal plan with definite rules, or shape-shifting our body to fit more securely into a certain size (which is just another boundary).
In addition to needing boundaries, here are some other examples of root cause issues that may be behind your desire to diet or lose weight:
Feeling misunderstood or not accurately seen. I have noticed this as a pattern that usually starts in childhood, when we get assigned a family role that does not give us room to grow and expand. When we feel shades of this misrepresentation showing up in adulthood, we may feel the same sense of injustice that we once felt as children, and use dieting as a way to carve out an identity that says: I am strong, I am willful, I am able to carve my own way. I will not be passive; I am able to shape myself into my own mold.
Feeling like you have no impact or agency. If you have a history of feeling like your opinions and preferences don’t matter, dieting may feel like a way of having a say in what happens to you. When you restrict food, your body responds (at least initially) by becoming smaller, which is reinforced by cultural applause and admiration. When we feel like we have no say in our own lives, dieting becomes a way that we can manifest “cause-and-effect”.
Feeling isolated, alone, or rejected (lacking connection). As humans, we need connection. Thinness is a free pass to acceptance in the culture we live in, and it’s no wonder that we would turn to it in times when we otherwise feel abandoned, lonely, or like we don’t fit in. This is one of the most common patterns I see in the people I work with because beauty (and by extension, thinness) is the most direct channel to social approval that we know of.
Feeling overwhelmed or dysregulated. We live in a world that can easily trigger our nervous system into hypervigilance (think: political climate, pandemic uncertainty, fast-paced living, productivity culture). If our body needs more access to calm, dieting may feel like a good way to use structure, rules, and routine to provide that sense of groundedness.
Unfortunately, diets are only a temporary band-aid for all of these issues. They feel compelling because they work so well at first, and our brains are wired to remember what feels rewarding so that we are more inclined to seek it out again. But after a while, the original emotions resurface and we realize that dieting is creating its own system of problems.
Exposing root causes can go a long way to healing this pattern of distraction-by-dieting. When we know what it is that we’re really craving, we can stop giving so much power to methods that aren’t actually uprooting the original problem.
What patterns do you notice in yourself when it comes to your own root causes? If you have trouble identifying this, think back to what was going on in your life when you first began dieting, and see if there are any lingering patterns to your present-day triggers. What are you seeking through the diet? What diet promises feel particularly compelling or believable? Will the diet truly provide these things to you in a sustainable or meaningful way?
These questions can help you get closer to the story behind your own dieting, so that you can continue to peel back more layers when the urge to diet strikes again.
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