Tried a diet to boost your energy and lose weight, and it didn’t work? This is a common story I hear from people, and while sometimes it might not have been the right diet for them, there are many other factors to consider.
Below are some key reasons that dieting falls short of helping people regain their health:
Eating and emotions are intrinsically linked.
Food provides more than physical nourishment – we eat for pleasure in addition to sustenance. Many are taught from a young age that food can be a provider of love, nurturance and reward – or in some instances – punishment. The habits and beliefs we form around food are taken into adulthood, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Adults can be emotionally motivated to eat food as solace or punishment, even if they don’t have a physical hunger, which can lead to overeating and craving comfort foods that tend to be high in fat and sugar. This pattern can be difficult to break, as many see no better alternative to food as a way to comfort or reward themselves, hence why many people remain overweight.
75% of overeating is due to emotional eating. Whilst most emotional eating is motivated by happy occasions, many use food to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness or to numb emotions like sadness or guilt. Emotional eaters driven by guilt can become stuck in a cycle of guilt and emotional eating.
Emotional eating may be rooted in a past trauma the person is trying to self-medicate with food. Food in this instance is used as a way to distract or distance themselves from their emotions – or to have the feeling of control over their lives if their world feels chaotic.
In these instances, therapy is needed to address the emotions around the guilt or trauma and rebuild their self-worth so the emotional eating can be resolved, alongside changing beliefs about food and providing alternatives that truly nourish their souls.
The ‘good food, bad food’ diet dichotomy can harm some emotionally, leading to guilt and overeating.
Classifying foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ creates a belief in some people that eating ‘bad’ foods means they are bad people. This mentality leads to guilt when eating those foods, which can contribute to emotional eating. These people will ditch a diet for the day, or possibly altogether, if they have one slip up and eat something on the ‘bad’ list. This can lead to further emotional eating, as they feel guilty for abandoning their health programme.
Our physiology can work against dieting – leading to yo-yo dieting and incremental weight gain.
Our physiology is designed to survive periods of famine and prepare us for feasting when food is available. As such, dieters tend to have an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin and, following periods of deprivation, our appetite rebounds to prepare for feasting to compensate for reduced food intake. As food is so accessible these days, post dieting, we tend to feast more – hence why lost weight tends to return with a little extra ;).
Yo-yo dieting then develops as a way of combating post diet weight gain, yet the deprivation mentality and our physiology keeps us stuck in this conundrum, hence the yo-yo cycle persists along with incremental weight gain – with many ending up obese.
Deprivation on diets increases desirability of the avoided foods – even if we didn’t crave them before. As humans, we tend to want what we’re told we can’t have. Telling people they can’t have a certain food can create an increased desire for that food, leading to eating those foods post the diet.
Forming new habits takes time and needs to be undertaken in small, manageable steps for lasting change.
Our neurological pathways around food have been repeated since childhood, several times a day, so they are firmly embedded to the point that we can eat with little awareness of us doing so i.e. mindless eating. The diet mentality is that all eating patterns must be changed at once, which can be a very stressful process, particularly for those that use food to cope with stress or emotions. This can lead to abandonment of a programme. Neurological pathways take around 3 months to solidify, hence it is best to focus on staged, small manageable changes that will be maintained over this timeframe to achieve long-term success.
You eat what you are.
Many people lack self-worth, self-love and compassion for themselves, mostly caused by our superficial, perfectionist society, largely driven by the media. These people vibrate at a negative, low frequency, which attracts low quality food. These fundamental issues of self-love and acceptance need to be addressed before a healthy eating pattern can be established.
Sugary, salty and fatty foods exploit our brain physiology and our taste buds
Many processed foods excite our neurological system, specifically the dopamine reward pathway. High sugar, salt and fatty foods seduce our taste buds and stimulate the production of neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin, which results in a boost in our mood. We continue to crave foods that stimulate these pathways so we can feel more of the same. For some this becomes an addictive process, in the same way that cocaine becomes addictive. Food addicts tend to require more of the same food over time to get the same mood boosting response and can become obsessed with food. Resolving cravings and addictions requires support and coaching to change their eating behaviours, and therapy in the case of food addiction, alongside nutritional support to naturally boost neurotransmitters where low mood or depression is involved.
Mindless eating is a common practice that leads to overeating.
There are so many distractions around eating occasions these days – such as television, Internet or eating in a busy environment. Many people rush their meals and pay little attention to how they eat and their satiety signals, leading them to overeat. Snacking is also problematic, particularly whilst watching television which has been shown to increase mindless eating. Therefore, part of any health strategy needs to focus on reconnecting people with food by learning how to be present and mindful when eating, so they learn to listen to their hunger and satiety signals and create awareness around how they eat as much as what they eat.
Many have a diminished mind-body connection, disconnecting from their hunger and satiety signals.
Many have lost the ability to listen to their bodies and acknowledge their satiety signals. Some were taught to override their fullness signals as a child, by their parents telling them to finish their food even though they were full. Others have lost touch with their hunger signal as food is always available, or they’ve been taught to eat at certain times of the day rather than rely on their hunger signals, which leads to overeating.
One of the key drivers of emotional eating, particularly when a person has experienced a serious trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, is the intentional loss of connection between the mind and the body. These people completely distance themselves from any sensations in their body as a way of coping with their eating. They will eat to numb their body sensations, including hunger and satiety signals, creating a spiralling cycle of impulsive eating and weight gain. This is quite a common cycle in the obese, with approximately 50% of obese women having experienced some form of physical abuse. This mind-body connection needs to be re-established alongside psychological support in addition to dietary advice and coaching.
Stress plays a big factor in peoples lives and effects how we eat.
42% of people eat more in response to stress. Eating boosts mood and serves as a distraction from the stressor. Long-term stress leads to chronically raised cortisol levels, which increases appetite and leads to overeating – a relationship that has been identified in the obese. Cortisol also increases motivation so may also increase the motivation to eat. Stress can lead to anxiety or depression, which can compound stress and lead to further emotional eating. Stress increases the appetite for sugary and fatty foods. These foods seem to counteract the feeling of stress by inhibiting part of the brain related to stress. This provides stress eaters comfort, which creates a positive reinforcement loop resulting in cravings whenever a stress arises.
Long-term stress may also impair endocannabinoids in the brain that help regulate appetite, leading to increased appetite. Finally, the ability for people to remain motivated or self regulate themselves is limited. Both weaken when stress increases. It is therefore difficult to maintain a new diet and resist reaching for a comfort food when under stress, hence addressing stress is a key factor when it comes to improving health.
A diet protocol is a prototype. You are a human with unique biochemistry.
Diets don’t take into consideration your unique needs as a human. Your genetics, nutritional status, your lifestyle and environment all play a role in how well you respond to a diet. Having a nutritional therapist assess these factors and tailor a diet that’s fit for purpose can be the missing link to finding a diet that works.
So, if we are to create permanent, positive change in the health of our population, a shift in focus towards changing habits and beliefs about food, resolving underlying factors of both emotions and lifestyle, and a personalised approach is key. Moving away from the concept of a judgment, diet depravity are also essential, with the long term goal of having a diet that makes you feel good inside and out.