5 December 2010,

Debating Dieting

Dieting is controversial because there is a massive industry that claims to help “support” people lose weight, which works in hand with a food industry that helps people put it back on. We are confused as to whether we are merely “enjoying” ourselves or “depriving” ourselves. I think a healthy majority of female readers will agree, there is a massive pressure to maintain a freakishly unnatural body type in order to conform to societal pressures of what is deemed as desirable.

The mixed message with regard to “food deprivation” versus “enjoyment”, coupled with the declaration that a very certain body type is acceptable is cause for significant psychological distress for quite a few people (an unscientific poll, sorry). At present, we have starlets that are recycled as quickly as we tire of their perfectly bridged noses, and size 0 hips/ 30 E breasts. The problem with this “certain body type”, is that it is virtually impossible to achieve.

So, back to the original problem. Obesity rates are absolutely mushrooming anorexia statistics, and the psychological distress of being overweight, I would say, is most definitely on par with any kind of physical ailment. I am not being trite: the kind of prejudicial abuse that overweight people face is appalling.

So, when is too much too much? I am not arguing that “eating how one pleases” is incompatible with being slim. I am arguing though, that many people eat for motivations beyond physiological hunger, and this inevitably causes subsequent weight gain.

Our environment is so abundant with food that, for many people, their appetite is constantly aroused. If our appetite is constantly aroused, any cut back is going to feel dire. Thus, how do we “eat how we please” and not end up miserable with our expanding waist lines?

Does dieting work? Why is dieting such a controversial issue? How can we possibly maintain the benefits of a diet long term, given that we will be faced with pleasant tasting food indefinitely? Ambitiously, I am going to try to address these issues in the following posts. Weˊll start with the Question Number 1:

Does Dieting Work?

The short answer? Yes. Cutting calories will have an effect on your weight. It will result in a decrease of body mass.

Why is dieting such a controversial issue?
The “anti dieting fervor”, i.e. the message that diets are unhealthy and this food deprivation is synonymous with subsequent development of anorexia or bulimia, comes at a cost to society. That cost is the rise in obesity, with a vast number of people confused as to what they should do to improve their health, by lowering their body weight to a lean classification.

You cannot eat yourself slim. Unfortunately, we would all love an easy way around this issue. Losing weight is unnatural, so itˊs going to be a big headache – and probably even painful. Guess what else is unnatural? Our current environment, that many psychologists have deemed ˊobesigenicˊ. The idea that we are “depriving” ourselves when we opt for a Frapuccino without whip cream is totally ludicrous. The idea of a drink that packs more than 1000 calories is ludicrous. Stop thinking that because you are eating a reasonable amount of food (which should be about 1600- 1800 calories if you are not active) is food deprivation.

How can we possibly maintain the benefits of a diet long term, given that we will be faced with pleasant tasting food indefinitely…?

Dieting ends up in the “rebound cycle” when cognitive barriers to dieting have been broken down. There are many, many reasons for abandoning a diet. For example, if you feel lonely, see someone else eating the food you most desire, see the food you most desire, have had alcohol, watched a scary movie, or have just noticed that you ate an entire pint of Haagen Dazs – all of those things can break down the cognitive barrier for dieting, and lead to even more overeating.

Clearly, dieting – or self restriction from eating what youˊd like – can be the source of psychological distress: simply put, using your brain to control the amount of food you intake, instead of the environment or lack of food being the limiting factor, is totally new. Well, Iˊd estimate this reality is about 30 years old, about the time when obesity rates started to climb. We werenˊt meant to have developed the kinds of technology that facilitate 1000 kcal drinks. However, as humans, we are quite clever. If we can produce the technology to create As Much Food as Possible, we can also control our desire to eat that food. Or, at least develop some tricks to do so.

A key success factor is to identify those factors that are your dieting achillesˊ heel: the emotions you pair with overeating, the types of food you enjoy overeating most, and the places you find them. Next, you need to make a list of the rewards (other than food) you would give yourself if are able to overcome the desire to overeat them. There will be cases wherein you simply have to bid adieu forever. For many of my friends and colleagues, this food item happens to be ice cream.

In my case? Certain kinds of cereals – it starts off the day of grazing, and subsequent horror at the sheer amount of food I have cruised through without noticing. To each their own.

Enjoyment versus Deprivation
The post started with an ultimatum: what would we rather do, enjoy or deprive ourselves?

…mm, maybe not the most difficult set of binary options, but none the less, the choice is obvious. We want to enjoy ourselves.

Critically, if the definition of “enjoyment” versus “deprivation” is based on the the instantaneous pleasure weˊll experience while a piece of cake is dangling around, it may be time to reassess these two constructs. The very fact that we have this problem so frequently (ie. that we are forced to choose to restrict ourselves or indulge ourselves on every city corner) reflects a massive change in our environment, and the way we deal with eating.

Saying “no” to our immediate desire to eat a pleasant tasting object is not self deprivation, but self preservation. Eating fewer than 1600 calories is self deprivation. Having a healthy relationship with yourself, and identifying what the specific boundaries are that lead you to overeating will help you to redefine enjoyment.

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