Last year, I saw a photo of Chrissie Swan on Instagram and everyone was raving about how slim and amazing she looked after her weight loss journey. And all I could think was “God, she must be hungry.” That poor media darling – a TV presenter here Down Under for those of you who have not had the pleasure of watching her – had starved herself somehow into the socially acceptable world of slenderness.
My heart goes out to her.
The thing about dieting is that it leads to an intense feeling of deprivation.
And deprivation leads to stress.
There’s a study from the University of Minnesota from the 1940s that demonstrates this in sharp relief.
Disclaimer: Before I launch into the details of the study, I need to pause and give you some insights about one of its authors, Ancel Keys (1904 – 2004). He’s quite famous for researching – primarily with men – nutrition and heart disease. Some say that his research led to the low-fat diet craze that many of us suffered through in the 80s and 90s. Some disagree. Others say that he’s a misogynist and a fat-phobe. I'll leave that with you.
Back to deprivation.
Mr. Keys and his colleague, a psychologist named Josef Brozek, studied the effects of starvation on 36 healthy men. The idea was for the men to lose 25 percent of their normal body weight (which is probably something that Chrissie Swan managed to do). The men spent the first three months of the study eating their usual amount of food, which was about 3,200 calories a day. Then they lived through six months on 1,570 calories a day – a near-starvation amount. After this six-month period, they gradually returned to a normal amount of food.
During the period of semi-starvation, they experienced dramatic changes, including significant decreases in strength, stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive. They became obsessed with food – dreaming, fantasising, reading and talking about food. They also reported fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy.
Sound familiar? This is what happens when we are dieting. Pretty much every diet that I’ve ever been on has recommended 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day (for women, maybe a little bit more for men).
When you are dieting, you are depriving yourself of vitality and ease.
So we need to stop doing this.
I don’t mean that we need to become unhealthy. But we need to get off the treadmill of either being on a diet or off a diet. Because all this leads to is an obsession with food. And the slippery slope of that obsession leads to bingeing and guzzling. Which leads us into the presence of shame.
It’s a vicious cycle of pain. Please join me in leaving it behind.
Last year, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Maria Sundberg. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and is focussed on the science that helps us be fit, strong and healthy for life. Oh, and she’s really, really good at lifting weights.
When I started working with Maria, all my thoughts were around the deprivation I might experience and the effort that I would need to make. I pictured myself waking up at dawn, spinning around my lounge room with my kettlebell, living on green smoothies and generally feeling like hell.
This wasn’t the case.
In the first session I had with Maria, she begged me to get more sleep. “I want you to set the alarm for 7 am,” she said, and my heart soared. “Really?” I asked. God, I was tired, work was a nightmare right then and the thought of having a tiny sleep-in until 7 am was music to my ears.
Then she asked me to read a book called Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth. It's not as spiritual as it sounds for those of you who are afraid of the woo-woo. Me, I love anything woo-woo, so I happily threw myself in. This book proved to be life-changing for me. It took a little while for its message to sink in, but I live it daily now.
Dr. Maria gave me the key: "When we listen carefully, our body will tell us what it needs. The trick is just to be able to listen carefully and to trust oneself.”
If you’d like to consider a life without dieting, I heartily encourage it. I’m not suggesting you binge or use pizza as your main food group. I’m suggesting that you zoom in on yourself – who you are and what your unique body needs. Throw away other people’s eating plans, trust the knowledge that you have gained during your time on the planet so far and eat the foods that make your body feel good.
These days, I eat freely from a priority list of foods – I have some food allergies that I won’t bore you with here. I’ll save that for another post! So, while I have restrictions, I don’t have deprivation. I can consume the calories I need. I can listen to my body and give it what it seeks, whether that be energy, nutrients or comfort.
It’s the first time I’ve trusted myself fully since I started dieting at the age of 10.
And it's so liberating.
If you’re curious to set yourself free, I’d also like to encourage you to check out Maintenance Phase, a brilliant podcast that looks at health and wellness with the intention of debunking myths and undoing fat stigma. Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbs have such a great banter about the way that weight defines so much of our experience in our society. It’s really worth a listen to unpack the relationship that we believe exists between weight and health.
ps. I'm going away camping for a couple of weeks so things will be quiet on the blog. Thanks so much to my lovely readers who have joined me on this journey so far. I'll be back later in April.