Diet Mentality and the Holidays

Question: What is the surest way to lose all control over yourself during the holiday season and gain massive amounts of weight?

Answer: The diet mentality – attempting to control your eating through externally imposed rules and self-deprivation

Dieting means eating according to externally derived rules that are independent of what you want or need. People turn to external rules because they don’t feel they have the ability to make reasonable choices on their own. A few thousand episodes of not having control in the past will tend to reinforce this lack of self-trust, but in fact you can relearn natural, internal control of your eating if you approach it in the right way. It’s not that you can’t get there, it’s that you don’t know how to get there.

People don’t eat compulsively because they lack self-control. People eat compulsively to soothe and distract themselves from the pain of unmet needs. Thus the solution to isn’t to whip yourself into good behavior and apply external constraints. The solution is to learn true self-care so you no longer need food bandaides. The Normal Eating method and tools are very effective in helping people learn to do this so compulsive urges fade away.

The holidays tend to spark overeating for two reasons:

  1. Lots of especially delicious foods that you don’t often get to eat.
  2. Heightened awareness of and/or exposure to difficult family situations.

Dieting has only a 1% long-term success rate in the best of circumstances, but there is no time of year that you have less chance of succeeding with a diet than holiday time. And when you fail, the self-condemnation will lead you to eat even more. Here are some examples of “diet mentality” posted by Normal Eating Support Group members:

  • I ate more than I planned so I may as well pig out. I’ll start watching again on Monday.
  • I have to weigh in tomorrow, so I’d better not eat too much tonight.
  • If I didn’t weigh in every week, I would really put on the weight.
  • If I eat this for lunch, I can’t eat anything else for the rest of the day.
  • I’ll have a cup of coffee or tea to take the hunger away.
  • I’d better be good this week. I’m paying good money for this program.
  • I’ve had a slice of pizza, so I might as well finish it the whole pie.
  • It’s okay if I keep eating this food, even though I’m full, because it’s healthy.
  • I’ve been good all day, so I can have what I really want now.
  • I’ve not eaten any chocolate today; I must continue to be good and not have even a taste!
  • I am not going to buy any new clothes until I lose x pounds.
  • If I wear something snug, maybe I won’t eat so much today.
  • I was really bad today, so today is hopeless. I’ll be good starting tomorrow.
  • I should just take a diet pill so I don’t want to eat.
  • I shouldn’t bring trigger foods into the house, or if I do, not leave them out where I can see them.
  • When I’m in diet mode, I continually berate myself about what I am or am not eating.
  • I endlessly weigh up points or calories in my head, whether I want to or not – can’t stop.
  • I’m always calculating… if I lose such and such a day, then I’ll be x pounds down by this or that date.
  • I constantly think about food – like I’m starving or something!

I’m sure many of these thoughts are familiar to you. Note the three primary themes:

  1. You cannot trust yourself.
  2. Your authentic needs are of no importance – even true physical hunger does not give you the right to eat.
  3. If you are less than perfect, you are terrible and you’ve failed.

These "diet mentality" attitudes are the underlying reasons behind compulsive eating! Normal Eating requires that you trust yourself, honor your authentic needs, and accept your areas of struggle with compassion rather than condemnation. Anything you do that undermines this will keep you stuck in the compulsive cycle.

Something to Try…

If you’re just starting with Normal Eating, you probably will overeat at times over the holidays, but if you beat yourself up for it or try to deprive yourself of holiday treats, you’ll just overeat more. Here are some things you can do that will help:

Resist Diet Mentality – You don’t need someone or something outside of you to keep you from eating – don’t put yourself down by telling yourself that you do. Even if you haven’t yet learned the skills to redirect the compulsive eating urges, you will do better by treating yourself with respect and compassion. There is no greater trigger for compulsive eating than self-condemnation, or attempting to punish yourself for bad behavior. Being fat does not take away your right to eat certain foods, or any other right. Enjoy the treats, turn off the “shoulds”, and don’t call yourself names. You’ll be amazed at how just these simple steps can make a difference.

Set Boundaries – The Diet Mentality is all around us, and if you’re significantly overweight, you probably have well-meaning but misguided friends and relatives who try to give you advice. This is a boundary violation and it’s disrespesctful. Your body and what you eat are nobody’s business but your own. Uninvited personal comments are invasive. You are not accountable to anyone but yourself for what you eat, and you don’t own anyone an explanation for what you’re eating or why. You have the right to say, “I understand that you’re concerned, but this is my own personal business and I don’t want to discuss it. Thank you for respecting that.” Don’t put yourself in a position of defending the non-diet approach when you’re vulnerable and just learning.

Aim for progress, not perfection – If you aim for perfection, you will fail because you’re human and no human can achieve perfection. You don’t need to be perfect to be acceptable and deserving of love and the good things in life. If you did better today than you did yesterday, celebrate the improvement; don’t focus on where you failed. Feeling like a failure leads directly to compulsive eating, so beware of setting unreasonable goals that set you up to fail, like resolving to eat no desserts, or never eat past full.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

This article was first published in the November 2005 newsletter.

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One Response to Diet Mentality and the Holidays

  1. avatar roz says:

    This rings so true Sheryl.
    Lots of wonderful family togtherness – some under the surface feeling and not a lot of time or space to acknowledge or deal with them.
    Putting off my own needs because of one event after another – all things i want to do —
    but still, so much different than in years past. i haven’t felt hunger for every eating experience but i have felt hunger for some.
    had only one experience of thinking “I don’t care about anyhing i am having another big plate of dessert”
    right now i am using this time to get in touch with my inner specialness and remind myself to live in the moment – to enjoy the people around me – to treat myself with love and care.
    rosalyn

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