Revisiting my journey with food
Rewind a couple of years and you would've met a Kirstin that had a very different, rather unhappy relationship with food. I can acknowledge the fact that I definitely have thin privilege, having always been a ‘small’ person, but I haven't always been satisfied with the way that I look and the body that I have. Going through puberty and life as a teenager and young adult in this diet-obsessed world can make it difficult for anyone to learn to love their body and the changes that take place as we develop and grow and more often than not we feel far less worthy than we really are. As I shared recently in a blogpost over on Essentially Emma, I think that my poor body image largely stemmed from a period in my life where I transitioned from being a competitive swimmer who trained for 2-3 hours a day, 6 days a week, to an 17-year-old girl who quit swimming and had to start thinking more about food, movement, and being 'healthy' (as young girls do right?).
Move forward a few years to my first year of university when I lost a significant amount of weight in a very short space of time without really trying (at least that's what I thought at the time). Looking back, this was definitely partly due to restriction and over-exercising and partly due to the fact that I had moved to a new town far away from home, with the added stress of having to adjust to university life, make new friends, and perform academically. The slight, but noticeable, change in my body brought about compliments, comments, and concerns from friends and family back home during my first university holiday. I believe that these kinds of 'compliments' play a very damaging role in how we relate to and value our bodies when new changes inevitably occur, because they generally trigger thoughts like 'If I'm getting compliments like this now, did I look bad before?' and 'Well I better stay at this size forever, because I'm obviously not attractive/valuable/worthy of comments like that in any other body'. Needless to say, when I started to settle into university, found community, and felt more at home my body returned to how it was before.
I have also had with IBS for years and really struggled to get help and advice from my GP at the time that actually worked to help ease what felt like permanent bloating and abdominal discomfort. I think that at the time, IBS was largely misunderstood, and thankfully research has advanced in such a way that we have a much better understanding and appreciation of the condition. Needless to say, whilst I was in my undergraduate years at university I decided to take things into my own hands and did all that I could to find a solution. I fell right into the hands of what was at the time the rising trend of the gluten-free, low-carb, dairy-free, sugar-free, everything is toxic, ‘clean eating’ movement. Paleo, Whole 30, the Real Meal Revolution (aka. Banting) 'lifestyles' (as they call themselves) all became very attractive solutions to some of my problems. I mean they promise to solve all gastrointestinal issues, give you more energy, and help you live a long and happy life! Right?
Although learning more about food and starting to care more about being ‘healthy’ encouraged me to eat more veggies, nuts, seeds, and other wholesome ingredients, food largely became a source of anxiety for me and beautiful, wholesome foods like fruit, grains, and dairy were off-limits for different periods of time. I can’t say that I’ve suffered from an eating disorder, but I have definitely had periods where I have had a terribly disordered relationship with food, exercise, and my body. The funny thing is that before I studied nutrition I didn’t ever stop to think that the IBS symptoms that I suffered from were often triggered more by my anxiety and stress around food rather than foods themselves!
Over the past few years, my approach to nutrition and health has shifted as I've been able to learn from some of the leading experts in the field as well as the warriors out there in the field working one-on-one with clients, in industry, and in the public health space. I've come across the likes of Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size, and have a greater appreciation of the complex social determinants of health that play a role in our overall wellbeing. I have engrossed myself in various podcasts, blogs, research, and social media profiles published by some amazing qualified registered nutritionists, dietitians, and researchers, which have largely shaped the way that I now view health, wellbeing, and how we relate to food. Studying nutrition has allowed me to learn more about how restriction and over-exercising is not conducive to a happy and healthy life, and that food is about more than just calories. I have also been lucky enough to marry a man with a very ‘normal’ relationship with food, who cares about and loves me for reasons that extend beyond what my body looks like. And although there are days where those old critical thoughts and rules around food return, I have found ways to combat them through kindness and have largely found freedom in my relationship with food and my body through giving up those pesky diets and learning to listen to my inner intuitive eater.
So what exactly is a 'diet'?
Although the word 'diet' can refer to the sum of food and drink habitually consumed by a person, it usually implies the intake of specific foods for 'health' or weight-management. Since the turn of the century, the word 'diet' has become a lot less attractive and a whole host of diets disguised as 'lifestyle changes' and 'wellbeing programmes' have made their way into our lives.
5 Reasons Why Diets Suck
1. Diets don't work in the long-run
There is an ever-increasing body of evidence indicating that diets don't work in the long-term for the vast majority of people and that restrictive and obsessive eating behaviours, no matter what your body shape, colour, or size, can actually be harmful [1,2]. Despite the fact that there is evidence that shows that diets can lead to successful short-term weight loss, these losses are actually not maintained for most people in the long-term and usually result in participants regaining of more weight than they lost in the first place . Mann et al. published an amazing review of a number of 'good quality' RCT studies that focused on using diets for weight loss (you can find all of the references to these studies in the paper here). The researchers found a few important that I'll highlight here:
- There was inconsistent evidence that diets result in significant health improvements in the long-term
- It is also difficult to tease out the effects of weight loss from lifestyle changes in this kind of research (i.e. we can't really assume that weight loss is directly related to health outcomes when other factors come into play)
- Dieters that lose and maintain significant weight loss for more than 5 years appear to be the exception, rather than the rule
- The vast majority of dieters actually regain more weight than they originally lose on a diet
You wouldn't choose to purchase a vacuum cleaner or car that stops working after a few months right? So why do we choose to follow diets that have a really high failure rate?
2. Diets place food and weight loss the centre of health and wellbeing
Did you know that there are many health behaviours and habits associated with improving health outcomes independently of weight loss? Lifestyle changes such as regular movement, learning to eat according to internal hunger and fullness cues, cessation of smoking, overall healthy diet patterns, and good quality sleep can improve markers such as blood pressure, blood lipids, and insulin sensitivity largely or completely independently from changes in body weight [3,4,5,6,7,8]. Most diets fail to recognise this and tend to place their main emphasis on weight loss through restricting/manipulating food intake and exercising. In the end, it is possible to make food choices that honour your health and personal tastes whilst also making you feel good and healthy whilst not placing the focus on weight loss . What you eat consistently over a long period of time matters, but other healthy lifestyle habits, personal circumstances, and social determinants of health also have a really important impact on long-term health.
3. Dieting causes us to lose trust in our bodies
When we follow the rules set out by diets, we slowly but surely disconnect from our innate signals and stop trusting our bodies to guide our food choices. Diets seemingly help us feel 'in control' and free from 'guilt', but in the long-run they cause us to lose touch with our internal hunger and fullness cues because they dictate how much, what, and when we're and why allowed to eat. Think about it, when you follow a fairly rigid meal plan you tend to:
- Eat meals and snacks at set times, regardless of whether or not you're hungry in those moments
- Ignore or struggle to honour hunger signals that pop up in between set meals and snacks
- 'Go off the rails' and feel like your eating is out of control when you just can't restrict anymore, usually resulting in you eating until you feel stuffed
Whilst intense eating may feel like something unnatural and 'out of control', it can be argued that it's actually a perfectly natural survival response to starvation, restriction, and dieting. When the body experiences chronic restriction, it cannot tell the difference between it being due to a diet or due to a famine - hence your body will shift into survival mode and adapt to circumstances accordingly . Your body does a great job of learning and adapting, and when it is starving, it will do all that it can to get some kind of nourishment!  Intuitive Eating and the HAES paradigm support developing and re-learning the skills to help us better understand our internal regulatory processes, instead of forcing us to rely on external, cognitively-imposed dietary rules and restrictions .
4. Diets make you believe that you need your change your body to be happy
Diets do an amazing job of praising 'skinny' and/or strong bodies that fit into what the broader society deems as 'ideal', and tend to discount all of the rest. They make you believe that there is something wrong with your body shape and size, and make you feel like you don't really care about your health and well-being unless you actively put in the time and effort to lose weight. The reality is that focusing on weight loss as a primary goal is known to contribute to food and body preoccupation, a distraction from other personal health goals and wider determinants of health, reduced self-esteem, and weight bias and discrimination . It’s also really difficult to manipulate where and how our bodies store fat and build muscle!
Dieting also generally ignores the fact that factors such as community and social interaction, financial stability, access to healthcare services, socioeconomic status, and food security all have a very important role to play in influencing our happiness. Firstly, this sucks because of the cycle of restriction, overexercising, and 'falling off the wagon' that is inevitably experienced by most people that go on a diet. Secondly, trying to manipulate your body to fit a certain mold can contribute to feelings of unhappiness, guilt, shame, and dissatisfaction. Thirdly, praising a certain body type can lead to us stigmatising and discriminating against others that find themselves in larger bodies (I'll discuss weight stigma in more detail in the next couple of weeks). Finally, gaining our happiness and satisfaction from having the 'perfect' body to be happy ignores the fact that our bodies are bound to go through changes as we grow, develop, and age.
5. Dieting causes us to fear food
...and often does so using pseudoscientific 'evidence' to support reasons why certain foods should be excluded from the diet whilst others should be included. Whether it's gluten, dairy, nightshade vegetables, peanuts, coffee, legumes, anything pre-packaged, or sugar, most diets include lists of foods that are 'allowed' and 'not allowed', and require that you follow them to a tee in order to be compliant. Now I know that there are exceptions to this - coeliacs can't eat gluten because it is the causative factor that triggers an autoimmune reaction in their small intestine, and IBS sufferers working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist may follow the low FODMAP diet for a number of weeks to determine specific trigger foods to help them better manage their IBS - but the vast majority of diet and lifestyle solutions out there have very little scientific basis behind excluding these foods without realising the fear that their misinformation can cause. Dieting can also cause us to become preoccupied with food, making it something that we think about constantly. Think about it, the mere contemplation of going on a diet or restricting certain foods usually brings on urges and cravings . When food in general, as well as specific foods, become the enemy, mealtimes can become filled with anxiety, fear, and dissatisfaction. This is really sad because food is a blessing and we are allowed to experience joy and pleasure when we consume it.
So, how can you recognise a diet in disguise?
Since the turn of the century, the idea of being on a diet has become rather taboo and 'lifestyle' programs and clean eating have become the new normal. I won't beat around the bush here - most of these things are just wolves in sheep's clothing and are actually diets at their core. So, I've put together a list of some of the things that you can look out for when trying to identify whether something is a diet in disguise:
- It uses emotive language and terms like 'guilt-free', '
- It involves dedicated tracking, counting, or monitoring food intake and exercise
- It emphasises weight loss and manipulating your body shape and size
- It praises bodies that fit the 'ideal' and celebrates those pesky 'before' and 'after' photos
- It dictates what, when, how much, and in what contexts you're allowed to eat food
- It involves long lists of 'forbidden' and 'allowed' foods
- It involves cutting out whole food groups
- It ends up causing you to constantly think about food, doubt your food choices, and feel guilty about 'bad' choices
- It cites dodgy, pseudoscientific references to back up arbitrary claims demonising or celebrating specific foods or food groups
- It takes away from the joy from your life
What can you do instead of dieting?
Ok so diets, no matter their title or name, are pretty great at complicating your relationship with food and messing with your metabolism. But what other options are there?
- Focus on foods that you are able to access, can afford, and can eat
- Eat foods that you enjoy and make you feel good
- Don't subscribe to a label
- Find movement that you enjoy rather than punishing yourself for eating food
- Throw away your scale at home
- Learn to recognise the diet culture messages around you
- Educate yourself and reframe your thoughts around food and your body
- Reclaim your inner Intuitive Eater
- Eat a slice of apple pie!
 Bacon L, Aphramor L. Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal. 2011;10:9
 Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew A, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare's Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer. American Psychologist. 2007;62(3):220-33
 Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improves Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters. American Dietetic Association. 2005;105(6):929-936
 Fagard RH. Physical activity in the prevention and treatment of hypertension in the obese. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 Nov;31(11 Suppl):S624-30
 Appel LJ, Moore TJ, Obarzanek E, Vollmer WM et al. A Clinical Trial of the Effects of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure. N Engl J Med. 1997;336:1117-24
 Gaesser GA. Exercise for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Currently Diab Rep. 2007 Feb;7(1):14-9
 Kraus WE, Houmard JA, Duscha BD, Knetzger KJ, Wharton MB, McCartney JS, Bales CW, Hennes S, Samsa GP, Otvos JD, Kulkarni KR, Slentz CA. Effects of the amount and intensity of exercise on plasma lipoproteins. N Engl J Med. 2002 Nov;347(19):1483-92
 Lamarche B, Després JP, Pouliot MC, Moorjani S, Lupien PJ, Thériault G, Tremblay A, Nadeau A, Bouchard C. Is body fat loss a determinant factor in the improvement of carbohydrate and lipid metabolism following aerobic exercise training in obese women? Metabolism. 1992 Nov;41(11):1249-56