Like many heart-crushing relationships, this one started out casual. It was my first year of marriage, and I had both a sparkly new last name and a couple extra pounds on my thighs (thanks, birth control). My silver bullet came to me in the form of a popular 30-day elimination diet: Whole30. Armed with wildly unhealthy yet socially acceptable expectations of quick weight loss, I haphazardly began my long-term rendezvous with the fad diet that broke my heart.
I framed my new diet as a positive lifestyle change, as if my goal was to nourish my body and weight loss was a convenient side effect. But what started out as a lighthearted attempt at detoxing quickly turned toxic. One month of kale chips and kombucha passed, and I felt like I was winning. My old jeans fit perfectly, and the puffiness in my face deflated like magic. So I did another round. And then another. Three months of “whole” eating came and went, but there was nothing whole or healthy about me. Every day became about carbs and calories and “compliance” (now that I think of it, that word feels hella dystopian). As my thigh gap grew wider, my mind and my world got smaller.
Cheating, even on special occasions like my one-year anniversary or my birthday, was a distant dream. Grace? Nah, that stuff’s for quitters. I had already made it this far, and if I had a food I perceived as “bad” — like, um, a single piece of low-glycemic, organic fruit — I would lose all my “progress.” But therein was the problem. There was never any “progress” to begin with. I had been living in an illusion.
I lost a few pants sizes, but in exchange I gained a different kind of weight: a fear-based approach to eating (take it from me; mindsets are harder to lose than pounds). In pursuit of a formula for feeling good about myself, I gave my life to a fad diet that didn’t give a damn about me. It not only emaciated my body. It emaciated my joy. The only thing substantial about me by this time was my anxiety — I carried the same insecurities I had before my diet with me, only as I feigned control through carb counting, they got more and more oppressive.
Psychologist Alexis Conason says fad diets are inherently unhealthy for the mind and body. “[They] are premised on the idea that we are not good enough as we currently are and we need to ‘fix’ it through weight loss,” she told me via email. “When we diet, we reinforce to ourselves the idea that our body is bad and it is only through changing our body that we will be acceptable. This mentality makes us feel even worse about ourselves.”
Though quick-fix diets like Whole30 seem appealing in their simplicity, they are not realistic long-term solutions, unless you want to live under a constant cloud of fear and anxiety like I did. The rigid nature of fad diets sets us up to fail. “When we inevitably fall off the dieting wagon, we are plagued with feelings of shame and self-blame which add to the feelings of low self worth that motivated us to go on a diet in the first place, and we feel even worse about ourselves than when we started,” said Conason.
So are there any benefits to eating clean? Nutritionists agree that though fad diets like Whole30 can benefit our bodies in some ways, they are equal parts physically and mentally risky — especially for those with a history of eating disorders. For starters, as I experienced and Conason affirmed, fad diets don’t actually help us feel better about ourselves.
Dr. Deborah Glasofer, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders, told me in an email, “Fad diets don’t actually foster a long-term improvement in self-esteem. And there tends to be a cost to these diets. They can lead to over-attention or obsessing about appearance at the expense of attending to other things that could actually improve how you feel about yourself.”
So, how can we guard ourselves physically and emotionally as we seek lasting change in our bodies? Glasofer recommends starting with mindfulness. “If you feel stuck, if you have a hunch that your current eating habits are working against you physically or mentally, try to make some modest changes in both your eating and thinking,” she said.
Practically, this could mean letting loose every now and then and reintroducing foods you love, even if they aren’t “compliant.” It could also look like questioning your assumptions and taking a more scientific approach to your body, like reminding yourself why you need body fat or asking yourself what you would tell a friend if she voiced her belief that she could only be truly happy if she lost weight.
If simple changes in thinking aren’t helping, then it might be time to talk to a professional. “If you try to make changes and realize that you’re more stuck than you thought, speak with a professional who can help you evaluate the next step. This might involve working through your thinking with a therapist or evaluating your eating with a nutritionist. If it’s possible, seek out clinicians who are clearly oriented toward helping you improve flexibility with your eating and thinking,” said Glasofer.
So, I found my flexibility by way of anti-anxiety medication — but only after a friend bravely told me I kind of sucked to be around. It’s funny: I knew my fear-based approach to eating drained me, but I didn’t see how my carb counting could hurt someone else. As I turned outward and began focusing on how I could contribute to the world in a healthier way, the diet fizzled. I’d tasted the real, lasting joy of stewarding my inner life, and it was too good to pass up. Sure, I gained some pounds back, but I also gained myself.
As Dr. Glasofer reminds us, if mental health and flexible thinking go hand in hand, that means there is no formula for perfect health and no silver bullet to achieve our ideal body. We can’t eat ourselves clean enough to erase our mortality or buffer ourselves from our insecurities. So instead of depriving ourselves, let’s feast on grace instead.
Have you had any experience with a popular diet? Tell us @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)