Failed Diet Relationships

Pursuing a dietary strategy that doesn't work is like staying in a failed relationship.

It's challenging to take into account all of the factors that influence our ability to change: desire for something different, resources, previous success and failures, cognitive bias, fear, lack of knowledge and the list goes on. 

Assuming that someone isn't taking the necessary steps for change or that their dietary failures, so to speak, reflect that they're simply lazy or unmotivated is extremely short-sighted.

I get it though. If you've never struggled with your weight and body image it simply doesn't register that weight gain could be anything other than letting your habits slip. After all, building good habits is one of the key ways to making real, sustainable change.

Reverse engineering that doesn't work because it overlooks the relationship aspect.

It's not just about the food

Imagine a person who had a sordid relationship with their family and one of the only ways they felt love and care was when food was on the table. Maybe in a setting where there wasn't much emotional care, food was a rare bond. For this person, food represents more than nutrition and energy metabolism.  It's a deep-seated (albeit skewed) source of love and comfort. But now you want to take that away? You want to cut their calorie intake down and implement restriction into one of the key areas of life they find solace in? Good luck.

Think of something that gives you a sense of peace and centers you; going to the gym, spending time with your dog, going to church, curling up with a good book.  Now imagine someone telling you that 50% of that activity needs to go away, forever. You'd defend it. You'd find reasons not to change. You'd build defenses and strategies for hiding these activities from someone who says they need to be cut down.

Sure, we KNOW that overeating and obesity are harmful to your health, quality of life and longevity. Insulin resistance, inflammation, immobility, heart disease, joint pain. But the short-term relief of an activity that brings you peace often wins out over the long-term gain of making a change.  Finding comfort from walking your dog is certainly healthier than bingeing on food but attacking that activity rarely brings change.  Not healthy change.

Understand that many of the people you see struggling with life-long obesity have tried diets, they've tried restriction.  Nothing "sticks" because the emotional and psychological driver of their behaviors have not been dealt with.  It's not my place to diagnose why someone is over-feeding themselves.  But in many cases it's obvious they're feeding a feeling.

Have you ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol? Changing tomorrow is the biggest lie you can tell yourself.  "I need this now, but I'll make a change tomorrow". Tomorrow comes and nothing is different because the person isn't dealing with anything beyond the surface.

So you might be thinking to yourself that this all sounds very complicated and for most people weight loss should be much simpler.  Sure, the freshman fifteen, post-partum baby weight, a few too many drinks on the weekend or a massive schedule change can lead to weight gain.  Many times these are singular events that can be addressed with some key strategies.  They're not necessarily caused by a traumatic emotional driver rather than a new life event. These clients are often easy to help - more veggies, hydrating, improving sleep and boom: they're back on track.

The diet isn't helping, it's hurting

What's going on with the client who has been following keto for 5 years and has only seemed to gain weight? Why does a person choose a diet that fails them over and over? Why cling to an idea or system that seems to be making things worse?

Many people will choose a diet that confirms something they already believe.  Diets that sell very simple solutions are appealing to your desire to do the least possible for the biggest reward.  Keto promises that insulin is the reason you can't lose weight, you don't even need to watch calories as long as you don't eat carbs. This notion is appealing to someone who doesn't want to address calorie restriction or behaviors as long as they don't do this "one thing". Choosing keto allows them to make the least change possible while confirming that their obesity has nothing to do with their food choices or lifestyle.  It's extremely appealing and it could be any diet.

What we're really looking at is someone who is choosing this strategy because they might struggle with addressing why they are overeating, it's too scary, it's too personal.

Continuing with this example, keto is especially powerful because the initial water weight loss from reduced carbohydrates and reduced sodium retention (from lower insulin) confirms the bias they already hold.  "See, every time I drop carbs I lose weight"!

Yet the real change never comes and the cycle continues.

The diet has failed you so many times that it borders on an abusive relationship.  It's another form of disordered eating.  Perhaps you are going to the gym 5 days a week, walking 15,000 steps a day, run 5K's and preach a dietary strategy like keto yet your weight has only increased. It takes a true buried emotional anchor to keep you from seeing the obvious.

If it helps, I can attest to that.  In high school I starved myself thin and was extremely skinny entering my 20s.  At 6'4" I was 165lbs and yet when I looked in the mirror I still saw a fat person. Literally, it did not register that I was now rail thin.  Family and friends would encourage me to eat and I couldn't understand why they'd be encouraging a "fat person" to eat more. Emotions can skew rational thought and cognition, that's apparent. 

Virtue signaling and a keen awareness

Mike Israetel posted an insightful observation sometime last year about clients who would "virtue signal" their food choices.  Unprompted, they'd begin telling him how well they were doing on their nutrition and brag about how little they were eating.  This was usually followed within the next few days or a week by a binge.  He noticed that clients who were bingeing would often virtue signal their food choices days earlier to help justify the binge to themselves while building their case that they were doing everything right to him.

People will do this with their calorie intake too, I've had 250lb clients tell me they're only eating 1200 calories/day, physiologically they would 100% be losing weight if that were the case.  They know it and I know it, yet defending their food relationship is worth stating something we both know isn't true. 

Someone struggling with their weight is aware of it 24/7.  You are never not thinking of how you feel about your body and if others are judging. It can shape how you think, feel, talk and strategize, it can change your personality.

If you're reading this and have no struggle with weight, hopefully it can give you some compassion for those who are. If you're reading this and are struggling with weight, I'd encourage you to look beyond the diets and Youtube videos claiming one weird trick, supplement or hack will fix you.  Chasing a failed strategy is like trying to make someone who has no feelings for you love you. All of your time and energy is spent pursuing something that has no future. 

I think most of us know why we started overeating in the first place, I bet you do too. The relationship you should be pursuing is one with yourself. Fad diets are the shitty boyfriends/girlfriends of the nutrition world. Maybe you need time developing how you feel about and treat yourself, everything will open up after that.  It won't be easy but it will be possible.

You'll screw up for sure, we all have and all do.  But falling down now represents an experience you will learn from rather than an experience you'll keep repeating.