As I’ve already mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the bookThe Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care and its authors Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, who are both therapists specializing in eating problems.
Today, I’m thrilled to present part one (of three!) of our interview. Below, Judith and Ellen talk about what it means to be a diet survivor, the many misconceptions about being healthy and the surprising dangers of dieting. I found their interview to be incredibly eye-opening and thought-provoking. And I think you will, too!
Be sure to stay tuned tomorrow for part two, where the authors discuss building a healthy relationship with food.
What inspired you to write The Diet Survivor’s Handbook?
We wanted to write a book that would help people understand that they haven’t failed diets; diets have failed them. Most people have heard the phrase “diets don’t work,” but don’t really know what to do instead.
We came up with the term diet survivor to help people understand that getting caught in the diet/binge cycle wreaks havoc on your relationship with food and your life, and that making an active decision to break this cycle takes courage. We wanted our readers to know that they are not alone, and to help them ease the shame that comes from feeling that you are a failure if you can’t lose weight and keep it off. Instead, it is our hope that as people learn the reasons why diets fail, they will feel empowered to join the growing number of others who have let go of dieting and reclaimed their lives.
We also wanted The Diet Survivor’s Handbook to be like a best friend that you can keep by your bedside (or even in your purse)! Although there are many books about the non-diet approach, ours is unique in the way it’s set up. After three brief chapters (It’s NOT Your Fault, Identifying the Culprit and Reclaiming Your Life), we offer 60 lessons to guide readers on their journey to make peace with food, their bodies, and themselves. Each lesson is easy to read, and followed by an activity to help integrate the concept. Most fun of all was choosing just the right inspirational or humorous quote that appears at the end of each lesson!
The other inspiration for writing The Diet Survivor’s Handbook is our true pleasure in writing together. We are actually sisters who both became therapists specializing in eating problems. Our first book, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide toTreating Compulsive Eating, gave us a chance to see how we could combine our love of writing and our passion for helping people normalize their relationship with food. Even though we live in different states (Judith is in the Chicago area and Ellen is near Boston) thanks to the Internet – and lots of long phone calls – we were able to write these books and add another wonderful dimension to our relationship!
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions people have about healthy eating or healthy living in general?
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the term “healthy eating,” in our culture it has taken on a moral tone where you are “good” for eating “healthy” and “bad” when you eat “unhealthy” foods. This creates problems.
First, when people use the phrase “healthy eating,” they usually think about only eating “healthy” foods, for example, fruits, vegetables, low-fat foods, and foods high in fiber. In our experience, although health is usually stated as the reason for sticking to these types of foods, often the real underlying motivation is a wish to lose weight.
The problem with this thinking is that it leads to a sense of deprivation. Let’s say that you tell yourself that starting tomorrow, you won’t eat ice cream anymore. Chances are that tonight, you’ll eat ice cream – whether you are hungry for it or not – and that you’ll eat more than you need. Just the thought of taking away a particular food is enough to trigger overeating!
Another scenario that often plays itself out is promising to eat only “healthy” foods, and then breaking through this restriction. According to research, people who set restrictive eating rules have a “what the heck” attitude that leads them to keep eating their “forbidden” foods, one they’ve already started – the feeling is, “I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep going,” with a promise to be “good” again tomorrow. Even if you are someone who is able to eat smaller amounts of so-called “unhealthy” foods, you may still feel some guilt. Or, you may be avoiding social situations or using a lot of energy to eat only “healthy” foods. There’s nothing healthy about these patterns!
We want to make sure it’s clear that we’re in no way against nutritious foods! However, we prefer to focus on how to have a healthy relationship with food – as opposed to eating healthy foods (we’ll say more about that in a later question.) We also prefer the term “healthful” as it seems less loaded with judgment. Ultimately, the goal is to choose from a wide variety of foods, including foods that are healthful.
As for healthy living, the most common misconception is the belief that the number on the scale indicates whether or not someone is living a healthy lifestyle. It does not!
The truth is that healthy – and unhealthy – people come in all shapes and sizes. There are large people who exercise regularly, eat healthful foods and have excellent reports from their doctors. There are thin people who are eating poorly, physically inactive, and may even suffer from an eating disorder. You cannot determine a person’s health status just from looking at the size of their body.
We take a more holistic view when it comes to healthy living. Do you have a healthy relationship with food? Do you move your body in a way that fits your lifestyle? Do you see your doctor on a regular basis? Do you have supportive relationships? How do you deal with stress? Do you get enough sleep? The list goes on, but the point is that our health and well-being is so much broader that our weight.
What are some of the consequences of dieting?
It’s ironic that family, friends, colleagues and health professionals often view going on a diet as a positive way to take care of yourself, when the reality is that dieting actually has harmful consequences. Remember that while just about every diet leads to weight loss in the short-run, research shows that approximately 95 percent of people will gain the weight back, and two-thirds will end up heavier than their pre-diet weight.
Dieting is normalized in our culture as a natural thing to do, but it is not as innocuous as many believe. In addition to taking up a tremendous amount of emotional energy – as well as financial resources – here are the consequences we explain in The Diet Survivor’s Handbook:
- Diets Make People Fatter
With each diet, the body will defend itself by fighting against restriction and weight loss for its own survival. Our physiology has been programmed through evolution and adaptation to respond to times of famine in ways that maximize species survival. Our bodies are wired to fight against weight loss! Each time the body defends itself against a diet, it becomes more efficient at storing fat. Studies have repeatedly revealed that compared to their non-dieting counterparts, dieters are more likely to gain weight in the long run. In fact, David Garner, an eating disorders specialist, has explained that the best way to gain weight is to go on a diet to lose weight!
- Weight Cycling and Disease
The common response to a failed diet is to begin yet another weight loss plan, moving the dieter into a weight cycling paradigm. Along with the emotional toll of losing and regaining weight are the physical risks associated with yo-yo dieting. Glen Gaesser, author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about You Weight and Your Health, points out that the vast majority of dieters, whose weight fluctuates considerably throughout their adult life, have a greater risk of health problems. For example, the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes increased for yo-yo dieters as compared to their non-dieting counterparts, who maintained higher but steady weights.
- Eating Disorders
Dieting behavior is an important predictor in the development of eating disorders. People who diet are eight times more likely to develop bulimia or anorexia nervosa, the latter of which has the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric illness. The prevalence of eating disorders has continued to increase. In the United States, as many as ten million females and one million males struggle with an eating disorder.
The effects of caloric restriction include depression, fatigue, weakness, irritability, social withdrawal and reduced sex drive. Debra Waterhouse, dietician and author of Why Women Need Chocolate, notes the physiological effects of dieting that can lead to emotional consequences. She explains that dieting causes brain turbulence by decreasing brain chemicals and brain sugar supplies, which results in increased food craving and depressed mood. Dieting decreases serotonin levels, which are needed in order to maintain a calm and stable mood. Studies of adults have found that the more diets women had been on, the more severe their depressive symptoms were. Dieters score higher on measurements of stress and depression compared to non-dieters. Dieting affects a person’s emotional life negatively and inhibits a positive connection between mind, body and spirit.
The long-term effects of dieting for the great majority of people are decreased health and increased weight. But perhaps the most insidious part of the whole cycle is the underlying and persistent feeling that something must be wrong with you and you are to blame.
The truth is that we live in a shame-based culture that says that if your body differs from the coveted thin physique, something is intrinsically wrong with you and in need of fixing. Your worth as a person has become inaccurately defined and simplified as thin equals a good, moral person and fat equals a bad, shameful person.
Once you have taken in these shame-based cultural messages, it is understandable that you turn to diets to lose weight so you can lose the shame. The problem is that the culturally supported idea of dieting to lose weight doesn’t work – at least in the long term. Remember, that 95 – 98 percent of dieters will gain back their weight. When the pounds return, you are left feeling like a diet failure. After all, the prevailing “wisdom” is that if you had had enough determination, you would have kept the weight off.
When you berate yourself because the diet fails, believing you are at fault and experiencing a profound sense of shame, you have taken in the culturally induced shame and made it your personal shame. As you repeat this process, you find yourself caught in the diet/binge cycle, feeling ashamed and believing there is no one to blame but yourself. We want to remind you that because this process is experienced by almost everyone embarking upon a diet, it must be seen as the natural progression of a set of circumstances, rather than the problem of a particular individual.
Books by Judith Matz & Ellen Frankel
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons on Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care (Sourcebooks, 2006)
Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating (Brunner/Routledge, 2004)
Thank you so much, Judith and Ellen, for your insight and for opening our eyes to the many pervasive myths about healthy living and dieting.
Again, stayed tuned for part two tomorrow!