Why your new year diet could be bad for your mental health

January is the month of new beginnings, new resolutions and often new diets. Maybe this January it’s the Paleo diet, the Alkaline diet or even a plant-based diet. It could be a promise to cut out sugar, carbs or dairy, or to swear off white bread for good. But there is a dark side to the diets we vow to stick to, that could be having an adverse effect on our mental health.

It is probably worth pointing out initially, that so much of the research around diets points to one very important fact; diets don’t work. They may help you lose weight at first, but they are rarely a long-term solution, with research showing most people will put any weight back on over time. In fact, it is thought that diets have around an 80% failure rate. The odds are against you and there’s a very good reason for that. When we restrict our food intake we are going against our biological drive to seek out and eat food. And unlike our ancestors who roamed the Savanna looking for a slow-moving antelope or some edible plants, food is everywhere for us. Food is more readily available than ever before, so constantly trying to resist food in general or even certain food groups, can drive us to the point of distraction. 

Diets & disordered eating

Diets create a scarcity mind-set; a feeling of deprivation that can be damaging to our mental health and usually stems from or leads to disordered eating. Disordered eating is abnormal eating behaviours that may include skipping meals, binge eating, restricting certain food types or fasting (with the exception of for religious or ethical reasons), usually accompanied by a sense of shame, guilt, anxiety or other negative emotions in relation to eating food (this is not the same as a clinical eating disorder). It is scarily common in our modern world and only fuelled by the diet and weight-loss industry which is estimated to be worth $172 billion worldwide. When we feel insecure about our bodies and our weight and feel the need to go on a diet, somebody, somewhere is likely to be cashing in on that insecurity, which is a depressing but very real fact. 

Demonising and vilifying certain food like carbs, sugar or dairy is usually counter-productive and very rarely based on any kind of credible science. We need carbohydrates for so many different bodily functions, but the fitness industry has drilled it into us that carbs are the devil and if you’re really committed to being the ‘best possible version of yourself’ you’ll live off a diet of chicken breasts and steamed broccoli. The rise of pseudo-science has seen bloggers, influencers and barely-qualified nutritionists, offering us information that isn’t based on robust, credible science, and majorly over-simplifies the complex world of nutrition.

We need to let go of the idea of cheat days, points, meal plans and calorie counting to really be free from disordered eating. 

The mental health impact of dieting & food restriction

It is estimated that from those that go on a diet, 20-25% will progress to developing a clinical eating disorder1. Studies have also shown that dieting can lead to increased stress, lowered self-esteem and depression2. Of course that won’t be the case for every single person on a diet but is the promise of washboard abs or a backside that ‘you can be proud of’ really worth the risk?

We all know the feeling of being so starving or so hungry that you could chew your own arm off. All you can think about is food. You dream about doughnuts and stuffed-crust pizza from Dominos whilst trying to concentrate on that report you’re writing at work, but failing miserably. Suddenly it feels like food is taking over your life. 

The biology is fairly simple. There are a range of neurotransmitters and hormones in our brain sending out subtle signals when we get hungry to encourage us to eat. If we ignore these signals, your brain will send stronger signals and we become hyper-focused on food, which is why you can’t stop thinking about a pain au chocolate. Food is one of our few basic needs for survival so when we restrict it, everything in our biology drives us towards finding it. This is our bodies telling us to find food at any cost and what also leads to that late-night binge, where you tear through a family pack of Wispa bites – this is your body’s natural response to deprivation. 

Is it a diet or a ‘lifestyle’?

The word diet has become a lot less fashionable in modern times, but diets are often sneaking in through the back door, with a new outfit on. It’s essentially the very same thing, but we are instead calling it a ‘lifestyle choice’ or even ‘wellness’. Sure, you can try and sell ‘clean eating’ as a lifestyle, but if there are rules, restrictions, forbidden foods and cheat days then it sounds a lot like a diet to me. Don’t be fooled by the so-called wellness industry, dressing diets up as something different and something healthy. 

Learning to trust ourselves again 

One of the most important factors in overcoming disordered eating is learning to trust ourselves again; trust our own appetites, hunger signals and feelings of fullness. No one knows your body better than you and we are so wonderfully unique. So rather than outsourcing what we eat to so called ‘experts’ (generally promotors of disordered eating, benefitting financially from our insecurities), try and work on body-acceptance and re-learning how to trust yourself around food. 

When foods are no longer ‘forbidden’ we are less likely to go completely wild around them. It’s only when we create rules and restrictions around food, are we likely to binge or ‘fall off the wagon’. Think about it, we always want what we can’t have and if I tell you not to think about cookie dough ice-cream, what happens?? 

Our bodies are so wonderfully clever; when we learn to listen to them and eat mindfully, removing the fear, guilt and shame we have around food, we’re more likely to make choices that lead to a balanced diet, where no one food is banished or restricted and we can enjoy a whole range of foods, including a piece of cake and a chocolate bar when we fancy it. This is the basis of intuitive eating. If you’re fed up of dieting and want to gain a sense of freedom around food, I believe this is the only way to go. 

There are some wonderful books in this area that I would wholly recommend if disordered eating is an issue for you or if you’d like to find out more about intuitive eating:

Just Eat It– Laura Thomas PHD
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Programme that Works– Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Health At Every Size; The Surprising Truth About Your Weight– Linda Bacon

  1. Shisslak CM, Crago M, Estes LS. ‘The spectrum of eating disturbances.’ Int J Eat Disord. 1 Nov 1995; 18(3):209-19. 
  2. Tylka TL, Annunziato RA, Burgard D, Danielsdottir S, Shuman E, Davis C, et al. ‘The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: evaluating the evidence for prioritising well-being over weight loss.’ J Obes. 2014:983495.

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