No matter how much work you do to unlearn diet culture’s brainwashing or feel comfortable in your skin, there are going to be days when you feel bad about your body. Think about it: We live in a society that constantly tells us smaller is better, and that getting as close as possible to the “thin ideal” will earn you love, acceptance, and dignified treatment.
“Humans are deeply relational and need to feel a secure sense of belonging,” Amber Stevens, PsyD, clinical director of Galia Collaborative in Cincinnati, Ohio, tells SELF. “The constant pursuit of shrinking our bodies through dieting has historically been one of the more effective ways to reduce the threat of judgment from others.”
But the reality is that dieting rarely leads to long-term weight loss (in fact, it tends to cause weight gain, research shows). In my experience as a dietitian who helps people recover from eating disorders, I’ve seen firsthand how food restriction tends to do far more harm than good. I’ve also seen how easy it is for folks to fall for the big promises of every new weight-loss fad and dive in headfirst, forgetting about all the ways diets have failed (and hurt) them in the past—or believing that this time will be different.
That’s where a little self-reflection can help: Remembering your past experiences is a powerful tool for resisting the (understandable) temptation to follow food rules—and working toward the food and body peace you deserve. The next time you’re feeling like crap about your body and thinking a diet might be the answer, try the exercise below to see the full picture of how this same scenario has played out in the past.
Write down (or record via a voice note) three to five ways diets have failed you.
Reflect on your previous experiences with diets to remind yourself that they ultimately didn’t deliver on their promises. Maybe you went on a low-carb plan that left you dreaming of baguettes every night—and eventually binging on chocolate chip cookies every weekend. Maybe you had some “success” with calorie counting for a couple of months several years ago, only to find yourself obsessed with your tracking app, turning down dinner invitations with friends, and back at your starting weight a few months later.
“The more we look at the evidence that diets have failed us, the more we can come to terms with the fact that they’re a money-making ruse,” Dr. Stevens says. “We have been sold a bill of lies that eventually dieting will ‘work,’ and that if it doesn’t result in permanent weight loss, it’s our fault rather than the fact diets are designed to fail.” The shame that this creates can be incredibly difficult to climb out of. Use your list of the ways diets have failed you as proof that they’re to blame, not you.
Equally important is thinking about all the things you could gain from unlearning diet culture’s BS, which can be hard to imagine if you’ve never actually given yourself a chance to experience them. So here’s another quick exercise to try:
Write down five ways your life would be more fulfilling if you weren’t preoccupied with food and your body.
Think about what you’d do differently in your day-to-day life if you weren’t worried about what would (or wouldn’t) happen to your body as a result. “If people have spent countless hours trying to adhere to strict eating or exercise rules, they realize they have a lot more free time when they give these things up,” Abby Chan, RD, co-owner of Evolve Flagstaff in Flagstaff, Arizona tells SELF.