If you are like so many clients and friends I’ve talked with lately, and myself included, your pants may be fitting a little tighter than they were pre-quarantine. You probably have seen the memes and heard jokes and talk of the “quarantine 15”. Although the jokes may seem harmless, many people are really stressing about their weight and feeling a lot of shame and guilt around the changes they are noticing in their bodies.
First off, I want to say I get it. We live in a fatphobic, weight stigmatizing culture that paints weight gain as the worst possible scenario. For some, even a bigger concern than the unparalleled global pandemic we have, and are still going through, that has completely uprooted every single one of our day to day lives.
I don’t know a single individual who has not been impacted by this pandemic, in a mix of both positive and negative ways. Many of us are working from home, learning new technology, and many are trying to parent and manage our kid’s stress and anxiety at the same time. Add in the racial and political strife we are all dealing with on some level and it’s a perfect storm. The fear, worry, stress, isolation, and anxiety of the past few months are very real and it makes sense for so many reasons that some of us are experiencing changes in our bodies. For some of us food was comfort and helped us cope over these months of being more isolated and our schedules and routines changing.
While all of this is true it won’t change what many people will decide to do next…go on a diet! Seems reasonable right? You’ve gained weight, so what does our culture tell us is the answer…diets! The desire to lose weight given the culture that we live in is perfectly understandable. Over and over we turn to fad diets, pills, detoxes, plans and “wellness” programs to “fix” ourselves. People and companies hawking those diet programs and weight loss solutions lay in wait to prey on people’s worries and concerns and jump on the opportunity to “help”.
Just yesterday I got an email asking if I had gained the “quarantine 15” and telling me they had just the right program for me with all the solutions and all I had to do was click on their link. It is infuriating to me that people knowingly prey on people’s worries and that so many of us buy right into their, shall I say, nonsense. Know this though, as long as there is money to be made there will be a new gimmick, diet, or wellness plan that promises they have the quick weight loss fix.
It probably doesn’t come as a shock that these diets and quick fixes don’t work for the majority of people in the long run. I think deep down collectively we all really know this. But did you know that not only do restrictive diets and plans not work to keep the weight off, but that going on a diet is an excellent predictor of weight gain. You may have experienced this yourself, but not have the full understanding that it’s not just you, it’s mostly everyone. Here are a just two of the research studies that support this paradoxical result of weight gain from dieting.
• One review of 31 studies, done by Traci Mann, professor of Psychology at UCLA, found that in each of the studies, a third to two-thirds of the subjects gained back more than they lost.
• Another study on over 2,000 sets of twins from Finland, aged 16 to 25 years old (Pietilaineet al, 2011) showed that dieting twins, who embarked on just one intentional weight loss episode, were nearly two to three times more likely to gain more weight, compared to their non-dieting twin counterpart. Furthermore, the risk of gaining weight increased with each dieting episode. The results indicate that dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with weight gain. The researchers concluded, “It is now well established that the more people engage in dieting, the more they gain weight in the long-term.”
The reasons for this inevitable weight regain are biological, not based on willpower or perceived human failure as many of us might believe. Our bodies respond with a myriad of biological responses that in the end counteract our attempts at weight loss including hormonal adaptations that drive hunger, decreased metabolism, and a stimulation of the brain to increase cravings to eat more.
So If Dieting Isn’t the Answer, Then What?
I can almost hear the thoughts in your head, “Ok great, I get it, diets don’t work, but I’ve got to do something!”
Things have been out of whack for months. Along with that some of the habits that were part of your normal every day pre-COVID-19 life might have fallen by the wayside. Again, understandable given the circumstances. If you feel like you want to make some strides to incorporate some healthier habits and self-care back into your life to feel better and healthier, and realize dieting is not the answer, here are three suggestions for you to consider.
Give Yourself Kindness and Compassion
Instead of beating yourself up, I have an alternative solution for you to consider. What if you just take a few deep breaths and give yourself some grace and compassion for everything you and your body have been through over the past several months. What if you appreciate and are grateful for your amazing body and the fact that you have survived this pandemic and are still thriving, with yes a few more pounds on you and possibly a diminished selection of well fitting clothes to wear.
This idea of self-compassion is a tough one for many of us. We tend to be really good at showing compassion and care for others, but struggle to do the same for ourselves. We think that being self-critical and beating ourselves up – basically Jillian Michael-ing ourselves – is the only way to motivate ourselves.
What we don’t realize though is that self-criticism and being hard on ourselves actually hinders our progress instead of helping us. A significant amount of research supports the concept of self-compassion, that being kinder to ourselves when faced with difficulties or adversity is the key to resilience and the ability to bounce back leading to a greater feeling of empowerment and inner strength.
So, instead of beating yourself up over your habits over the last few months or those extra pounds on the scale, try to come from a place of compassion and kindness for what you have endured.
One practice for noticing self-critical thoughts is to begin to write them down. As you notice these thoughts, ask if you would say the same words to a friend or someone you loved. If not, how could you change those self-critical thoughts to more compassionate ones?
Focus on regular movement, not necessarily intense exercise.
Maybe you were someone who exercised pretty regularly before all this blew up and due to the virus and all it’s disruptions you just haven’t been able to get it in. Maybe you, like me, haven’t yet felt quite safe going to your gym or studio. Or maybe you are someone who struggled with getting regular movement in before and now it seems even more impossible.
When we get in “diet mode” and reach a point where we feel like we have to do something, we typically approach movement and exercise with an all-or-nothing way of thinking that ultimately keeps us from moving our bodies in consistently joyful ways. If that mentality starts to creep in for you, remind yourself that every bit of movement is beneficial, and finding ways to do that regularly and consistently and finding enjoyment and pleasure in the way you move is the key. Walking, doing yard work or other outdoor activities, yoga or dance sessions on YouTube, all are great ways to just move your body, which we know to be an important part of physical and mental health. All movement counts and matters and can help to improve every aspect of your health and well-being.
Recognize Emotional or Boredom Eating and Find Other Ways to Cope
With all the stress and many emotions of the last six months, it makes sense that many of us have turned to food for comfort. Add in that many of us are working or doing school from home making access to the pantry and fridge all too easy.
Although coping with emotions with food can be comforting and even helpful in the moment, becoming aware of how you respond to emotions and boredom and finding other ways to cope is important too. We all eat for emotional reasons from time to time, so it shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Emotional eating, though, can become an automatic response and a cycle that can be challenging to break.
If you notice that you have been turning to food for comfort or just simply for something to do more lately try to acknowledge that without judgement. It is only natural to want to find ways to soothe yourself and cope with the strong emotions we all have been dealing with and food is a common way for many. Three questions to ask yourself when you get in auto-pilot mode and want to reach for food for comfort are:
1. Am I biologically hungry? If so, then you need food. Ignoring your hunger will ultimately only lead to stronger cravings. If no, move on to question #2.
2. What am I feeling – sad, lonely, stressed, bored, afraid anxious, frustrated, exhausted? Recognizing what you are actually feeling can be tough, but well worth it.
3. What do I need? Once you acknowledge and recognize how you feel, the next step is to find other ways to cope that will truly fulfill what you need in that moment.
More than likely food has become an easy go-to, but there are many, many ways to cope that don’t involve food. Making sure your basic needs are being met is a great place to start, focusing on things like getting enough sleep, being heard and understood and expressing your feelings, being intellectually and creatively stimulated, moving regularly, eating in a balanced way most of the time, and being socially connected (even if it is virtually) are all things that are really helpful and can bring a sense of comfort and normality in our stressful world.
Learn More About Intuitive Eating and the Non-Diet Approach
It is not necessary to go on a diet to feel better, be healthier, or whatever your goal might be. A different approach to consider is Intuitive Eating or the Non- Diet approach. This approach is one based in self-care, instead of an obsessive focus on changing the number on the scale or shrinking our bodies to fit a culturally acceptable ideal.
It is about re-learning to eat outside of the diet mentality, trusting your body and it’s internal cues like hunger, fullness and satisfaction, and moving away from external cues like food rules and restrictions. It is about coming from a place of abundance, instead of restriction and being flexible in our food choices. Ultimately it is about finding sustainable ways to care for yourself that aren’t temporary, but instead create mindset shifts that last. Curious about this approach and want to learn more, click here for more information.
Hopefully the tips I’ve given here have helped you to consider that despite being told over and over that they are, diets aren’t the answer. They not only don’t help people lose weight in the long term, they are a strong predictor of weight gain. My hope is that this information will give you some resilience in just saying no to that next fad diet or quick fix weight loss scheme that pops up on your radar. There are so many ways to respond to the upheaval of the last several months and dieting just isn’t it. So next time someone mentions the “quarantine 15”, do like I do, ignore it and move on!