Do You Need to Ditch the Diet Mindset?

By Jen Comas

“I feel like I should try to lose five pounds.”

I was sitting at a swanky sushi bar in Vegas with a new friend who we’ll call Alison. She knew what I did for a living, so the topic of fitness came up, as it often does. While I didn’t know Alison very well, I had spent enough time with her over the last several days to know that her health was important to her. She was hitting the hotel gym daily, making reasonably healthy food choices when we dined out, and she was well within a healthy weight range.

“Do you mind me asking why you feel like you should lose weight?” I asked.

She replied, “I don’t know… I just feel like that is what I’m supposed to do.” 

Ahh-ha! Now we were getting somewhere.

I asked her which changes she thought she could make in order to lose the five pounds.

“Well, my husband and I go to this amazing pizza restaurant every Friday night that we look forward to all week. It’s kind of our thing. I guess I could give that up” she said sadly. “And my girlfriends and I all have a mimosa brunch on Sunday. It’s been our tradition for years. I suppose I could stop going to that, too.”

Sure, cutting back on the extra calories from pizza night and Sunday brunch would likely result in her eventually dropping a couple of pounds, but I wasn’t convinced that the trade-off would truly make her happy.

“Alison, those things really seem important to you. Are you sure that you want to give those up for the possibility of losing a few pounds? What’s going to bring you more happiness in the long run: enjoying important moments and experiences with your husband and friends, or dropping a few pounds that are clearly not causing any health issues for you, that you aren’t even sure why you want to lose in the first place?”

She thought about this for a second, and then said, “You’re right. I absolutely don't want to give those things up. It’s not worth it to me.”

The conversation that I had with Alison is not uncommon. I’ve had similar talks with countless friends and clients. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, a lot of women ask me if I think that weight loss should be a goal for them. Or they’ll say something like, “I feel sort of guilty… like I should want to lose weight. But I’m sorry, I just don’t.” They apologize to me for choosing not to shrink their body. Their body is their business, and the only person to whom they should be answering is to themselves. They don’t need me or anyone else to validate what they do with something as private as their own body.

The Diet Mindset

It can be tricky to resist succumbing to the diet mindset. Throughout most of their lives, many women have been led to believe that they are always supposed to be trying to lose weight. Many of us (myself included) grew up receiving very strong messages from family, friends, and society that dieting is simply what women are supposed to do.

We’re told that we should always be watching our weight, choosing foods that are the lowest in calories, wearing clothes that make us look slimmer, and learning as many “tips and tricks” as possible to help us eat less so that we can be less.

It’s as if constantly working on shrinking is a basic requirement of being a woman.

Spoiler: It isn’t.

Take a look at the cover of just about any magazine for women, and you’ll see things like, “How to Shrink Your Thighs Fast” and “Hunger Hacks to Help You Eat Less.” For decades, we’ve been expected to contort ourselves eagerly and at any cost to fit inside this tidy little box society has handed to us. This fat-loss mindset has been passed down to many women, starting at a very young age, without ever telling them that there are other perfectly acceptable possibilities for how they physically show up in this world.

Additionally, the diet mindset that is so pervasive in our culture has caused so many women to consider food solely in terms of their caloric and macronutrient values, which steals so much joy from the experience of eating. Food is nourishment, of course, but it’s so much more than that. Food is an integral part of celebration, connection, community, and culture.

Whether you choose to diet or not is your choice. I believe that telling a woman that she isn’t supposed to diet is just as misguided as telling her that she needs to diet. I simply want to encourage you to consider whether dieting is, in fact, your choice, or if it’s motivated by someone or something else.

What is dieting?

To determine whether or not dieting is right for you, it’s helpful to first get some clarity on what dieting actually is. It’s safe to assume that when most people think about dieting, they most often think of restriction, extreme or constant hunger, feeling miserable, and bland, monotonous meals often consisting of dry chicken breasts and soggy broccoli, day in and day out, Groundhog Day-style.

How many times have you heard a person say something like, “Ohhh, I better enjoy this meal/event/celebration while it lasts, because I have to start my diet tomorrow!” They prepare themselves for the absolute worst. Dieting isn’t terrible if you do it correctly, my friends!

Dieting is simply regulating your food intake. If the goal is weight loss, you need to regulate your diet in a manner that puts you in a caloric deficit. That’s all. Dieting has gotten a bad rap mostly due to the way it’s frequently presented in the media, but also partly due to irresponsible “nutrition coaches” who prescribe the same extreme, cookie-cutter diet to every client, with no consideration for each one’s unique context.

Is dieting what you really want?

Whether you decide that dieting is right for you, or you are trying to ditch the diet mindset, here are some additional tips to help you make the decision that is right for you:

1. If you choose to diet, get clear on why you are dieting.

While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to lose weight (after all, your body, your biz), it’s very important to establish your why. Ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to lose weight?
  • Am I choosing the goal of weight loss on my own, or am I succumbing to societal pressure to fit a certain mold?
  • Beyond the aesthetics of my body, why is dieting important to me?
  • Am I dieting to distract myself from a different issue in my life that needs to be addressed?
  • How will dieting make my life more fulfilling?

Think long and hard about these questions. It will be most helpful if you ask them several times in a row, over and over again, and each time attempt to dive a bit deeper with your answer.

Do you want to lose weight because you want to move more easily and want to reduce health risk factors? Is your weight physically holding you back from the things that you want to be doing? Or do you want to lose weight because you want visible abs to impress your friends, or to show off at the beach?

This is your body, and what you choose to do with it and why is completely up to you.

But it’s important to get clear on why you are dieting in order to be able to assess whether or not it’s really worth it.

2. Reach for the lowest hanging fruit.

Overhauling your entire diet never works. Instead, look to change small behaviors first. A great place to start is by focusing on your hunger and satiety signals. Your hunger and satiety signals are a beautiful energy balancing system right inside of your own body that can tell you when to eat and how much, no tracking app necessary.

If that seems too easy, great! That is exactly how I want this to feel for you — nice and easy. Over-complicating things is never helpful, so start with things that are going to move the dial the most, and your hunger and satiety signals lay the foundation.

One of the biggest myths about dieting is that it needs to be difficult. It doesn’t have to be. The secret to dieting is that there is no secret. Successful dieting is about eating healthy foods to feel your best while staying in a small caloric deficit, and being consistent. It’s that simple. You don’t have to be miserable in order for a diet to be effective.

3. Find something to do.

When it comes to working towards body composition change, the biggest mistake I see is letting exercise and diet consume a person’s life. Every moment of the day is spent planning the next workout and the next cardio session, and thinking about the next meal. This takes an immense amount of mental energy. Take it from me, because I’ve made that mistake myself. For years, I didn’t have any hobbies, nor did I ever do anything for fun. To avoid this, schedule your strength and cardio workouts for the week, and do one or two food prep sessions. This way, you can throw it into autopilot and won’t have to think about these things constantly, which frees up your time for things that are far more fun.

The best thing that I ever did for myself was finding things to do that had nothing to do with how my body looked or with the changes that I wanted to make to it. Immersing myself in things like hiking, mountain biking, motorcycles, aerial sports, and yoga are all examples of things that I dove into because the way my body looked was absolutely irrelevant, which I found refreshing. Perhaps you’ll enjoy playing recreational sports, taking art classes, joining a book club, or whatever else sounds appealing to you to get your mind off of your body.

If you want to break free from thoughts consumed with dieting, the best thing that you can do for yourself is to find things that you enjoy that have nothing to do with dieting.

4. Change your social environment.

Surround yourself with people who talk about other things besides how their bodies look (or how they wished they looked).

I have some wonderful friends who enjoy getting together to discuss macronutrients, cardio, and body composition. That is fine for them, but all wrong for me. I don’t want my food and exercise to dominate my thoughts, much less my conversations..

Talking about dieting all of the time is not necessarily something that you may benefit from if you are working to break free from a dieting mindset. Spend time with people who have conversations that explore other topics and interests

That being said, I understand that some of the people closest to us may talk about dieting often and I’m definitely not suggesting you distance yourself from close friends and loved ones. In such instances, consider some ways you can redirect the conversation, rather than participating in it and encouraging more of those discussions. Nudge the conversation toward a new topic by asking your friend about a particular lift she’s working on, or about another performance goal she may have, or even about one of her non-fitness hobbies or interests.

If you really do want to diet, what’s a good strategy?

There isn’t anything wrong with dieting, so long as you’re doing it for the right reasons for you. If you choose to diet, do so because you want to and because it’s going to improve your overall quality of life. If you want to move away from dieting, the tips in this article can be a great place to start.

If you choose to diet for fat loss, start with some basics while maintaining a conservative caloric deficit. The best approach that I have found for this is to start by having two to three bites less than you normally would at each meal. It’s likely not enough food for you to even notice that it’s missing, but two to three bites less at every meal is enough to add up to 100 to 200 fewer calories per day. Do that every day for a couple of weeks, and then you can reevaluate.

Yes, it really can be that simple. Unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to a particular food or ingredient, you don’t have to eliminate entire food groups. You also don’t have to deal with gnawing hunger pangs all day.

Coaches’ Corner

If you are working with a client who appears to be overly caught up in dieting and asks for your advice, here are some thought-provoking questions you could ask to help her attain a little more balance:

  • If she is intent on losing a specific amount of weight, you could start by asking her what that number represents and why it is so important for her.
  • You could ask her in what ways she believes achieving her goal would make her life better or bring her more happiness and pleasure.
  • To prompt further introspection, ask what she is willing to do to meet her goal, and — perhaps even more importantly — what she is not willing to do.
  • If she isn’t clear on her why, you might guide her toward focusing more on performance and encourage her to consider some fun, active hobbies. This way, she can work on redirecting some of her attention to what her amazing body is capable of, rather than focusing almost entirely on the dieting process itself.

Simply helping someone shift their attention a bit can offer them a new perspective on dieting.

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About the author:  Jen Comas

Jen Comas is a Girls Gone Strong co-founder and GGS Coaching Head Coach, as well as a NASM Personal Trainer and USAW Level One Weightlifting coach. She has competed in figure and trained as a powerlifter, teaches and practices yoga, and is obsessed with motorcycles, dirt biking, and downhill mountain biking. Learn about Jen on her website and follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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