It wasn’t until I began working as a Nutrition and Health Coach that I fully understood the severity that is attached to dieting. Sure, I recognised there was a need to help many overcome the daily battles of losing weight (without resorting to restrictions), but this has well and truly been overridden by helping people break free of restrictions.
Diets begin with the average adult just trying to drop a few harmless kilos. This is all perfectly natural and fine. Life happens to the best of us and it’s actually a good thing we act to correct behaviours sooner than later. It’s what is happening during this time that’s the problem.
For most people, once they have dieted, they kick-start a myriad of survival instincts. Once a period of retrained eating, forceful exercise or exhausted willpower is completed– weight is regained. This doesn’t mean that you suck at losing weight, or you’re weak willed, it’s just linked to the discrepancy between your mind and body.
Without going into too much depth, let’s back things up and get a better understanding of the brain.
Why Diets Ultimately Break Us
When we are trying to give up a habit or addiction there is a part of the brain (subcortex, hypothalamus) that is responsible for maintaining homeostasis. This primitive brain region tells us “Hay, something different is going on here” and it does it’s best to override our higher, more rational brain (cerebral cortex). It’s during this time our best efforts for dieting or any change in fail. Our primitive brain goes into protective mode as it falsely believes the unwanted action is necessary for survival.
Although the brain and its relationship with habits is yet to be completely explored, it does give rise to being able to develop strategies that we can use to our advantage. Even though we weren’t around at the time, our brains are just doing what they did millions of years ago. Apparently our ancestors would hunt (run and walk for miles) and eat as much food as they could while food was scare, which drove a strong appetite for survival reasons. These days we are still neurologically wired to source (drive to the shop) for food when we are even mildly hungry and this is why it is hard to override a primitive brain demand.
Not only do a lot of dieters put weight back on, they develop what is called a binge eating disorder that originally stems from backfired diets or giving into to taming a strong urge for ‘out of bounds’ foods. Our primitive brain controls our emotions and feelings, which why sometimes ‘feeling out of control’ around palatable food can be a problem. It’s not until we regain control and return to our rational higher brain and ‘self’ that we feel guilt around what we’ve done.
After we’ve repeated an action many times, it causes neurons to wire together as signals strengthen to form connections. Like paving a new path in an overgrown forest. This makes the action very easy to repeat (like riding a bike or a newborn walking) and often automatic. Often at the mercy of survival instincts beginning what is a new unwanted habit.
All is not gloom though, with the good news being that neurons are not fixed (neuroplasticity) and we are able to design and rewire our own brains accordingly. This became very clear when I met an amazing man by the name of Ken Ware from Neurophysics a couple of years ago. Ken works on re-establishing and calming a nervous system in those with chaotic disorders (yes we all have them in this day and age) such as sporting injuries, spinal injuries, stress related disorders etc – simply by reorganising governing neurons. But the first step begins with taking responsibility.
Although I go through specific strategies in more depth with my clients there are simple steps that are far from brain sciencey stuff. It begins with separating the primitive part of the brain with our more rational one. By practising the art of ‘giving space’ between a reaction and an action certainly helps us understand that urges are simply neurological trash getting thrown. With less attention or ‘voice’ we give to neurologically wired patterns the more we can override automatic impulses.
So, in a backward way we can understand why dieting begins a cascade of other diet related behaviours and why it’s so important, that if you do recognise the need to lose body fat for health reasons then it’s done using non-diet specific ways.