No one enjoys a diet.
And, when I say, "diet," I mean those lists of rules that have fancy names like, low-carb, Mediterranean, 10-80-10 or Atkins.
I am talking about those over-marketed, socially contagious restrictions of what we can and cannot eat that we put on ourselves to lose weight, get lean, build ripped muscles and look sexy.
Diets suck, yet we still willingly jump onboard with the expectations that they will make our lives better.
Two years ago, I was an offensive lineman on the university football team, and if you don’t know what a lineman is, turn on a football game and look for the biggest and fattest players on the field.
By the time my playing career was over I was sick, literally, and tired of being fat while dragging my near 300-pound body around everywhere I went. It was time to change.
Today I am 90 pounds lighter than I was, and now, I run ultra-marathons. During the past two years, I tried almost every diet imaginable, including the low-carb diet, the slow-carb diet, the metabolic efficiency diet, the fruitarian diet and many more.
What I realized looking back, is that the times I felt the healthiest and lost the most weight in the shortest amount of time were actually the times I wasn’t adhering to a diet.
Instead, I was only trying to live healthfully and be happy. Each diet I tried was tempting because of its promise of quick success, but they were actually hurting my progress more than helping. But why?
Diets make us lose control
We only have so much mental energy at any given time. That mental energy is what controls our ability to solve problems, perform mental tasks and control ourselves.
When we use up our mental energy, we actually have less self-control at our disposal. Psychologists have proven this in a verity of experiments.
In one experiment, participants in the study had to eat celery and other vegetables while resisting chocolate and cookies that were placed right in front of them.
Later, they gave up before all of the other participants when given a difficult mental task. When we put strict rules on ourselves and deny ourselves of food we would normally eat, we actually give up sooner when it gets tough.
Diets do not build self-esteem
It’s a lie that when we finally lose those extra 20 pounds, we feel better about ourselves and happier in general.
Yes, looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves as more attractive can boost our confidence, but it does not build up our self-esteem.
Intense dieting for just a month so that you will look leaner, and thereby build your self-esteem, is a wild goose chase.
Take it from me, someone that has lost 90 pounds: Losing weight will not make you love yourself any more than you already do.
Self-esteem is built from looking deep inside ourselves and realizing that we are unique. It is our uniqueness that will help us be successful and attractive to others.
The number on a scale is relative and should not be a means of measuring self-worth.
Diets create food addicts
Stanford health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, argued in an article that dieting actually creates food addicts. In essence, by temporarily restricting unhealthy food, the level of stress in our brains increases, which sets off craving and bingeing cycles.
Unhealthy foods are addicting, but if we have a treat every once in a while, we can suppress that addiction that prompts us to overindulge.
The key to losing weight is not focusing on restricting unhealthy foods, but focusing on eating the healthy ones.
Diets emphasizes fitness as an accomplishment, not a process
A diet's success is measured by a number on a scale or a before and after picture. Diet advocates and marketers use "success" stories of individuals with unbelievable before-and-after photos or the line, “I lost 10 pounds in only two days!”
Despite these claims being the exception to the rule, if they are even true at all, we become brainwashed that being healthy or fit is something reachable — an accomplishment rather than a process.
When we focus on accomplishments rather than the process, we actually end up having a worse work ethic, setting extreme goals that stress us out and lead us to give up sooner on our dreams.
In sport and performance psychology, this focus on accomplishment is called an ego orientation.
Ego-oriented athletes judge themselves on the outcome of a competition rather than performance, and in the long run, will actually not be as successful as some less talented players.
Health is something we live and fitness is a process. Developing a nice six-pack of sexy abs does not mean that we are finished with exercising or eating nutritious food. Reaching a fitness goal is not an end, but a mile-marker in the process of living a healthy life.
Fitness and health are about identity
Diets set rules, and they focus on temporarily restricting certain foods to lose weight or become healthy. Temporary fixes will never enable health, and fitness is not something we should "become." Rather, it is something we are.
To be fit and be healthy, some individuals may decide that they want to avoid certain foods. Vegans avoid all animal food products — does that mean that they are dieting? I say no.
If someone decides to go vegan temporarily just to lose a little weight or become healthier, then yes, what he or she is doing is dieting.
But, when someone decides to be vegan for the long run because he or she wants to be healthy or for moral reasons, he or she is creating an identity.
Instead of dieting, we should focus on developing identities for health and fitness. Your identity may include that you don’t drink alcohol or that you don’t eat desserts on weekdays.
Those restrictions, instead of being temporary rules for short-term gains, become part of who you are. They do not require mental energy to discipline yourself to avoid them.
They are not there to help you gain more self-esteem or create a future addiction by stressing you out. We need to stop the dieting cycle now and start to create an identity of fitness and health that is as unique as each one of us.