You know dieting doesn’t work for most people, but if you’ve ever dieted in the past it might not be so easy to stop. If your eating is out of control, you might be dieting and not know it.

Despite the amazing rise and rise of the healthy body image movement due to social media and pioneers such as Beautiful magazine, the mainstream media is still putting you under pressure to lose weight. So is your mum or your gran or your teacher – probably. You’re told you must do it for the sake of your health or to feel better about yourself because you’ll ‘look better’. You might wisely try to avoid or limit your exposure to it, but its difficult to escape its influence.
 
World-wide compulsory weight loss comes with a set of instructions that tell you how to do it. And almost everyone who tries to follow them end up eating more and gaining weight.
 
One of the many sources of proof for this comes from Traci Mann, University of California Associate Professor of Psychology, and her colleagues who analysed every study they could find that followed people on diets for two to five years. The study found that attempts at weight loss through dieting are a reliable predictor of future weight gain.
 
“You can initially lose five to 10 per cent of your weight on any number of diets but then the weight comes back,” says Traci Mann. “We found that the majority of people regained all the weight plus more. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people. We concluded most of them would have been better off not going on the diet at all.”
 
This might not be news to you if you’ve been through years of yo yo dieting. So you might have made a decision to stop dieting. But to diet or not diet might not be a choice that’s all that easy to make. Even if you say you don’t diet, even if you know in your heart that dieting doesn’t work and even if you make a point of rejecting diets all together, you can still be dieting without even knowing you’re doing it. Dieting can become unconscious.
 
And as you can see from Traci Mann’s study, dieting can be a driver of overeating.
 
Are you running a programme in your head that’s whispering: “Lose weight. Eat less.”? If you are, then this could make you lose control over your eating. Do you find yourself driven to wolf down food you’d like to avoid, such as things that make you feel overfull and lethargic or that give you indigestion? Do you eat in a trance while watching TV and regret it afterwards? You could be eating compulsively as a response to unconscious dieting.

How can you be dieting and not know it?

When you hear over and over that you’re unworthy or unattractive because you can’t see your hip bones, when you’ve been brainwashed with the drip, drip of messages that say any body fat is wrong, immoral, unacceptable, weak, ugly, the first thought that comes to mind is: “I must eat less.” This has been programmed into all of us and it’s present even if we reject dieting. This thought is the first sign of unconscious dieting. It means that whatever you’re eating, the guilty feelings are eating away at you.
 
Years of failed dieting means you’ll have a lot of evidence that whenever you’ve tried to eat less, you’ve ended up eating more. So when you come under pressure to lose weight you get the urge to cut down on food. Together these two factors cause inner conflict. Translated into words this conflict would be: “I should be eating less but I can’t,” and it feels stressful. So each time you feel bad about your weight or size, you experience stress and internal battling – wanting to cut down on food, but knowing deep down that you can’t.
 
This hidden internal stress increases tension at the very moment you’re trying to resist eating something you think of as bad food. You experience a very real internal fight: “I want that food, I can’t have it because I need to lose weight, but I want it, but I can’t have it.” The longer you resist this food, the more intense and uncomfortable this inner battle becomes. You feel the food pulling you, your mind is unable to think of anything else. You feel stressed and uncomfortable.
If you give in and eat the ‘bad food’, the internal conflict is immediately gone. The stress of the battle that was raging within you is over. You feel some peace and this feels pleasurable, much like the pleasure you feel when a headache tablet starts to work and the pain in your head disappears. The pleasure, though, is an illusion. Without the pain of the headache (or the internal conflict) there’s no relief on its absence. Without the thought: “I want that. I can’t have it,” there wouldn’t have been any stress to relieve in the first place and avoiding or not avoiding the food would have been a matter of free will. But once this internal conflict-driven eating has happened a few times it’s too late. You want to avoid eating, you get the internal argument, you eat, there is and ending of the internal argument. And your brain has recorded eating as a great way to instantly relieve stress. Your brain then always sees food as a painkiller.
When your brain sees food as a way to end pain, you will be driven to eat it.
There are ways you can combat unconscious eating and we will be covering them in part 2. Watch this space.