From Dieting to Thriving: How to Find Food Freedom

Table of Contents

How many diets have you tried in your life?

One study found that by the time the average woman is 45 years old, she will have tried 61 different diets.

The diet industry is a $60 billion per year industry, and business is booming.

According to the CDC, nearly half of all Americans are on a diet. That’s 162 million dieters. The UK has 13 million dieters. Australia has nearly 3 million dieters. And that’s just a few countries.

Yet, many studies show that most people regain the weight they lose within two years.

Recent research found that after five years, 50 percent of dieters were 11 pounds over their initial weight.

Here’s another interesting fact: Even though millions of people are dieting, obesity levels keep rising.


That’s because diets fail us for both biological and psychological reasons.

Weight-loss diets can be super restrictive, and when you take in too few calories, your body becomes more efficient.

Your metabolic rate decreases, requiring fewer calories just for maintenance. So when you stop dieting, it's easier to gain weight again – and the cycle continues.

But get this – dieting might actually contribute to weight gain in the long run!

Crazy, right?

There are scientific studies that show that dieting makes you gain weight more easily.

In fact, in a study of over 2,000 sets of twins, the dieting twin was more likely to become overweight than the non-dieting twin.

Artificial sugar makes us fatter


Have you ever heard that artificial sweeteners can actually make you gain weight?

It's true!

Even though diet soda and other artificially sweetened foods and drinks are marketed as weight loss tools, studies show that they can actually lead to weight gain instead.

What may be even more surprising is that this link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain isn't new. Researchers have known about it for decades.

Back in the 1970s, a study of almost 32,000 nurses showed that those who used saccharin gained more weight than those who didn't use artificial sweeteners.

And in the 1980s, the American Cancer Society studied almost 80,000 women and found that those who used artificial sweeteners gained more weight than those who didn't.

And, a study in the same decade called the San Antonio Heart Study found that people who regularly drank artificially sweetened drinks had a higher BMI than those who didn't.

So, the next time you reach for an artificially sweetened drink, remember that it will not actually help you lose weight.

Not all calories are equal


You’ve probably heard that losing weight is a matter of calories in and calories out and that all calories are equal.

That’s the idea that as long as you expend more calories than you take in, it doesn't matter what you're eating – a calorie is just a calorie.

But in reality, our bodies are complex and not everyone responds the same way.

I once treated a woman who was on Weight Watchers, which uses the point system to count points instead of calories.

She used most of her points on processed foods like cookies and protein bars.

She believed that as long as she stayed within her points, she'd lose weight. But she felt sluggish, tired, and the scale didn't budge.

It wasn't until she started using her points on fresh, whole foods that she began feeling better and losing weight.

This goes to show that the quality of the food you're consuming is just as important as the number of calories.

You can eat 150 calories of ice cream or a banana, but your body gets much more nutrition from the banana.

So, counting calories isn't an effective tool for weight loss.

When it comes to dieting, it's important to remember that most of our commonly held beliefs are actually myths.

Diets don't always work, artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain, and not all calories are created equal.

As researcher Traci Mann from The Mann Lab at the University of Minnesota, a psychology lab which studies the self-control of eating, concludes, “It is only the rate of weight regain, not the fact of weight regain, that appears open to debate.”

Stress and Weight Gain


Stress and weight gain are definitely linked.

When we're under stress, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol which has been linked to weight gain around the stomach.

Basically, cortisol makes glucose which then gets stored as belly fat–not ideal.

One study followed a group of dieters who consumed the same number of calories on a specific meal plan.

Some participants counted calories and others didn't. But both groups of dieters were more stressed while dieting, whether they counted calories or not!

So even just being on a diet can cause stress.

And here's the kicker: stress can actually lead to weight gain.

So if diets cause stress and stress causes weight gain, then going on a diet might not always be the best way to lose weight.

Traci Mann, who conducted the study, says that “stress cannot be avoided when you're dieting because dieting itself causes stress.”

So what's the solution?

Well, managing stress is key.

Finding ways to reduce stress levels can help keep cortisol levels in check and prevent weight gain.

How to manage stress


Let's talk about some traditional ways to manage stress.


Exercise is a great option because it not only boosts your mood but also helps you sleep better, which in turn can reduce stress levels. Prioritizing tasks and managing your time effectively can also help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

Spending time with friends and loved ones

Spending time with friends and loved ones is also a great way to feel supported during stressful times. Other options include relaxation techniques like taking a warm bath or listening to calming music, as well as getting enough sleep. Remember, everyone's needs are different, so it's important to find what works best for you to manage stress.

Having fun

Having fun can be a great stress-reliever. Have you heard of laughter yoga? It's pretty cool–it involves laughing just for the sake of laughing! This can actually help reduce stress hormones and promote feelings of well-being.

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques are another great option. These involve focusing on the present moment and your surroundings, like noticing your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the ground. This can help reduce racing thoughts and promote feelings of calm.


Last, consider journaling. Writing your thoughts and feelings can help you process and release them, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. Give it a try.

Overcoming Diet Mentality


To overcome diet mentality, first recognize that diets don't work: Diets are not a sustainable solution for long-term health and wellness. Diets often lead to weight cycling and can harm your physical and mental health.

Weight cycling, which is also known as yo-yo dieting, is the process of repeatedly losing and regaining weight. This typically involves following a strict diet to lose weight, then returning to old eating habits and gaining the weight back, and then repeating the cycle again. Weight cycling can have negative effects on physical and mental health, including increasing the risk of chronic diseases, lowering metabolism, and affecting self-esteem.

Challenge diet culture by noticing the messages promoted by diet culture and questioning them. The diet industry sells the illusion that losing weight will help you gain a better life. This $60 billion industry needs us to believe that by changing our bodies, we’ll change our lives. But, this is a false promise.

Reframe your mindset around food and your body by practicing intuitive eating. Intuitive eating involves listening to your body's hunger and fullness signals, and eating in a way that feels satisfying and nourishing. That means giving up the idea of “good food” and “bad food” (which often translates into “good me” or “bad me”) and tuning in to your body.

Learning to trust your body means reconnecting with your body's natural cues and learning to trust them. Let go of the idea that restricting certain foods is necessary to manage your weight and health. One way to do this is to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

Physical hunger is what you feel when your body needs fuel to function. Some signs of physical hunger include a growling stomach, feeling light-headed, or getting a headache if you haven't eaten in a while.

On the other hand, emotional hunger is more about your thoughts and feelings than your body. Some signs of emotional hunger include wanting a specific food just because it sounds or looks good, wanting to reward yourself, or wanting to eat to calm down or feel better.

It's also important to note that many of us mistakenly turn to food when we’re tired and need energy. But ‌ what we really need is rest, not food. Eating sugary snacks may give a quick energy boost, but it won't last long, and it's not the healthiest option. When you’re tired or burned out, what you really need is rest.

Say goodbye to deprivation and hello to satisfaction


We all know that when we can't have something, we want it even more. That's why when we deprive ourselves of our favorite foods, we end up overeating or bingeing on them. Research even shows that dieters have increased cravings for their “forbidden foods.” One dieter said that when she's on a diet, she wants ice cream every day instead of just once a week.

But what's interesting is that when people are given permission to eat their forbidden foods, they often end up eating less of them. In one study, participants were told to eat their “addictive” foods, they actually ate less instead of more.

My personal experience with my kids on Halloween is a great example of this. My daughter's friend was not allowed to eat sugar, so she snuck it whenever she got the chance. On Halloween night, knowing that her candy was going to be confiscated, she ate so much that she ended up with a stomachache. That’s one example of how deprivation makes us overeat.

Trying to control our intake of certain foods just doesn't work. It usually has the opposite effect and makes you want more. Allowing yourself (or your kids) to make their own choices can actually lead to better choices. My daughter, for example, got hungry during trick-or-treating. She knew she could have candy, but she asked for “real food.”

It was a proud moment for me, knowing she is truly an intuitive eater. This is possible for you, too. When you stop dieting, work through the underlying psychological reasons for bingeing or overeating, and cultivate an intuitive approach to eating, you'll naturally be drawn to healthy and nutritious food and you’ll have chocolate or sweets in moderation and without guilt.

What’s eating “at” you?


Many people believe they’re triggered by food. Triggered by ice cream, bread, pasta, cake, chips, or whatever is usually off-limits. Actually, we’re not triggered by food. We’re triggered by situations, thoughts, and emotions that we may not even be aware of, and we use food as a solution–to comfort, distract, displace, numb, fill a void, and more.

How can hidden ideas strongly influence our behavior, even if we're not fully aware of it? Well, Danielle’s story illustrates that point.

Danielle couldn’t get a handle on food. During the day, she ate healthily and made good choices, but every night after dinner, she found herself reaching for a bag of chips. She didn't eat chips during the day, only at night while reading books with her husband. So, what was really going on here?

Turns out, Danielle was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, which triggered some complex feelings and conflicts about intimacy, trust, and control. She didn't really want to read books at all, but she felt obligated to do so because her husband wanted to.

Her resentment triggered her to crave chips as a way to distract herself from her feelings. Instead of being upset with her husband for imposing the no-TV rule, she got mad at herself for eating chips.

The lesson here is that our cravings and habits often have deeper roots than we realize. It's not about willpower, control, or food addiction. Danielle and others like her may have an “addiction” to using food as a coping mechanism but not to the actual substance of chips. It’s more of an “eating addiction” than anything else.

The next time you want to eat when you’re not hungry, ask yourself what’s going on with you. What was happening right before you thought about food? Consider your thoughts and emotions. If you were not thinking about food or worrying about your weight, what would be on your mind?

By identifying and addressing the triggers behind these behaviors, we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and our habits and work towards making positive changes in our lives.

Debunking the food addiction myth

We’ve all heard of addiction to coffee, alcohol, or cigarettes. Lots of people say that they’re addicted to Instagram, their phone, or even bad relationships. It can seem like everyone is addicted to something these days. But what does it actually mean to be addicted? And is it possible to be addicted to food?

Traditionally, addiction is seen as the compulsive use of a substance that the user knows is harmful. There are often increased tolerance to the substance, meaning that more and more is needed to feel the same effects. And withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance is withdrawn.

But does this apply to food? Can someone really be addicted to food? Many people who struggle with overeating, especially with sugary and processed foods, label themselves as food addicts. Unlike addictions to coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol, where people can stay away from the substance, we can’t stop eating altogether. We need food to survive, and temptation is everywhere.

Some studies have suggested that certain foods, like those high in sugar and fat, activate the release of dopamine in the brain, the chemical that mediates pleasure and motivation. Food addiction theory suggests that changes in the brain from eating these foods are evidence of addiction.

But ‌ lots of things change our brains – from listening to music to psychotherapy to relationships with other people. And there are many studies that actually refute the idea of food addiction altogether.

One popular argument for the addiction theory is that some studies appear to show that rats prefer sugar to heroin. Yet that’s not surprising–rats eat for survival, so naturally, they’d choose sugar and not heroin. They’re motivated to eat for survival, not to get high.

Ultimately, with feeling out of control with food, it’s not just about our brains. Our minds play a huge role in addiction, as do culture and society. So while food addiction may seem like a real thing, the truth is more complicated than that.

Let me give you an example of how emotional triggers can lead to overeating. Annette, a single mom, felt like a sugar addict. She would even sneak cookie batter when baking with her kids.

But it wasn't just about the sugar itself.

Annette was going through a tough divorce and was stuck in an unsatisfying job. Eating sugary foods gave her comfort and distraction from these problems.

She didn't have enough happiness in her life, so she turned to food for fun.

Feeling “addicted” to food is often more psychological than physical.

Sudden cravings for unhealthy foods always have a reason behind them. It's about recognizing the true triggers, which have nothing to do with the substance of sugar or any other food.

For Annette, it was the lack of fun and happiness in her life that drove her to seek comfort in sugary treats.

When it comes to binge eating disorder, it's not just about “what” you're eating, but “why” you're eating.

Many people use food to deal with tough emotions or distract themselves from problems or issues they're facing in their lives. Trying to restrict certain foods or follow a strict diet won't necessarily get to the root of the issue.

But, by exploring the reasons behind binge eating, we can get a better understanding of what our true triggers are, meaning the emotional states that lead to bingeing.

This knowledge helps us take action and develop better-coping mechanisms and strategies for responding to our emotions without turning to food.

Focusing on “why” also takes the emphasis off of feeling guilty or ashamed about specific foods or eating behaviors, which can be a big relief and helps you approach healing in a more understanding and compassionate way.

If you're struggling with food, it's important to identify what's going on inside your head and heart.

Emotional hunger sparks specific cravings. Losing weight and creating a healthy relationship with food is not about counting macros or having willpower.

If diets were that simple, they wouldn't fail so often. When you learn to implement new ways of supporting and soothing yourself, you can stop using food to cope with your emotions.

It may take time, but it is possible.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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