It is the end of the year. It is a time when many of us have just celebrated Christmas or other holidays celebrations and are looking towards New Year. It is also a time when a lot of us freak out about our bodies and decide to go on a diet.
If you are like a lot of people, you may be feeling uncomfortable in your body right now. You might also dread, for whatever reason, the thought of going on another diet. Perhaps you feel deep down that there is something inherently “off” about diet culture. Or perhaps you have a feeling that diets just don’t work for you. But you still feel like you need a change.
A lot of people have these kinds of feelings of both wanting a change and not wanting to diet, and so I wanted to write a post about things we can do instead of going on a diet. Let me cover a few basic points, first.
A Few Basic Things about You, Your Body, and Power
First, I am not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do about your body. You are the boss of your body, and you are the best person to decide what you should do or not do about dieting. So, instead of telling you what to do, I would like to propose some ideas for your consideration, and then you can decide what to do about them.
Secondly, I am a philosopher, not a medical doctor or nutritionist.
This is one of my favorite quotes from Socrates.
It may seem strange initially for a philosopher to write a post about dieting, but it might make more sense if I tell you that I research and write about how people develop morality, autonomy, and care for the world so that they can make their own unique contribution.
I often use the word power as a stand in for the ideas of morality, autonomy, and care. I believe that one of the things that decreases our power the most (especially women) is when we feel alienated from our bodies.
Because of this, I am interested in researching and writing about how we can feel peaceful and strong in our bodies to increase our overall power.
And that brings us back to dieting. We often feel that dieting will make us feel more powerful, and it’s understandable why we would think this. Sometimes we do engage in unhealthy eating and movement habits that make us feel sluggish, lethargic, and uncomfortable.
When we feel this way, it often seems like dieting will help to solve these issues. And, indeed, we receive a lot of messages from the media, especially around the New Year, that we SHOULD diet and that it WILL solve all our problems.
The Problem with Dieting
The problem is that increasingly, it appears that dieting does not make us more powerful. There is a growing body of research that suggests that for about 95% of people, dieting is counter-productive and physically and emotionally damaging. (You can read more about this here and here.)
Feeling powerful is very important, but it seems increasingly evident that dieting is not a good way to help ourselves feel more powerful. So instead, I have listed ten things that we can do instead of dieting that help us build the body power (and peace) which we want so badly.
One: Realize you are worthy and special, no matter your body size or shape.
One of the most destructive messages we received the media and culture is that only certain people are worthy and special, and it’s only the ones with a certain type of body or beauty—usually very thin, with classical features. This message is false.
Your worth is not tied to your clothing size or a number on a scale. Your worth is tied to your dignity as a human being. It is tied to the light you have inside of you that allows you to express wisdom, love, creativity, and compassion through your unique personality and situation in life. When you do this, you light up your corner of the world and make the world more beautiful. (You can read more about this here.)
So, if you want to change something about yourself, that is fine, but please don’t think you have to change yourself to be worthy because you already are worthy. Think about making changes that allow your light to shine as brightly as possible. (You can read more about loving change here.)
We are busy and rushing around all the time and scrunched over computers all day. Because of this, a lot of us are very shallow breathers. Breathing shallowly can make it hard to feel powerful in our bodies, and it can cause problems like low energy, anxiety, sluggishness (because we don’t have the energy to move), and muddled thinking.
I discovered the beauty of breathing deeply first hand last May when I realized my breathing was disordered, and I began taking ten deep breaths three times a day. Almost immediately, my energy levels improved; anxiety problems I had been having started to improve (although I still struggle a bit with anxiety); and I began a walking practice I have kept up with, even now (seven months later).
This is me on a beautiful, rainy walk the other day.
Breathing deeply is delicious, invigorating, and so easy to do. It is something almost anyone can do that helps you feel more powerful in your body immediately. You can read more about this here.
Three: Heal painful emotions
Many of us use food as a security blanket because of painful emotions we suffer and because we feel vulnerable and exposed to the world. There is nothing wrong with using food to soothe painful emotions sometimes.
However, food won’t heal the painful feelings we have, and if we don’t heal our painful feelings, they can cause us to abuse our body with food or to resort to other unhelpful numbing behaviors. If you suspect you might use food as a coping tool to deal with painful feelings, you can read about healing painful emotions here.
I also recommend the work of Jon Gabriel who, in my opinion, is a genius at helping people feel safe and heal painful emotions so that they can establish a healthier relationship with their body. (Note: Jon Gabriel does work with weight loss, but in my opinion, his work is much more about helping people cope with painful emotions and feel safe in their bodies. On a personal note: I suffered some bullying instances when I was young that caused me troubles later on with feeling safe. I have used Jon Gabriel’s work to help me with building feelings of safety, rather than using it to help me lose weight.)
Four: Make friends with yourself
I remember going on my first diet when I was about fourteen. The sad thing about this is that I was already at what medical doctors would consider a completely healthy weight, and I did not in any way need to lose weight. So why did I do it? Because, like many teenagers, I often felt unconfident, gross, and unsure of my worth.
One day, I saw a pencil thin model on the cover of a Chadwick’s clothing magazine. She looked magical and happy and like she never struggled with the kind of painful feelings I had. I decided I would go on a diet and look like her, and all my problems would be solved.
This was unfortunate because what I really needed was to learn to become good friends with myself and understand how to honor my own dignity and show myself compassion. Because I didn’t know how to do this, I got stuck in a Triad of Shame—perfectionism, workaholism, and people-pleasing. This showed up a lot in my eating habits.
I spent a lot of my teen years and early twenties pursuing healthy eating and exercising obsessively as a way of coping with the pain that came from lacking a good relationship with myself and feeling like I wasn’t lovable or worthy. It was in my early thirties that I really began to heal my relationship with myself and food.
No amount of dieting and exercise can compensate for a bad relationship with ourselves. If you suspect you have a bad relationship with yourself and have problems honoring your dignity and showing yourself compassion, you might find this post helpful.
Five: Adopt one loving habit that is easy, sustainable, and feels good
Diets won’t necessarily help us feel powerful in our bodies, but you know what will? Adopting almost any loving, healthy habit and sticking with it consistently over the course of a few months.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have found my breathing practice to be an empowering practice that has led to other empowering practices such as walking, daily yoga, and making more space in my house.
Loving habits tend to lead to more loving habits, even if the habit you do is seemingly very small. My breathing practice was so simple that I could easily do it every single day without fail, and it made a big difference.
Consider starting a new habit such as the following: 10 deep breaths three times a day; drinking more water (example 4-8 glasses); doing 4-5 simple yoga poses (like these ones); going on a walk for 5-10 minutes a day. Choose a practice that feels easy and interesting to you—one that you could do every day.
And then do it every day for a month, for several months. You will likely find that it builds momentum and leads to more healthy habits. Practicing healthy habits to the point where they become second nature is a way we show kindness and respect to ourselves.
Five: Try intuitive eating
One of the common beliefs we have in our culture is that we cannot trust our bodies and that we must control them tightly with stringent eating plans and diets. Many nutritionists and medical doctors are beginning to question this belief.
For instance, nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have developed a program called intuitive eating that helps people reestablish a connection with their body’s natural hunger and fullness signals. One of the key ideas underlying their program is that our bodies want to care for us and help us reach a healthy weight. But the diet industry and distorted cultural messages about food often cut us off from this natural wisdom. Programs like Intuitive Eating focus on connecting with our body wisdom. Intuitive Eating deemphasizes weight loss as a goal, and yet recent research suggests that Intuitive Eaters have lower BMI’s and are healthier overall than people who engage in regular dieting. (You can read more about this here.)
Michelle May, MD, with her highly successful mindfulness program Am I Hungry? has reached similar conclusions. You can read about her work here.
You must decide what is right for you in regard to dieting, intuitive eating, and mindful eating. It is very likely, however, that almost all of us could benefit from connecting deeply and confidently with our body wisdom.
Six: Let go of critical and unloving people
Sometimes when we feel badly about our bodies and ourselves, it has very little to do with us and a great deal to do with the people we are spending time around. You never deserve for people to bully you, to say critical things about your body and looks, to be cruelly sarcastic about you, or to withhold love from you unless you meet arbitrary standards of beauty.
People who do these things are not being loving, good friends to you, and they do not have your best interest at heart. You deserve people who see your unique beauty, who encourage you to trust yourself, and who support you to become your best self by loving you unconditionally.
So, if you are feeling badly about yourself, consider that you may need to walk away from some relationships or, at the very least, establish some healthy boundaries. You can read more about establishing healthy boundaries here.
Seven: Create more space in your life
When I started my breathing practice, I suddenly realized how much beautiful inner space it created for me. This motivated me to cultivate more external space. One result of this was that I suddenly realized one day that I was nature-starved. I started spending more time in nature, which created more external space and helped me tremendously. (You can read more about this here.)
Shortly after this, I started clearing out more space in my house. You can read more about this here. I am not the greatest housekeeper in the world, and I have a long way to go before I create all the space in my house I would like. But have found that creating space externally by spending time in nature and decluttering my house and really lightened a lot of stress and anxiety in my life.
Eight: Move because it makes you feel more joyful and powerful, not to maintain or lose weight.
One of my greatest epiphanies this year was that I didn’t have to exercise to maintain or lose weight—I could just move because it feels good and makes me feel more joyful, alive, and powerful. This realization was a game-changer for me. I began walking a lot and even walking long-distances. I don’t really view my walks as an attempt to maintain or lose weight anymore. I view them as an opportunity to become more alive. They definitely help me feel that way. (You can read more this here.) And in case you have a disability or a handicap, you may enjoy reading this post about my mom who has been a paraplegic for over fifty years and uses swimming to feel more powerful and resilient.
Nine: Show yourself compassion
Sometimes we want to lose weight because life can be hard and we have the mistaken idea that if we lose weight, our life will be magical, problem-free, and we won’t suffer anymore. It’s understandable why we would think this. It is a message that advertisers communicate to us on a regular basis: “Buy our product, and all of your problems will be solved.”
But it is important to realize that no matter our size or weight, life can be difficult, painful, and confusing sometimes, and losing weight won’t make this go away. So rather than trying to lose weight to make our lives perfect, it can be much more helpful to learn to show ourselves compassion.
Compassion is something that people in the United States do not learn very well. The United States is an extremely individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture. Many of us living in the U.S. receive the message from an early age that everything is up to us, and if we have a bad life, it is our fault.
This is not true. Pain and suffering is a normal part of being human, and much of it is outside of our own control. Learning to show myself compassion was a game-changer for me. Before I learned the art of compassion, I was harsh and critical of myself, especially when I was suffering. Through learning to be gentle and tender to myself in my suffering, I felt like I gained an invaluable ally, and this has helped me feel more powerful. (You can read more about this here.)
Ten: Honor Your Own Dignity Instead of Trying to Control Through Criticism
We often feel scared by the idea of giving up diet culture. Diets are a tangible way that we can control ourselves, and when we feel out of control, diets give us the illusion of being on the right path or taking charge of our lives.
Once again, I am not the boss of you, and so you must decide what to do about dieting. Consider though that when we feel bad in our bodies, what we often need most is to treat ourselves with more kindness and respect. We do this through the types of actions I mention above. This is treating ourselves with dignity.
When we do this, we often feel better, become healthier, and lose unnecessary weight (or gain healthy weight or stay the same–whatever our body needs), not because we dieted but because we connect in a meaningful way with ourselves and heal the underlying issues that lead to our problems in the first page.
I wish you and your body a beautiful 2019, Friend, full of peace and power.
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