Some months, coming up with a newsletter topic is unusually challenging. For the last few weeks, Joanne and I were both scratching our heads, as the ideas we had were for research pieces that would demand more time than either of us is able to dedicate at this point in time. Being silly, I facetiously asked our four-year-old daughter what I should write about this month. “Pancakes,” she responded, “Pancakes and maple syrup.” Joanne and I laughed, and I walked out of the room, but I quickly returned and told them I was going to use her idea.
Our daughter’s suggestion reminded me of a quote from one of my earliest patients many years ago, and what the latter said to me felt significant enough that I wrote it down as soon as she left my office. “One day, you will have a baby boy who will love you,” my patient said, “and then he will grow up to hate you. But then one day he will love you again and say, ‘Hey, Dad, let’s go out to breakfast, just us guys,’ and then you will go to Bickford’s, and you will have an apple pancake, too.”
At that point in my career, I was still doing the kind of work that most people figure dietitians do: putting people on diets in the pursuit of weight loss. My prescribed diets were low in carbohydrates, especially grains, and so restrictive of calories that if my patients were living in a different region of the world, the United Nations would have sent cargo ships full of food to help them. While I did not author these diet plans, which seemed concerning to me at the time because of their restrictive nature and the good/bad food dichotomy they established, I did dole them out as instructed, and for that I have nobody to blame but myself.
These diet plans typically “worked” in the sense that my patients lost weight, but rarely – if ever – did the weight suppression last long term. At the time that I left the medical center where I was working and stopped doing that kind of work, I did have some patients who had maintained their weight loss thus far, but I have no idea what happened to them later. Given that most weight regain happens two to five years after baseline, I can only assume that at least some of these patients, if not all of them, regained weight after I was out of the picture.
Diets fail for a number of reasons. Most significantly, the physiological mechanisms that kept our ancestors alive through periods of starvation kick in when we restrict and promote weight regain. Another factor, the one that my patient was trying to make me aware of via her aforementioned quote, is that diets are incompatible with real life. After all, if I were following the low-carb, low-grain, low-calorie diet that I had put her on, I would be unable to both remain on the plan and partake in her breakfast scenario. The dietary expectations I had set out for her were unrealistic, which was exactly the point she was trying to get me to see. Point taken.
Now that I am a dad myself, I have greater first-hand life experience to reinforce my theoretical understanding. Numerous times over the last few years, I have eaten foods I was not in the mood for because sharing an eating experience with my daughter was more important to me than eating exactly what I wanted. For example, the food at Chick-fil-A rarely sounds good to me, and I certainly would have preferred something else for dinner last Tuesday night, but I took her there because she loves it, she asked me if I would take her, and I prioritized making her happy and sharing one of her favorite meals over eating what I really wanted.
If I was on some diet plan that restricted foods like Chick-fil-A, such as the plan I had given to the patient in question, I would have had to choose between breaking the diet or missing out on a family bonding experience. When I was a young adult and somewhat orthorexic, I prioritized “healthy behaviors” to the detriment of other important areas of my life. After turning down plans with friends so I could exercise after work and go to bed early, some of them began to distance themselves from me and stopped extending invitations. My insistence on only eating food I had brought from home kept me from joining co-workers for lunch, and my rapport with them weakened. If you have ever been on a diet yourself, consider the ways in which sticking to the plan came at the expense of other facets of your life. My guess is that if you look back, you will find examples in your own life similar to the ones I just described.
Furthermore, remember how you felt when you inevitably deviated from your diet. In Reclaiming Body Trust, authors Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant succinctly describe the pattern of dieting with a diagram that they entitle “The Cycle.” At the 12 o’clock position, the circular diagram begins with “The Problem,” which then leads to “The Shame Shitstorm” at three o’clock, followed by “The Plan” at six o’clock, then “Life” at nine o’clock, and then back to “The Problem” as the pattern indefinitely repeats. Delving into the particulars of these positions is beyond the scope of this blog, but the overall pattern is one to which many of us can relate: We identify a problematic eating behavior, feel bad about it, desperately grab for a plan that will supposedly rescue us from ourselves, abandon the plan when it proves itself to be incompatible with life, and the cycle repeats.
If a diet puts us in a position to choose between (A) sacrificing important parts of life, such as sharing a bonding experience with our kids, in order to remain on the plan, or (B) breaking the diet and perpetuating a cycle of shame and unsustainable attempts to deal with our problems, then perhaps dieting and living a full life are simply incompatible.