Fundamentals for Breaking Out of the Vicious Cycle of Dieting and Stress

By Amy Kim, Psy.D.

1) Stop trying to control your weight

Making decisions with the sole intention of controlling your weight will not work. Think about it: Is it working? Has it ever worked (meaning, have you been able to PERMANENTLY maintain a certain weight by dieting?). Physically restricting how much or what you eat, or mentally restricting your food with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” will inevitably lead to a rebound effect of eating more than you intended to AND eating exactly the foods you tried to avoid. The only way to eat is to eat according to your individual body’s needs. Yes – your body has needs and you must learn to honor them.


2) Eat according to YOUR needs and preferences

Each body and person is different, with unique energy needs and food preferences, based on genetics, culture, lifestyle and environment. There is so much information out there about what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat and what your food and body should look life. Instead of looking outside of yourself to figure out how your food should look, direct your attention inward to get in touch with how your body feels: Is it hungry or full? Energized or fatigued? What foods make your body feel good? What foods make your body not feel good? These are the real indicators of what your food should look like, not what social media, a website or book says you should eat.


3) Eat to the point of REAL satisfaction

For people who have dieted, hunger and fullness cues are often skewed. People may try to eat only according to hunger or fullness, but this can also create stress (“Am I hungry? Am I full? I don’t know! I’m so stressed I feel out of control and I think I’ll turn to food!”). Instead, during this transition out of dieting, eat according to satisfaction—physical AND emotional satisfaction. This means your belly is filled and emotionally, you feel nourished as well. More importantly, if you’re actually satisfied, you can’t be criticizing or judging your food. Rather, you’re content because you allowed yourself to eat what and how much you were craving.


4) Give yourself permission to everything, and I mean, EVERYTHING

This doesn’t mean that you have to eat every food that’s out there, but mentally and physically, you must know that they are allowed (barring any medical conditions). All foods are literally on the table; everything is allowed and there are no good foods or bad foods. Certain foods have been given power that they don’t deserve only because they were forbidden in the past. You must regain power over these foods so that you stop being afraid of them and not “trusting” yourself around them. Only by actually allowing all foods (not just allowing yourself to eat them but also not mentally punishing yourself for eating them), can you no longer have a fraught relationship with food.


5) Let your body find and rest in its natural set point range

Every single body is meant to exist in a comfortable set point range where it likes to be without much fuss or muss. This means that even if you each too much or eat too little, your body is naturally pulled to exist in this happy state of equilibrium. This can only happen if you stop abusing your body by habitually eating too little or too much, which confuses and stresses the body (and mind!). By normalizing your eating, which means learning to eat according to your body’s needs and desires, your body will happily rest (and fluctuate) within a range of a few pounds without effort or stress.


6) Accept your body as it is right now, and then treat it well

Dieting is inherently a rejection of your body. You are saying, “I do not accept you as you are and I will fight you; I will abuse you and not honor your needs and wants”. Rather than being at war with your body (and yourself), accept your body as it is right now. Fully accept the reality of your body as it is. From that place of acceptance, listen to it, see it, acknowledge and honor it, and then actually tend to what it really needs. This means that rather than eating a certain way to manipulate your weight, you choose foods to care for your emotional and physical health. Often people “eat healthy” as another cover for a diet, which isn’t health-promoting at all. Once you no longer fear any foods because all foods are acceptable, only then can you actually start consciously choosing foods that are the best for you in any given moment; this may mean vegetables in one moment or Oreos or French fries in another moment. This may mean going for a walk or a run in one moment, or taking a nap in another moment. Imagine how you would treat a child – would you not allow that child to rest when she’s tired, or frolic and play when she’s energetic? Would you not allow a child to eat ice cream out of delight or substantial and filling foods when she’s hungry? Treat yourself in the same way.


7) Keep stress and anxiety in your life to a minimum

Relaxation and feeling calm and centered must be a priority. Any undue stress in your life needs to be minimized. It is common to channel emotional stress or upset into “control” over food and body issues. Conversely, stress exacerbates food behaviors and body image issues. Find relaxation techniques that work for you, and work with a therapist to further tackle any underlying anxiety that dieting is trying to coopt.


8) Discover actual ways to feel good about yourself, other than your body or food

Dieting is an attempt to feel good about yourself, but rather than making you feel better, it usually makes you feel worse than before you started. Find things that you care about and craft your life so it reflects your true values and goals. Dieting is often about wanting to feel worthy, loved and ultimately, about being happy. So go connect with people and do things to feel good about! Finding other things to care about will take away the excessive focus on food and body.


9) Consciously consume media and images

We are flooded with thousands of images daily and you can choose how much you want to expose yourself to these images, along with which images you subject yourself too. Be mindful of how certain media outlets make you feel: Do they make you feel good and uplifted? Or inadequate and needing to “fix” yourself? Take charge of your emotional (and physical) health by being a conscious consumer of the incessant content out there.


10) Identify and challenge the messages you’ve been told about your body

Dieting is not a natural behavior. You learned to diet from society and/or family messages. Find what these messages are and decide for yourself whether you agree with them or not. Are they valid? Is a person’s worth actually based on their appearance and size rather than their character and contributions? What assumptions do you make about a person who doesn’t fit the western thin ideal? Is a life lived dieting a life worth living?