Slowing the Swing for Better Health

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Dieting is a very tricky subject, fraught with opinion, trauma, emotional heartache, black-and-white thinking and in-your-face tactics, yet I’m willing to bet most of us have tried at least two or three different ‘ways of eating’ in an effort to ‘be healthier’….ahem… into diet culture.

Unfortunately, when it comes to weight loss, a meta-analysis of diet efficacy studies indicated that one-third to two-thirds of people regain more weight than they lost after dieting. In addition, there is often inconsistent evidence of overall health improvements regardless of weight loss.

Let’s look at one phenomenon widely agreed upon as a major contributor to diet ineffectiveness – the notion of the pendulum swing, otherwise referred to often as the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach.

For those of us with kids, what happens when we say ‘no’ for an extended time when they ask for something they enjoy, but we don’t think it is good for them? Sweets, salty packaged snacks, TV time, gaming, hot chips, burgers or any fast food of choice? If you don’t have kids, I am sure you know the answer anyway!

When they do get access to the forbidden fruit, such as at a friend’s place, at a birthday party or on holiday, they go NUTS.

It’s easy to see this as a lack of control, as kids being kids and not knowing what it means to be ‘healthy’ – but we can also look at this scenario a little differently. Let’s be real – even us adults have a tendency to do exactly what we berate our kids for. We deprive, then we go all-in, then we feel crappy about it and the cycle continues.

In Christy Harrison’s book Anti-Diet‘ (fantastic book, worth reading!), the author describes the ‘restriction pendulum’. When we pull the pendulum too far one way, it swings equally far in the opposite direction. This is exactly what happens when we try to manipulate our food intake at levels that do not match our needs.

When we consistently deprive ourselves of things we find pleasurable or, indeed, basic human requirements such as adequate nutrition, eventually the pendulum swings too far the opposite way. This is not a human flaw nor a lack of willpower; it’s biology. Your body is an incredible machine hard-wired for survival. 

When we restrict calorie intake too much for too long, our bodies think we are in a famine. We produce an effective hormone called ghrelin which signals it is time to seek food, and when we are constantly hungry, guess what? Production of ghrelin goes through the roof. We are then driven to seek out anything and everything remotely edible to refuel our bodies and settle our grumbling emptiness. Those sugary, salty, ‘forbidden’ foods? Our body knows they are calorie-rich, which is exactly what it is looking for.

How long does this pendulum take to swing? Not as long as you may think. For some of us (myself included), not eating enough in the first part of the day leads to multiple trips to the kitchen in the afternoon and evening. Then comes the guilt and the shame, the vow to ‘do better’ tomorrow…and the cycle continues.

If you are intentionally restricting calories for a time, be that days, weeks or months, your pendulum may be a little slower to move, but be aware – it will move.

So, what can we do about this if we do actually want to lose a few kilos? How do you lose weight without getting stuck in the restrict/overfeed cycle? How do you slow the pendulum swing?

My advice is to not focus on weight loss at all. Numbers on the scale are a complete headf#@k no matter how you look at them.

If they move down – hooray for me! 

I lost weight! 

Now, how do I maintain it? What about that holiday that is coming up….? I’m just going to put it back on…

…..And the stress continues.

If the numbers go up, or don’t shift at all – well, that is an automatic failure. I may as well give up. Pass the cake.

Reset your goalposts to focus on a different health metric, one that is not so tied up with the scale.

  • How do your clothes fit? Is there a particular piece of clothing you can use as a goal to comfortably wear again?
  • How do you feel after a meal? Are you satisfied? Are you enjoying your food, or are mealtimes stressful?
  • How do you feel about your body when you look in the mirror? Is it time to do some self-love and reflection on how you treat yourself?
  • Take some measurements if you want some hard numbers to spur on success, such as waist or hip circumference or thighs (but take both and note which is which, because they are likely different!)
  • What about some fitness-based goals, such as how far you can jog in 10 mins, how many burpees you can do in a minute, or how much weight you can safely lift overhead?

Above all, be kind to yourself. Any health and wellness journey is going to have ups and downs, perceived failures and surprising successes. Embrace every part of the process and don’t get too focused on perfection.

Progress, in any small increment, is much more important.

If you need a little extra guidance to reach your health and wellness goals, I am on your team. Contact me to arrange a consult to discuss small, meaningful changes you can start making right away to move you closer to your goal. Whether you are looking to lose weight, increase strength, improve energy levels or feel better within your own skin, we can come up with simple, effective ways to get started today.