Here's Why I Stopped Dieting and Why You Should Too
Updated: Apr 1
Popular opinion: "You just can't out exercise a bad diet." Well, I'll argue that this is debatable. You CAN out exercise a bad diet, but this will incur way more pain than necessary. Fun fact; when I was 16, my diet consisted purely of junk food. My favourite lunch was from MacDonald's. During Physics lessons (my least favourite subject), I would be (not so discreetly) cutting out coupons from the newspaper under the desk, trying to get extra, extra value from their Extra Value Meals.
One coupon entitled me to EXTRA McNuggets/ McChicken/ Filet O Fish. I made it my life's mission to hunt down every single coupon from all the newspapers I could get my hands on. This is why at the tender age of 16, I had also collected so many Coca Cola limited edition glasses from MacDonald's that I could probably open my own restaurant. You get my drift; I was addicted to fast food and everything deliciously deep fried and sugary.
So how did I break away from the hold food had over me, and sustain all the weight I've lost for more than a decade without dieting? "Stop bullshitting me Mabel, I bet you ate salads till you grew green." WRONG. I didn't grow green.
The diet equation
When it comes to achieving sustained health and fitness, we all know nutrition is just as important as exercise. No matter how much we exercise, results cannot be sustained without the right eating habits.
When motivation was high initially, I was a vehement supporter of dieting, staying hell away from all the food that used to tempt me. But after a while, I would start craving my favourite salty, crispy fries and end up at MacDonald's to stuff my face. I realized quickly that adopting a mindset of SHORT TERM PAIN (from dieting) FOR LONG TERM GAIN (a kickass physique) wouldn't have worked because I was in it for the long run. With more than 50kg to lose, I had to minimize my pain for lasting results. And here is my million-dollar strategy:
Though I loved MacDonald's I started to phase it out instead of going cold turkey. I started with still having one meal every two days, then once a week, then swapping my fries out for cup corn...
It was a drawn out process that worked well for me because the pain was minimized. I knew I could still have Macs if I wanted to, just not right this instant, for every meal. I took the time to ease myself into new, healthier eating habits without causing maximum shock to my system by eliminating all junk food completely right off the get go.
When I hear clients these days asking me if this food is 'good' or 'bad', 'allowed' or 'disallowed' these days, it brings me back to my youth. I don't blame them, because I too, once wanted the quickest results.
The myriad of diets out in the market these days; keto, paleo, juice detoxes, intermittent fasting etc. are all embodiments of diet culture.
Do you subscribe to diet culture?
Diet culture is all around us, from the constant barrage of weight loss ads to the pervasive messaging in mass media. Commercial workout classes advertise the number of calories burnt per session, and supplements promise to save you from packing on the pounds. Yet, sustained health and fitness goes beyond the concept of 'calories in vs calories out'.
The problem with diet culture is that it is not only ineffective for most people, but also damaging to our physical and mental health in the long run. Restrictive diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies, disordered eating patterns, and an unhealthy relationship with food. Excessive exercise can cause burnout, injuries, and a negative impact on mental health. the constant focus on weight and appearance can lead to poor body image, low self-esteem, and a distorted perception of health.
Being once a part of diet culture and working with so many women struggling with disordered eating and body image issues, I have seen firsthand the myths perpetuated in popular culture can inflict.
The harmful effects of diet culture
What exactly is diet culture? Put simply, it's the belief that thinness equates to health and beauty, and that we must constantly strive to attain weight loss through restrictive diets and excessive exercise.
A current female client of mine, a young woman whom we shall call J, had struggled with disordered eating for years. A smart, successful and brilliant executive, she came to me for help out of desperation as a popular diet plan she was following (that promised quick weight loss, as per always) had left her feeling depleted, anxious, and obsessed with food. It was taking her further away from her professional goals and threatening her personal relationships. She was constantly counting every calorie and thinking about her next meal, with her days turning into a vicious cycle starting with strict restrictions in the mornings that end in late night bingeing. Despite her misery, she was hesitant to give up the diet as she had been conditioned to believe that this was the only path to health and happiness. "I swear it works, I've seen so many people achieve results from the reviews!" she tells me enthusiastically. Dejectedly, she then admits, "I think I might just have weak self control and I'm definitely doing it wrong. I always fail at what I do!" This perceived failure to conform to a strict diet regimen is due to society's overwhelming ability to convince us that punishing routines is the only effective method to turn you into the 'healthiest' version of your self.
Is dieting absolutely necessary?
Sometimes your fitness journey takes you out of your comfort zone, allowing you to achieve new heights for your health and fitness; this was what inspired me to challenge my limits and pick up bodybuilding.
An adjustment period might necessary, when you start relooking at what you used to enjoy and integrating healthier alternatives and food swaps. Yet, the pain doesn't have to last forever. I had the privilege of working with a wonderful coach who was clear in sharing the blueprint for my transformation, including strategic phases that wasn't just a prolonged, never-ending deprivation. When taken to the extreme and without a clear end in sight, dieting phases quickly becoming your everyday life. Failure to adhere then sets you up for a habit of extreme self-blame and hatred. It would shock you to learn how common this is amongst women looking to start on their fitness journey. J's story is just one example of the insidious nature of diet culture. It preys on our insecurities and fears, convincing us that our worth is tied to our weight and appearance. Disordered eating habits negatively impact our mental health, and lead to unsustainable cycles of weight loss and gain through excessive dieting and exercising.
Identifying the threats
Understand that being fit and healthy does not require you to engage with these three musketeers; namely food labeling, extreme restrictions, and yo-yo dieting.
Food labeling involves categorizing foods as "good" or "bad," and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around eating.
Extreme restriction involves cutting out entire food groups or severely limiting calorie intake, which can result in malnutrition and metabolic damage.
Yo-yo dieting, or the repeated cycle of weight loss and gain, can lead to weight cycling and negatively affect our health outcomes.
Beyond catching yourself in self-destructive habits and thoughts, it's important to understand that health is about so much more than weight.
How can you break free from suffering?
Nourishing our bodies with whole foods, staying active, and prioritizing self-care are key to overall wellness. To overcome diet culture, self-awareness and education is key.
Focus on establishing an understanding of our body's nutritional needs, learning about nutritious alternatives to our go-to options, and developing self-care routines and confidence-building mindsets that move away from self-blame and criticism. You can hold yourself accountable without beating yourself up, repeating the same mistake over and over again. Even if your goal is to reach the leanest version of yourself, research shows that our diet (used in this case as a noun; i.e. our most commonly consumed food and drinks) is the primary factor in weight loss and weight maintenance. Exercise is only part of the equation. If you're only focusing on the energy balance in terms of 'calories in vs calories out', you may see temporary results from your fitness efforts. I guarantee you that you'll likely find yourself right back where you started once you fall back into old eating habits.
This is why I always stress the importance of incorporating nutrition education into my 12-week fitness programs, beyond the basics of strength training and active lifestyle habits. A balanced, nutrient-dense diet is absolutely crucial in ensuring you'll be able to smash every workout, recovery well and feel good about yourself. Nutrition habits that can be sustained over the long-term will help you achieve your health and fitness goals for life.
The only reason why I managed to keep off the 100 pounds I lost was to form a positive relationship with food and exercise. FOOD IS NOT THE ENEMY. My goal has always been to help my clients break free from the control food has over them, allowing them to enjoy their favorite meals while achieving their fitness goals. This means focusing on sustainable habits and behaviors that support long-term health and happiness, rather than just rushing for temporary weight loss. Here's one thing you should ALWAYS remember: you are more than the number on a scale. It can be challenging to break free from norms of dieting that have been ingrained in us for so long, but with the right support and guidance, it's possible to embrace a healthy, balanced approach to fitness and wellness.
Let's start by putting our health first, and making choices that honor our bodies and minds.
TIf you'd love to work with a certified women's health and fitness coach, let's connect. For more holistic health and fitness tips, follow @amfit.sg on Instagram and subscribe to Medium. If you're a fellow fitness professional, I'd love to hear from you on LinkedIn.