How to have a healthy relationship with diet and exercise

Crash-dieting is on the rise, but it’s also only a short-term weight-loss solution. Rather, what we need to do, says Lauren Drinkwater, is reframe how we approach exercise and dieting…

dieting problems, eating disorder - unhappy woman looking at small broccoli portion on the plate

Extreme dieting has consistently proven to be a no-win formula. Yet despite the reams of research showing that crash-dieting is wholly ineffective, with up to 98% of people regaining all the weight they’ve lost within five years, diet culture still thrives.

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In fact, it may be even more dangerous now as social media makes it easier than ever to search for weight-loss programmes, harmful dieting plans, and ‘thinspiration’.

And there’s a lot of money behind it. The Global Weight Management Market size was estimated at US$97.21 billion in 2021 and expected to reach US$106.99 billion in 2022.

It’s projected to grow at an annual growth rate of 10.31% to reach US$175.19 billion by 2027.

“With that kind of money, with that kind of industry at stake, it’s really hard to get that to go away,” says anti-diet dietitian, Christy Harrison, author of Anti-Diet and host of the Food Psych podcast.

Diet culture vultures

If you think about it, we become cognisant of dieting at a pretty young age. Whether it’s pop-up adverts in our eyeline, imagery on social media, bullying in and out of the playground, a parent avoiding carbs or downing Slimfasts after an episode of overindulgence… it doesn’t take long for these subliminal messages to seep into our general consciousness.

Yet, ironically, the word diet actually has the opposite meaning to depriving oneself or cutting out certain food groups. The actual definition of diet is ‘the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats’.

Then start to look up ‘crash diet’ and here’s what we get: a weight-loss diet undertaken on an urgent, short-term basis with the aim of achieving very rapid results.

The words to highlight here are ‘short-term’ and ‘rapid results’. 
We now live in a world where we 
can attain pretty much everything we desire at the touch of a button.

So it stands to reason that if we want to lose weight or become healthier, we would preferably like that to be as instantaneous as possible. And so we fall prey to the diet culture vultures.

A no-win formula

If you stick to the plan they’re currently selling, you may well see those rapid results at first. However, the problem with crash diets is that all that hard work was, well let’s face it, hard.

Shocking the system with a quick fix is, in reality, only sustainable for so long. Not to mention the side effects of feeling sluggish, moody, achey, nauseated and unable to concentrate as a result of low sugar levels.

So when we return to our normal ways and fall back into bad habits, we fall victim to the other worrying ‘treat’ culture, profiting from our need to ‘reward’ ourselves following hard work with less healthy foods, possibly overeating, and of course the weight cycle starts again.

Years of this yo-yo dieting and constant weight fluctuation can actually have some pretty dire consequences on our health, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Like I said, a no-win formula.

But let’s not forget that our bodies are in fact designed to protect us from famine, and here’s the science behind it:

Firstly, your immediate ‘success’ is actually just an illusion as any pounds lost initially are most likely water and not fat. When calories are restricted, carbohydrates or both, the first source of energy your body burns, long before fat, is actually glycogen.

Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles, and 3g of water are attached to every gram of carbohydrate. So when you burn through all the glycogen, that adjoining water will leave the body.

Clinging on to calories

If you’ve limited your nutrients, whether that’s carbs, protein, fat, dairy, fibre etc, your blood sugar and insular levels as a result will be unsteadied, causing them to spike and quickly drop.

This will cause you to feel extremely hungry a few hours later. Your body will then break down the muscle nutrients for energy.

If you lose weight fast you will lose about three times more muscle than you would if you took things slowly, so think about all that tone/definition you’re sacrificing.

Less muscle means your metabolic rate will drop so you’ll burn less calories when working out or even doing regular mundane tasks.

If the metabolism slows down you’ll eventually stop losing weight so that when you go off the diet, your metabolism is actually slower than when you started.

At the same time, your brain, thinking that food is in short supply, will trigger your body to cling on to the calories to prevent you starving to death.

Our bodies are pretty amazing at protecting us and we should never take that for granted.

Reframe the conversation

Food choices and workouts need to be something you look forward to rather than dread. (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet with all of this science, research, proof, and a 98% failure rate, we’re still conditioned to feel bad about ourselves, judge others, and believe that losing weight will make us feel better.

In November 2020, the CDC reported that more people are actually dieting now compared to 10 years ago. And the sad truth is that this diet culture also manipulates us into thinking of exercise and movement as a form of punishment for being overweight, causing an unhealthy view of fitness.

If exercise is only talked about in relation to changing your body size, it totally wipes out the joy, personal goals and mental health benefits that can also come from it.

Acceptance of our own body type and composition will help to combat the negative thoughts that we’ve built up. It’s important to remember that there is no ‘right’ body size.

Basic physics will not allow us all to have that same body size simply by following a plan and subscribing to a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

As a PT and fitness instructor to mums, I’m well aware of the urge to get back to one’s pre-baby body shape asap and I feel it’s my responsibility to encourage clients to be more accepting of their bodies and be kind to them.

It’s a journey that needs to be taken on safely and steadily, rather than under any pressure. Getting healthier and fitter doesn’t have to be a punishment and if anyone would like to improve their lifestyle, it’s a case of consistency and patience if they’re looking for lasting, healthy change.

There are three pillars when it comes to weight loss: regular exercise, eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet, and looking after both your physical and mental health. Therefore, I advise setting achievable goals and committing to a manageable plan that’s enjoyable.

The food choices and workouts need to be something you look forward to rather than dread. Even with my shorter online fitness programmes, I always position them as a starting block and support system for making healthier choices long-term rather than a short-term fix.

I feel it’s the duty of the wellness industry to combat this diet culture as much as possible by reinforcing the simple message that quick fixes just don’t work.

How to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regime

• Plan out weekly shops in advance, selecting a few easy and healthy recipes you can stick to. Even batch cook if you have the time.

• Put your workout time in the diary to help you stick to it. Aim for 150mins of moderate to intense activity and include resistance training. Remember that muscle burns more calories than fat.

• If your goal is to lose weight, aim for 1-2 pounds a week. Moderate weight loss lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

• Choose wholesome, natural foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, pulses, whole grains, starchy vegetables, lean sources of protein and calcium-rich foods.

• Reduce alcohol intake.

• Opt for less sugary and processed food options.

• Try to reduce stress levels by including yoga, meditation or some alone time in your schedule.

• Try to achieve your 10,000 steps a day. Plus, the fresh air always does us the world of good!

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Top image credit: Getty Images