Approaching Halloween celebrations can send some of us in the depths of despair, trying to navigate longer and colder evenings impacting on our mood and energy levels, the abundance of candy in the shops with little pumpkin stickers on them, mentally preparing for Trick or Treating with our children which also means more candy - all that while attempting to ‘eat healthy and exercise more’ or ‘be good with food’ which may lead us to try and avoid the sweets altogether. I said ‘try and avoid’ because after a lovely evening of Treat or Treating with your kids, you may find yourselves later that evening bingeing on all those carefully stored away in the back of the cupboard bags of treats, in secret.
Halloween candy may contain sugar, dextrose, citric acid, palm oil, high fructose corn syrup, salt, PGPR, artificial colours, flavours, and sweeteners. The list goes on and it sounds scary, however, I will still argue that having some Halloween candy is healthier for you than having an unhealthy relationship with food and body. What’s important to remember here is that nutrition lies on the spectrum and so does mental health. We use food not only to nourish ourselves but also to avoid loneliness, anxiety, to comfort ourselves and others, to celebrate different occasions… Often, we eat with our mind more than we eat with our body. We lose the joys of eating in present moment, judging what we eat, holding (often contradictive) beliefs and nutritional information on what is the correct way to eat. What if I told you there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition, there’s no one perfect diet, no meal-replacement shakes that will bring you ‘the best results in only 5 days’.
What matters is what kind of diet is sustainable for you, at the age that you are, at the point of life that you are, at the levels of stress that you’re experiencing on a daily basis, how physically active you are. Is it flexible enough so you can adjust it to your ever-changing life circumstances without guilt and shame and peer pressure. Do you assign a moral value to certain foods which then become good or bad, allowed or forbidden? The science of nutrition is relatively young and a lot of information may seem contradictive, confusing and even hard to apply in the real life. Most fad diets out there would take one nutritional information and build a whole philosophy around it. And then they would get you to limit your calorie intake to that sufficient only for a toddler.
Research shows that weight cycling is associated with a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mortality (Byun et al, 2019, Zhang et al, 2019, Gaesser and Angadi, 2021, Sares-Jaske et al, 2021) and that long term weight loss is not associated with improvements in blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol or triglycerides (Tomiyama et al, 2013).
So why are we dieting? There are many reasons why people go on a diet, often associated with the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, the false promises we’ve been sold by diet industry, weight stigma, peer pressure, what we’ve modelled after our parents when it comes to meaning of food and body – if I lose 5kg, my partner will never leave; I can only apply for this job if I lose weight, etc. At this time of the year, if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to hear the message coming from diet industry: ‘You’re allowed to indulge, we approve, come on, it’s Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas…’ And when the January comes, this message takes a dangerous turn ‘You’ve overindulged. Now you have to diet and shrink to get your beach body ready for the summer, here's how:…’. Shaming for the period of indulgence begins and so does the dieting cycle.
Dieting can impact on our wellbeing, work performance, body image, and development of disordered eating and eating disorders.
Wellbeing. Dieting increases the risk of experiencing depressive symptoms (Goldschmidt et al, 2016), is associated with higher anxiety levels (Kwasnicka, 2020), poorer emotional and mental quality of life (Burns et al, 2001) and linked with reduced life satisfaction (Esch and Zullig, 2013).
Work performance. Dieting has a negative impact on working memory, including poorer sustained attention, immediate recall, and slower reaction times (Rogers and Green, 1993, Green et al 1994). Performing simultaneous tasks, switching attention, maintaining and manipulating information retrieved from long-term memory are also impaired in people who are dieting (Kemps et all, 2003).
Body image. Dieting is linked with poorer body image and lover mood (Bombak et al, 2019). Both flexible and rigid dieting are associated with higher body image concerns compared with intuitive eating (Linardon and Mitchell, 2016).
Disordered eating and eating disorders. Dieting is associated with an increased risk of disordered eating, including binge eating and compensatory behaviours (da Luz et al, 2018). Dieters have 3.3 times higher risk of developing and eating disorder compared to non-dieters (Cena et al, 2017). Two-thirds of those with anorexia report dieting as triggering the onset of their illness (Hilbert et al, 2016).
Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorders. Having an eating disorder is not a choice. As mental health symptoms lie on the spectrum eating disorders and disordered eating symptoms often overlap. If you are concerned about the symptoms you’re experiencing, regardless of the weight that you are currently at, I would urge you to get support. There is no body size of disordered eating. And there’s no body size of eating disorders.
In disordered eating, you subscribe to rigid rules and you’re guided by guilt and shame with food. You ignore hunger and fullness queues, or you can no longer feel them. You have an experience of unsustainable, artificial, quick diet weight loss or weight gain. Your relationship with food is unbalanced and chaotic. You’re enmeshed with diet culture, poor body image, weight concerns and obsessed with thoughts of food.
In eating disorders, restriction, binging, purging, obsessive thoughts, behaviours, fears, compulsions and/or compensations take over. Your relationship with food is abusive and hijacked to become a relationship with eating disorder. Your food, weight, and body image concerns create significant distress and impair your functioning and relationships.
If you struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating and your lived experience is different than described here – it is valid. It deserves to be recognised and acknowledged and you deserve to get the help that you need.