Like emotional eating, emotional dieting is a coping mechanism. It just doesn’t get talked about, because we've been brainwashed to think that achieving a certain physique and eating in a particular way is the ticket to a happier, more successful life.
Emotional dieting as a coping mechanism has far worse implications than emotional eating, because dieting leads to a tense relationship with food and body, disordered eating and even eating disorders for some.
Here are some of the reasons why we ‘emotionally diet’ in order to cope.
1. The number one reason is to get a sense of control. Not just control over our weight and how our body looks. It’s deeper than that. It gives us a false sense of control over our emotional experience.
When things around us feel out of control, dieting can be a coping mechanism. Picture a mum of two young children who is running late for nursery and work and forgets the all-important “World Book Day” costume, leaving her two children throwing a tantrum. The frustration and the chaos can feel like too much, mum starts shouting and leaves the drop off feeling in turmoil. (I may speak from personal experience ;-)
In an attempt to counteract the intense emotional experience, that mum may choose to restrict her food, because then ‘at least’ that is an area where she feels in control.
But when we continuously ignore or suppress how we feel, we don’t give ourselves a chance to discover what our emotions are telling us. Maybe that mum’s frustration points to the fact that she’s got little help, too much on her plate, says yes to others more than she cares for herself, or has high expectations about how things ‘should’ go that are unattainable. Dieting in order to ‘not feel’ then becomes a distraction from these real issues which never get addressed. Dieting also gets in the way of developing more useful emotional coping tools that don't have negative consequences like disordered eating.
2. We use emotional dieting as a way to control other people’s opinions of us.
By dieting or restricting our food intake, we are of course attempting to control our weight, because we believe that if we look a certain way, people will hold a certain (positive) opinion about us.
But we cannot control what other people think of us. Whilst some of your friends might ‘admire’ you for being thin(er), others might secretly ‘hate’ you for it. Others couldn't care less. You can’t win them all. There’s just never any way that you can control what other people think of you.
But you can control what YOU think of you. You really can – maybe you’ve been in a pattern of being very critical of yourself, but I promise it does not have to stay that way forever. Once you know how to turn down the volume on the self-critical part of you, and turn up the volume on the supportive cheerleader, you will experience so much more freedom, because your opinion of yourself will no longer depend on other people, what you eat or what you weigh.
3. We use dieting as a way to control what we think of ourselves/our identity (instead of building a sense of identity based on what we really value in life).
We think that if we can control what we eat and how we look, we are essentially, a ‘better person’, a person who ‘has it together’, a ‘successful’ person. But does being a good person or a successful person really have anything to do with how much we weigh or what we eat?
At your funeral, do you think your friends will talk about how much they miss the fact that you controlled your food and weight, were amazing at dieting or maintaining a thin physique? I doubt it. Think about what you would love for them to say about you. Then start showing up as the person who acts like that. This will be much more meaningful and fulfilling than trying to build your identity around how ‘good’ you are with food and weight control.
Emotional dieting is a concept that can be hard to get your head around, and I hope that I've provided you with some insight into how you might be experiencing it or have done it in the past.