The Wheel of Weight Loss: How to Break Free of Destructive Diet Cycles

So many of us have become trapped in a cycle of endless dieting, broken by slips or binges that leave us with feelings of failure and helplessness. Breaking free of these diet cycles starts with understanding these behavior patterns, learning to listen to our bodies’ messages, and forging a new relationship with food.

Many types of disordered eating follow a cyclical pattern, and new research is beginning to reveal the biochemical and environmental drivers behind these common eating patterns. Let’s explore the factors that fuel our eating and short circuit our healthy appetite for the right foods.

Why Diet Cycles Develop

The environment in which we live plays a big part in our food choices. The modern American diet contains very high levels of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and manufactured vegetable fats. Research has shown that when these types of foods are available, eating patterns change in favor of binging on high-calorie foods and avoidance of more natural foods.

We are continually bombarded with advertising for food and surrounded by snacks scientifically designed to appeal to our appetite. Of course, we recognize that this hyper-caloric environment causes us to gain weight, so we:

  • Focus on restrictive diets based on rules and limitations to try to counteract these influences.
  • Fight against the biochemical drivers as long as possible, and then experience an inevitable slip or indulgence.
  • Feel bad about our perceived failure, often deciding we “might as well eat.”

Vowing to achieve total control, we start dieting again, enforcing tighter dietary restrictions on ourselves, fueling more intense cravings and creating fear of our own appetite. This disordered eating pattern becomes firmly established and, despite our best efforts, the cycle of dieting fails us over and over again.

Careful and Restrictive Eating Patterns

For some people, seeking this control defines their relationship with food. Following increasingly restrictive diet plans becomes the focus while ignoring hunger and cravings becomes the unrealistic definition of success.

This all or nothing diet approach results in:

  • Fear that the natural appetite is huge, uncontrollable, and cannot be trusted.
  • Increasing disconnection from the body’s signals about hunger and nutrition.
  • A belief that food is the enemy, which is continually reinforced by the evidence of binge-eating when the rules are broken.
  • A continuous focus on what has been consumed and what will be consumed next and resisting the forbidden foods.

Deprivation Causes Food Cravings

Studies show that very restrictive dieting causes biochemical imbalances, including blood sugar swings, which cause cravings and binge-eating behaviors.2 This natural response to what the body perceives as malnutrition or starvation is a survival instinct, which will increase the intensity of the craving until even the strongest willpower eventually fails.

The Diet-Binge cycle happens because the deprivation involved in strict fad diets convinces our bodies that the food supply is limited and that we may never get to have the craved food again. It makes survival sense to stock up and eat as much as possible on the rare occasions the “forbidden” foods are available.

Emotional Eating Patterns

Emotional eating can stem from early learned behavior, which naturally links food and eating with comfort and security. Enjoying meals with family and building memories around cooking traditional foods create healthy connections that feed the spirit.

Using food to suppress or quiet our emotions can become a form of disordered eating when it results in:

  • Using food or body size as a form of self-sabotage, or as a shield against new relationships or romantic opportunities.
  • Eating to bury or dull strong emotions as soon as they are experienced.
  • Secretive eating in response to stress at work or home.
  • A deeply ingrained habit of using food to suppress memories of past pain and trauma.

When the Heart Is Hungry

Comfort food calls to us when we are in distress. High carbohydrate, high fat, and high sugar foods raise serotonin and dopamine levels temporarily, resulting in a quick mood boost. The foods of our childhood can trigger memories that produce a similar brain chemical response.

These biochemical realities fuel the cycle of emotional eating to feel better, and then go on to feel guilty about eating too much. We eat to celebrate, to recover past feelings of comfort, and to avoid current feelings and situations. All can cause strong emotions that may be interpreted as feeling hungry.

Some of the emotions that can be experienced as hunger by emotional eaters are:

  • Anger
  • Exhaustion/Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Insecurity/Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Jealousy
  • Happiness
  • Disappointment/Hurt
  • Boredom
  • Embarrassment

Unconscious Eating Patterns

Sometimes, the patterns that cause us to overeat are operating below our conscious and logical thoughts. We eat while we are distracted and inattentive, meaning we never experience satisfaction. Without realizing it, we consume more than we intend and don’t enjoy what we eat.

We may be unaware of the root causes of these types of behaviors:

  • Eating on the run and choosing whatever is handy because of a hectic, over-scheduled lifestyle.
  • Eating standing up, sometimes from the container and as quickly as possible.
  • Ignoring hunger until it reaches the ravenous level, and then eating until painfully full.
  • Snacking on things simply because they are available or visible, like candy in the office.
  • Eating after hunger is satisfied, in order to clean the plate, prevent waste, or get rid of leftovers.

Eating Mindfully

Understanding our individual challenges and building a healthy relationship with food and our bodies can break these destructive cycles. Fear, guilt, and anxiety about food keep us from finding the balance and harmony nature intended. By becoming aware of the unique influences that drive our diet cycles, we can restore the body’s balance and lessen the urge to binge until a varied and effective eating pattern can be restored.

Trusting the Body and Knowing the Self

Fighting a constant battle against our bodies is exhausting and unhealthy. It consumes our energy and buries our emotions, leaving little room for the relaxing and enjoyable experience of eating. It is possible to break these habits, rediscover your natural appetite for healthy foods, and experience true vitality.

Your unique diet type is determined by:

  • Your Personality
  • Your Eating Behavior and Attitudes
  • Your Food Preferences and Reactions
  • Your Lifestyle
  • Your Emotional Quotient
  • Your Individual Temperament

Learning about your DietQ type will enable you to re-establish a pattern of intentional, intuitive eating which supports your needs and enhances your enjoyment of food and fitness. Are you prone to emotional eating, unconscious eating, or some other disordered eating pattern? By understanding your unique motivators, you can stop worrying about eating and develop the right relationship with food to support your total wellness and achieve your ideal body size.

What Is Driving Your Diet Cycle?

To learn more about your personal triggers, habits, and the history behind your struggle with dieting, take the DietQ quiz and identify your DietQ type. This dietary assessment is based on validated research and will help you gain awareness of why you eat the way you do.

You have the power to change how you relate to food and the way you think about yourself. Recognizing the unique factors that have fueled your diet cycles in the past is the first step to embracing meaningful change, breaking free of the behavior, and creating a healthy eating pattern that will last a lifetime!


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