If you’re frustrated with the unending cycle of yo-yo dieting, then learning how to stop dieting and eat normally could be the revelation you need. Perhaps you’re currently standing at the crossroads with your relationship with food. One path is lined with rigid rules and an endless cycle of guilt and deprivation while the other path, less trodden, promises freedom from tracking what you eat and feeling like you’re always thinking about food.
Every weight loss story that begins with high hopes often ends in discouragement. Despite our best intentions, the self-defeating cycle of yo-yo dieting doesn’t lead us towards the healthier, happier life we dream of. Instead, we find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle of temporary victories followed by weight regain, brused self-esteem, and diminishing mental and physical health.
It’s time to liberate ourselves from the diet-induced restrict-binge cycle, break free from the tiresome war with the scale, and reclaim the joy of eating. Together, we’ll discover the empowering practice of ‘normal eating,’ a path that leads to better physical and mental health and a nourishing relationship with food.
Understanding Why Diets Don’t Work
Dieting, at its core, usually represents an effort to improve oneself — a pursuit of better health, a stronger body, or maybe even a boost in self-esteem. But, what if the well-trodden path of dieting isn’t the most effective route? Furthermore, what does it do to our self-esteem in the long-run when we become trained to think of thinness as a ‘better version’ of ourselves?
Dieting is the practice of restricting our dietary intake to certain types of foods, or significantly reducing the total amount we eat, with the primary aim of losing weight. People usually start diets with good intentions and a burst of motivation. But despite this initial zeal, diets are clinically proven to fall short in delivering sustainable results.
When you significantly reduce your food intake, your body responds by slowing down your metabolic rate — the rate at which you burn calories — to conserve energy. This is the exact opposite of what you want when you’re trying to lose weight.
On top of that, dieting can have an impact on important hormones in your body. Levels of ghrelin, also known as the ‘hunger hormone’, can increase, leading you to feel hungry more often. On the flip side, levels of leptin, the ‘satiety hormone’, can decrease,3 meaning it takes more food than usual to make you feel full.
All of this leads to a phenomenon all too familiar for many dieters: the dreaded yo-yo effect, also known as weight cycling. This occurs when you lose weight while dieting, only to regain it once you stop dieting.
One study even goes on to state,
One potential explanation for how repeated weight cycling impacts depression is through its positive relationship with internalized weight stigma – the more frequently people lose and then regain the weight, the more they internalize negative beliefs about the self, the more frequent their depressive symptoms.
As you can see, dieting can potentially create more mental and physical health problems than it tries to solve. It’s not about demonizing the intention behind dieting, which is often rooted in self-improvement. Rather, it’s about finding a healthier, more sustainable approach to nourishing your body and mind — one that doesn’t involve depriving yourself or battling with your body’s natural instincts.
What Exactly Does It Mean to ‘Eat Normally’?
If dieting is about setting rigid rules and restrictions around food, then “normal eating” is all about listening to your body’s innate cues and respecting its needs. It’s a shift away from the diet culture, one that places weight outcomes on a pedestal, towards an approach that prioritizes health outcomes and psychological well-being.
Recent studies have shown that traditional diets that encourage people to consciously restrict their dietary intake are not only ineffective in maintaining weight loss, but also lead to psychological distress and promote unhealthy eating behaviors. The study states,
Higher levels of restrained and emotional eating were associated with lower body satisfaction and self-esteem, and higher [body mass] among participants.
In other words, restriction leads to gaining weight and feeling even worse about yourself. On the contrary, non-diet approaches have been found to significantly improve eating habits, body image, and mental health.
In a comprehensive review of 20 different programs that encouraged a non-diet approach to eating, participants ended up forming healthier eating habits, feeling better about their bodies, and letting go of the intense desire to be thin. In short, non-diet programs helped participants thrive both physically and emotionally over the long term.
So, how does ‘normal eating’ work in practice? At its core, it involves responding to your body’s internal cues of hunger and fullness. It means eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, and not feeling guilty about your food choices. It’s about balance, flexibility, and mindfulness.
With ‘normal eating,’ you consider what foods you genuinely want, eat them when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. It’s about making conscious, enjoyable food choices that not only fill you up but also truly satisfy you, ultimately contributing to a healthier and happier relationship with food.
‘Normal eating’ is not just about what you eat or how much you eat; it’s also about the why and how – tuning into your body’s signals, respecting your cravings, and most importantly, finding satisfaction in your meals. In the next section, we’ll explore how to transition from a dieting mindset to an intuitive eating approach.
How to Stop Dieting and Eat Normally: 10 Evidence-Based Steps
Now that you’re aware of the evidence-based reasons why giving up dieting can benefit your physical and mental health, it begs the question, how can one learn to stop dieting and, more importantly, ‘eat normally’?
After spending years diligently counting calories or tracking Weight Watchers points (all without losing weight long-term), how can one begin to untangle the deeply intrenched habits and values of diet culture?
Here are ten steps that can help you slowly learn how to stop dieting and eat normally:
1. Get Back in Tune with Hunger and Fullness
To unlearn the habits of dieting and adopt a more ‘normal’ eating style, it is essential to reacquaint yourself with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. These cues are your body’s way of communicating its needs – when it needs nourishment and when it has had enough.
Now, if you’ve been dieting for a long time, you might find it difficult to understand these signals. Even though prolonged calorie restriction increases ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and thus makes you feel hungrier, you still might not know if and when you’re truly hungry. That’s perfectly okay.
It’s a common experience for many people coming out of a long phase of dieting where external rules took over these internal signals. Trust that your hunger cues will become more apparent over time, and if you ever feel stuck, do some research to learn what physical hunger feels like.
2. Give Yourself Permission to Eat the Foods You Love
The next step on this journey is granting yourself permission to enjoy the foods you truly love. Clinical studies have found that we become more preoccupied with a specific food once we make that food off-limits.
If you’ve been dieting for a while, you likely have a list of ‘fear foods‘ — foods you’ve avoided because you believe they’re ‘bad’ or cause weight gain. It can be intimidating to reintroduce these foods into your life, but it’s essential for learning how to stop dieting and eat normally.
By giving yourself unconditional permission to enjoy all foods (when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full), you can break the exhausting restrict-binge cycle. Many people find that once a food is no longer forbidden, it loses its power, and they can enjoy it in moderation without overthinking.
If you have medically-necessary dietary restrictions, such as a need to limit dairy or gluten, rest assured that this type of restriction doesn’t trigger the restrict-binge cycle as long as your intention is wellness, not weight loss. For example, eating gluten-free because you have celiac disease is rooted in wellness and therefore is unlikely to trigger a binge. However, eating gluten-free in order to lose weight, whether your have celiac disease or not, is quite likely to result in cravings for carbs and a binge later on.
Finally, if you have medically-necessary dietary restrictions and and you still struggle with overeating, even if your eating choices are inspired by wellness instead of weight loss, don’t worry. The rest of these tips will help.
3. Use the Stop, Drop, & Feel Method to Stop Eating Past Fullness
Struggling with overeating can make it hard to learn how to stop dieting and eat normally due to the fear of weight gain (which we will discuss in-depth soon). If you struggle with eating past fullness, it often helps to address the psychological reasons for overeating.
In my work as an eating psychology coach, I’ve found that most instances of eating past fullness are driven by an uncomfortable emotion that we either aren’t aware of and/or don’t want to feel. I developed a tool that directly addresses the emotions behind overeating: the Stop, Drop, & Feel®️.
The SDF method begins with ‘Stop:’ at the point where you’re about to reach for food when you’re not hungry. Make a promise to yourself that you can still eat what you’re craving after the Stop, Drop, & Feel if you still want it. This honors the element of permission and prevents this tool from becoming another form of restriction.
Next, you ‘Drop:’ go to another room if possible, set a timer for just two minutes, and drop into your body. Explore how you’re feeling in that moment. Finally, ‘Feel:’ let your feelings coexist with you. Don’t resist your emotions or try to rationalize them away. Spend those two minutes sitting with whatever emotions are present.
This method is a practical tool for developing emotional tolerance – the ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions rather than reaching for food to cope. It’s not an easy process, but it’s incredibly effective.
4. Developing “Emotional Tolerance” — A Skill Far More Important Than Dieting
Emotional tolerance is your ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions without resorting to external buffers, like food. Studies have already found a link between low emotional tolerance and binge eating. Those of us who struggle with compulsive eating have seen it first-hand when we head straight to the kitchen after a difficult day at work.
It is important to practice self-compassion when using food as a coping mechanism because sometimes it is all we know or all we have space for. Progress is made through small incremental gains, not shaming yourself for your behavior.
It is important to recognize that emotional tolerance refers to authentic discomfort, not the discomfort of dieting! Diets trigger biological mechanisms (as previously discussed) to make sure you eat. Rather, emotional tolerance is about authentic discomfort of everyday life such as difficult conversations, navigating stress, loss, etc.
Emotional tolerance is a natural byproduct of the Stop, Drop, & Feel. It forms the bedrock of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, my method to stop compulsive eating that focuses on psychological and spiritual practices instead of dieting.
5. Acknowledge Any Fears of Gaining Weight & Find Tools to Eat Without Anxiety
It is completely natural to harbor fears about weight gain when learning how to stop dieting and eat normally. After all, societal pressures and previous experiences can often lead us to associate self-worth with our physical appearance. It’s important to recognize these fears, empathize with them, and yet not let them control our journey towards a healthier relationship with food.
A common stage that occurs after giving up dieting is the ‘Rebellion Binge’ phase.
During the second stage of giving up dieting, you might find yourself craving and indulging in all the foods that were once off-limits. The sudden unrestricted access can lead to temporary bouts of overeating. However, remember that this phase is just that: a phase. It’s a normal part of the process, not a setback.
During these challenging times, it’s essential to use your tools to continue building a healthy relationship with food. The Stop, Drop, & Feel should become a daily practice at this stage. It will help you discern between desires to eat previously-forbidden foods due to true physical hunger — in which case you should eat them and enjoy them! — and a desire to eat them to numb discomfort.
6. Focus on Foods That Satisfy You
Satisfaction is a critical yet often overlooked component of our eating experience. In fact, satisfaction with eating is associated with lower body weight in both men and women.
The world-famous Weight Watchers diet used to rigidly forbid specific foods like bacon and peanut butter. Yes, this backfires. Not only does restricting specific foods increase our preoccupation with them, but it reduces eating-satisfaction if bacon is what you truly want.
Perhaps global giants like Weight Watchers are catching onto the compelling clinical evidence in support of eating intuitively. Perhaps this is why they now allow more flexible options. However, there are still heavy restrictions, which is why many people don’t lose weight on WW long-term.
In order to truly learn how to stop dieting and eat normally, it’s important to let go of the food rules and eat what satisfies you, even if it’s bacon and peanut butter!
7. Eat Slowly to Refamiliarize Yourself with Eating-Satisfaction
The act of eating slowly, also referred to as mindful or attentive eating, is not just about enjoying your meal but has a deeper connection to our overall eating habits. One study identified that eating while distracted leads to immediate overeating and concludes that eating attentively and slowly can help curb the pattern.
However, mindful eating should not be seen as a silver bullet to counteract compulsive eating habits. Drawing from my own experience and that of my coaching clients, eating attentively doesn’t solve the root issues that drive compulsive eating — especially uncomfortable emotions.
After a stressful day, mindful eating is often inaccessible to those who struggle with compulsive eating and can induce a shame-cycle when people end up eating while watching TV anyways. This is why, although I’m in support of mindful eating, I don’t consider it a requirement on the path to giving up dieting.
8. Destigmatize Body Fat and Deprogram Diet Culture
At this point, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to learn how to stop dieting and eat normally. Next, let’s talk about a mindset that can help you improve your relationship with food and body image over the long-haul: body acceptance and the rejection of anti-fat attitudes.
Chronic dieting often arises from a deeply ingrained desire to lose weight, a desire that has been amplified by societal beauty standards and weight stigma.
Body fat, or adipose tissue, serves many essential functions in our bodies. Far from just being “extra weight,” it is vital for our physical and mental health. While it’s true that excess body fat can contribute to various health issues, having a healthy amount is crucial for maintaining good health.
Studies have shown that people with very low levels of body fat are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety. This is likely because body fat plays a role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and emotion.
Instead of demonizing all body fat, we can recognize the real benefits of body fat and the critical role it plays in our wellbeing. The path to stopping dieting and eating normally begins with changing how we perceive our bodies and reframing our understanding of body fat.
9. Know the Signs of Progress with Giving Up Dieting
When you embark on the journey to stop dieting and eat normally, you may initially feel worse. This discomfort arises because we’ve removed the buffer of dieting and eating as a means to cope with stress, negative emotions, and life’s everyday challenges. Suddenly, we’re exposed to the raw ebb and flow of life. However, it’s important to understand that this feeling is a sign of progress.
In essence, we’re trading temporary, unhealthy coping mechanisms for a more authentic relationship with ourselves and our bodies. This shift will often involve feeling more of life’s discomforts, and it can feel difficult at first. However, this vulnerability is an indicator that you’re moving towards a more authentic way of living.
For instance, instead of using food as an emotional crutch after a stressful day, you might have to sit down and process your feelings. Instead of drowning feelings of rejection with ice cream, you might have to face these feelings head-on. And that can be a very uncomfortable process. But remember, discomfort is part of the human experience, and it’s essential for growth and authenticity.
10. Get Support When You Need It
I gave up dieting on August 8, 2016. I will remember that day forever because it marks the beginning of the most rewarding journey. I have been coaching others since 2017 through my psycho-spiritual approach. I call it “Feel Normal Around Food” Coaching. If you’ve resonated with my content so far, and if you think you could benefit from extra support, I encourage you to reach out.
Giving up dieting can feel enormously groundless and trigger out-of-control feelings. It helps to have support from someone who has been there and has experience coaching others through the process.
If you struggle with an eating disorder, it’s important to get help from someone qualified to do so. Whether it’s a dietitian, psychologist, or social worker, these professionals are uniquely qualified with specific skills in managing and treating eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a large database of providers to help you locate someone near you.
Breaking Free from Dieting & Finding Normal Eating
Diets often lead to disappointment, weight regain, and negative effects on our physical and mental health. It erodes our self-esteem even though our bodies are wired to resisting weight loss. Breaking free from the harmful cycle of yo-yo dieting empowers us to adopt an increasingly ‘normal’ style of eating.
‘Normal eating’ means listening to our body’s cues, granting permission to enjoy foods we love, and developing emotional tolerance to cope with feelings without turning to food. Progress may be challenging, but this path is abundant with growth and authenticity. Seek support if needed, and let’s embark on this journey together towards a healthier and happier relationship with food.
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