What is Diet Anxiety and what can we do about it?

(Diet) Anxiety may overshadow but can be recon with

(Diet) Anxiety may overshadow but can be recon with

Dear Dr. Mo: Whenever I think of starting a diet, I begin to feel strong anxiety and I fear that I will fail – so I keep putting it off. I’m not having hopes of becoming any super-model looking person but I still cannot bring myself to start my diet. What’s happening to me? 

Dear reader: Losing weight can sometimes become an overwhelming pressure, imposed on us more from the outside than coming really from the inside.

True, we do want to look fit and feel good about our body because this is good for our health but it is the nature of our modern society, which favours skinny looking, (almost) anorexic appearance augmented further by computer programs to unrealistic shapes, that pressures us to achieve the unachievable – and to ultimately, fail.

Humans are the only animal capable of thinking about and more importantly, imagining the future and this unique feature we owe to our frontal part of the brain, the one whose level of development and complexity is so uniquely human. This ability is also responsible for anxiety.

Anxiety is the product of our fear of future and because we are able to imagine our futures, this can cause us to be frightened – to feel anxiety.

One thing that’s very well known to psychologists (but not to most other people) is how bad we are at imagining our futures: the more distant an event is in time the fuzzier it will look in our mind’s eye and the more it will be painted by our present thoughts and feelings (we are thus unable to escape the present – this is called ‘presentism’). The problem is that we won’t know this and will think that the way we imagined it is exactly the way it will happen – and alas, it won’t.

Now let me link all this together: a diet fear is likely happening because you are imagining the future in which you are unable to look like that public model image smiling to you from the covers of the fashion and health magazines; you see this as your failure and the anxiety sets in, even before you have started your journey to that future. You worry now about something yet to happen and this present worry paints the picture of your future self where you (incorrectly) think you’ll be equally worried.

The truth is, you probably won’t look like those models, mostly because they don’t look like that either!  Their pictures are unrealistic representations of their owners, a fiction and a false message being sent to ordinary people. Furthermore, these models are hand-picked from among thousands because of their physical features and then presented to the world in a photo-shopped edition with an underlying message that everyone should and can look like that.

I resent this false practice. It manages to frustrate the many and cheat people into believing they should aim for that, which almost certainly guarantees a failure and anxiety; it also accounts for a large number of anorexia cases, when losing weight becomes an obsession and goes into its absurd and dangerous extreme.

When you are imagining your future self, miserable for failing to become an ideally skinny and fit model, you are neglecting the results you will have accomplished by that time and how will that make you feel and the entire journey up to that point, which will be filled with interesting recipes, pleasurable exercise and gratifying experience of actually succeeding in losing some weight. Your imagined future is stripped of all the fine detail because it is distant in time (far away on your temporal horizon) and you are only focused on one fact alone – your idea of failure, which makes your anxiety go through the roof.

To counter your diet anxiety, try these 6 relatively simple things:

1. As tastes vary greatly and what we find beautiful is our own perception and no one else’s, the only weight you should think about and aim for is a healthy weight, the one which will make you feel good and with which your health parameters (like your blood pressure, blood sugar levels, lipid status etc.) will be within a healthy range. When you feel good about your weight, it will radiate to the outside world!

2. Another thing to do is to focus on your daily diet plan and the daily plan only – try not to think about tomorrow or the next week, don’t imagine how you might feel in two weeks (you can’t know that, no matter what you do!) – constrict your diet-worries to a present day and make sure you’ve achieved your goals for that day; this type of behaviour will minimize the anxiety.

Check out my recent post: Diet killers – how to succeed in weight loss?

3. Set some realistic goals – these should be small achievements spread out over time – small peaks on your way to the final goal, each a cause for a small celebration. Strictly avoid diets that promise big losses fast – these are unrealistic and even if they are possible at times, could be dangerous for your health.

4. Do not restrict any food category from the diet and do not skip your meals – you need everything but in a balanced way and this is where your thinking should come in – how to create menus, which you will love and that will both be versatile and healthy. Make this into an adventure and exploration – enjoy the process of reaching your goals not just the end result.

5. Fight your anxiety with action! By all means try your diet, even if you do underachieve a few times – our minds are so much better in explaining and finding good things about the experiences that we did have than the experiences that we did not have. Missed opportunities and inaction will in hindsight always hit us much harder than chances and actions we took, no matter the outcome.

6. And last but not the least – ignore those impossibly looking cover men and women smiling to you constantly from magazines and TV. These are meant only to sell you their attached products and not to make you any healthier or happier. Find other comparisons instead – your friends or family members who are also trying to lose weight, testimonies of people working on it and similar, much more real individuals. Help your mind shop for facts that will encourage you to start the diet and stick to it.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo

p.s. For further reading/references:

To explore this topic further I strongly recommend you read Daniel Gilbert’s book called “Stumbling on Happiness” where he explains in great detail these and similar concepts about our (in)ability to imagine and predict our futures and why we always fail to realize this.

You may also want to look up Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” where his ideas about thinking in the now (he calls this ‘the day-tight compartments’) and other astonishing insights from decades ago are revealed.