Breaking fad: Confessions of a serial dieter
A personal look at how dieting can have a negative impact on your life. Also focusing on how disordered eating can be just as harmful as a full on eating disorder as quoted by James Lamper.
A fad-diet devotee, health writer Anna Magee reveals how she paid the price for her perfect figure with mood swings, bad skin and constant tiredness…
‘Fifty-six point one kilograms, BMI of 21,’ said my doctor. ‘That’s been the same – to the decimal point – for all the years you’ve been coming to this surgery.’
If you’d spotted me on the street any time over the past two decades you’d see a petite woman – 5ft 4in and a size ten – the kind to whom people say things like, ‘But you don’t need to diet!’
Although my weight remained the same, I spent my 20s and 30s trying every fad diet that came my way – and, as a health writer, that’s plenty. Salmon three times a day on Perricone’s ‘facelift in your fridge’. Mung beans and miso on macrobiotics (it works for Madonna). Enough pork scratchings – and bad breath – on Atkins to scare a pig farmer. I wasn’t fat, but I always needed to be on some regime or other to keep my figure. While each diet out-hyped the one before, I rarely stuck to any of them for more than two weeks.
More than bankruptcy or job loss, I feared gaining weight. To my friends, I was the ‘regime queen’. They’d call before a dinner party to ask what I was eating at the moment or would watch as I served up Sunday roast for them and tofu stir-fry for me. If I couldn’t avoid having pizza while out, I’d just hit my chosen regime harder the next week.
It wasn’t only my social life that suffered. My tummy was bloated, my face saggy, and my joints ached from the 90-minute runs I tortured myself with. I would wake at 3am with worries racing around my head. By 10am I was dog tired and fantasising about that night’s sofa-slumping. I may have started the day with fresh fruit and good intentions but by 4pm I often needed a sugar fix. I spent every Saturday sleeping, ignoring phone calls and thinking up ways to hide the truth as to why I had cancelled social engagements – I was simply too tired. Come Monday, I wrestled the snooze button, still not recharged.
As a teen, I was ample-hipped and bookish. I would eat with abandon and didn’t give two hoots about my weight. A couple of seemingly harmless comments when I was 19 changed everything. ‘Anna, you won’t be making it as a model, better keep up the day job!’ shouted a colleague across the newsroom where I worked, when my picture appeared in the paper. Later, while on a family holiday, I was taking my usual hedonistic approach to food when my cousin’s very cute male friend remarked that I looked ‘mumsy’. That comment still hurts and, once home, I plunged headlong into body fascism, taking up aerobics, dating a bodybuilder and swapping pork ribs for diet books. By 25 I had gone from a larger size 12 to a lean size 10, where I fought to stay for the next 15 years.
I’m not the only one to have battled a weight problem I didn’t have. Health experts point to a legion of ‘hidden dieters’ whose weight seems stable yet who ricochet from one diet to the next. Research last year by the University of the West of England found that 79 per cent of women wanted to lose weight yet 78 per cent of them were in the healthy weight range. Two out of three women are on a diet at any given time despite only half of British women being classified as overweight or obese. While hidden dieters like me maintain an outwardly ‘healthy’ weight, the trade-offs for limiting food are many – constant irritability thanks to always feeling hungry, as well as low-level exhaustion from being on a perpetual blood-sugar crash (60 per cent of women say they’re tired all the time). Serial dieting is linked to increased stress, depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, living on caffeine and diet drinks is now not only proven to affect bone health, it also dehydrates the colon, so I was constantly bloated.
According to dermatologists, along with cigarettes and sun damage, yo-yo dieting is the enemy of youthful skin by starving it of the nutrients that build and maintain collagen fibres. New research shows that it’s possible to be slim yet be on the brink of developing type-2 diabetes because constant high-lows from sugary foods, diet drinks and refined carbs can cause the body to become resistant to insulin.
Diet: Five meals a day
With my aunt and uncle. I was weight training five times a week
Diet: Jelly beans and Diet Coke
Graduation day with my mum and sister. How did I manage to get the brain power to graduate?
Diet: Fit For Life
With my mum. This regime involved fruit until midday and daily runs
Diet: Apple detox
A night out with my friend Lisa. I was hugely into eating only apples on Saturdays for almost three months
Diet: Raw food
On holiday in Barbados: I may look happy but I was always hungry
Diet: Jason Vale’s
ten-day super juice
In Australia, when the diet went awol in favour of chardonnay and seafood buffets
Diet: Perricone’s facelift in your fridge diet
Age: Late 30s
The diet did what it said on the tin — my skin looked
great — but it was completely unsustainable
Diet :Trying veganism
At my sister’s wedding. I was painfully thin, my skin went grey and I slept at every spare moment
Diet Calorie counting
In the Maldives. Exhausted, I slept for practically the entire fortnight
While not on a par with a full-blown eating disorder, this disordered eating is widespread, says psychologist James Lamper. ‘Many women with a healthy weight have disordered eating patterns that are obsessive and affect their quality of life. It’s more common than a classic eating disorder,’ he says. Do a straw poll in any office and I bet at least half the women are on a ‘regime’ of some sort.
Regina, 32, a charity fundraising manager from Essex, also a size 10 and currently on the DNA diet, says her trade-off for serial dieting is a constant mental fogginess. ‘On one diet I was on bananas till midday and couldn’t function at work. I was asked to discuss the figures I was presenting in a meeting, but all I could think about was getting hold of some proper food that afternoon. Yet the idea of losing weight made me stay on it for two weeks. I didn’t lose anything.’
For Angela Meadows, a 38-year-old counsellor, serial dieting since 16 has caused the one thing she feared – obesity. ‘I used to be a size 12 but after two decades of a constant binge-starve-binge-starve cycle, I’ve dieted myself up to a size 20. Now when I look back at myself as a size 12, I realise I was actually quite attractive!’
The mere act of dieting can create the need to diet more, says nutritionist Ian Marber. ‘Constant feast or famine slows down the metabolic rate and leads to binges as the body tries to create fat stores to see it through the next famine phase,’ he says. It also explains why on particularly exhausted evenings I found myself inhaling a big bowl of pasta, cheese and ketchup. ‘That was your body trying to redress its energy deficit by carb-loading,’ Marber explains. ‘Serial dieters’ eating regimes lack good protein and healthy fats, so they crave refined carbs such as pasta and sugars that can provide an instant glucose hit. That’s energy they desperately need,’ he says.
I knew that what I was doing wasn’t healthy. The effects of intermittent carb binges, over-exercise and living on Diet Coke and chocolate couldn’t ever be cancelled out by a few weeks avoiding meat and dairy, having cabbage soup for dinner or green smoothies for breakfast. My epiphany came when I met nutritional therapist Charlotte Watts. Her life-changing advice for me was this: ‘You’ve focused for so long on how food and exercise will make you look,’ she said. For the next six weeks ask yourself: “How will this food make me feel?” Watts explained how lean protein and good fats could help my brain deal with work pressure and stave off cravings and how bingeing on refined carbs and sugar was making my energy highs and lows worse.
After four weeks on Charlotte’s regime – three proper meals a day emphasising healthy protein, good fats and vegetables, minimising refined carbs and sugar plus walking, yoga and strength training – I was able to get out of bed at 7am. No alarms, no prompting. I felt rested, relaxed and clear-headed. After two months, my mood and sleep had stabilised, and the bloating and daily sugar cravings had gone. This time, feeling great made me want to keep going. My skin glowed, my joint pain had gone and I was at my leanest ever. None of this was instant, but it’s been pretty permanent since, which still astounds me. After 18 months I’d dropped to a size eight and have never felt easier around food or more able to trust my choices. It was like being freed from 20 years of dieting prison. Now that I know how to nourish myself in a way that keeps me alert and my mood stable, I feel like my life can begin. That’s how much energy dieting took up. Kind of sad, really.
I’ve been sold a dud by fad diets. By focusing only on the way I looked – my waist size or the number on the scales – rather than how I felt, I was doing my body and mind the gravest of injustices. Recently, a new book landed on my desk. ‘Lose 10 pounds in 10 days!’ it screamed, claiming – so alluringly – to be written by an A-lister’s get-in-shape-quickly trainer. Ooh, I was tempted. But I haven’t been on a new diet for two years now and have never been leaner or happier. And I’ve got more stamina at 43 than I’ve had in years. For now at least, I’m not
HOW TO FIGHT THE FAD
Coffee for hunger pangs
More coffee to keep going
Body Pump classes
Will this make me fat?
EAT FOR LIFE
Almonds or brazil nuts between meals
Healthy fats (olives, avocado, seeds, nuts) at each meal
Olive, sesame or nut oils with balsamic
Butter (especially on veggies)
Lindt 70 per cent dark chocolate with wasabi
Ten-minute breathing or walking breaks every 90 minutes
Short high intensity interval training (HIIT)
No limits organic, whole food
Strong is the new thin
How will it make me feel?