The diet industry is a $60billion market with over 100 million Americans reportedly on a diet at any given time. Yet, 37 percent are considered obese.
Respected food, weight and body issues specialist, Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin, has clear views on why diets don’t work and teaches people how to get fit and healthy without resorting to restrictive diets.
Through her online program, Kick The Diet Habit, and her private practice, the psychoanalyst and psychology of eating expert has helped thousands of people.
Many people feel lost and without hope believing they either don’t have enough willpower or have an addiction to sugar and carbs. But Dr. Nina has a different viewpoint on that and has a unique perspective on the struggle many dieters face.
Here she talks to Bella Los Angeles and shares advice on how best to finally gain control of yo-yo dieting and food and weight issues.
There are over 30 million men and women suffering from eating disorders in the US – why do you think the problem is so prevalent here?
One primary reason is our cultural attitude toward emotions. Our society makes emotions a bad, scary thing, and since an eating disorder is a way of dealing with what’s upsetting, there are a lot of people who don’t know how to express their feelings and use eating disorders as a negative coping strategy.
Yet, we can’t stuff feelings down, starve them away, or purge them. There is only one way to get rid of feelings, and that’s to actually feel them, but we’re given the message that we’re strong if we don’t feel our emotions and weak if we do. This is a major problem.
There are other theories about what causes eating disorders, as well as a lot of myths, which is something I talk about extensively in my book, Food For Thought. Some people think eating disorders are brain-based illnesses caused by genetics, others think they are caused by media influence, or that they are about control.
Ultimately, people develop eating disorders for reasons that are as unique as they are. Each person has a different combination of psychological and biological factors that caused the eating disorder to develop. The key is to understand and help each person on an individual basis.
Eating disorders are not just about food? Talk about how eating disorders are a symptom of a deeper issue.
I like to say it’s not what you’re eating that’s the problem, but what’s eating “at” you.
Let me give the example of a client who I am calling Jenna* who had binge eating disorder, the most common type of eating disorder. One day she walked into my office, announcing that she was a food addict, and said she could prove it.
She knew that I don’t believe in food addiction, but she told me that the night before, she was watching TV after work and suddenly, as she put, Ben & Jerry’s was calling her name.
Nothing was wrong, nothing was bothering her, and she felt fine. Jenna thought this proved she wasn’t emotional eating, and that she was addicted to Chunky Monkey ice cream.
I wondered what she’d been watching on TV. It was Charmed, her favorite show.
She said, “See, I was happy, watching my favorite show. I’m addicted to ice cream.”
When I asked what the episode was about, she said, “Oh, it’s the one where the devil comes down and the sisters start fighting and everything gets really crazy—–”
And that’s when she had her Oprah aha moment. She stopped and said, “Oh, I get it.”
She realized that watching Charmed had brought up some difficult thoughts and emotions about her own sister (they had a really bad relationship) but before that could reach conscious awareness, she went to Ben & Jerry’s for comfort and distraction.
The real problem was not ice cream. It was her relationship with her sister.
If you automatically turn to food when you’re upset, you can learn new ways to respond to yourself. Jenna is living proof that change is possible.
How did you come into this line of work?
When I was five years old I decided that my legs needed to be thinner. I was a normal weight child, didn’t watch TV or read magazines, so the media didn’t influence me, but I was preoccupied with my thighs.
My obsession got worse as I grew older. By the time I was in college, my last thought at night was, “What did I eat today?” I fell asleep counting calories and fat grams. I calculated every bite and sip, wondering if I’d lose weight by the next morning or gain it. The scale was my most welcome friend and my biggest enemy.
When I hiked with friends, I wasn’t thinking about what a beautiful day it was or how much fun I was having. Instead, I was mentally calculating how many calories I was burning and wondering if I’d lose weight by the next morning.
I was always on some crazy diet that was very restrictive. Eventually my willpower failed and I binged, then used laxatives, or threw up. I was thin, but in a constant state of anxiety.
Eventually I began therapy. I shared my boyfriend issues, my goals and dreams and fears. I was open with my therapist about every aspect of my life – except one.
I never told her what was going on with food. The truth was that at first I did not want to change. Starving gave me a sense of strength. As horrible as it is to admit, I used to feel secretly superior to other people because I had the will to deny myself food.
I was too ashamed to admit this to anyone, including my therapist, so I kept it secret. Several months into therapy I noticed some changes. Restricting no longer made me feel superior. It made me feel deprived.
I started to experience an appetite for life. I also started learning to cope differently, instead of using food.
By the time I left therapy, all my eating disorder behaviors were gone. And, not once had I told my therapist what was going on with food.
How was this possible? How did I recover from a cycle of eating disorders without ever talking about food?
My behavior was a symptom of the real problem, my toxic relationship with myself. When I changed my relationship to myself, everything with food changed, too.
You may be wondering why, as a young child, I suddenly decided my thighs were too big. In my family I was often told that I was too loud, too sensitive, and too emotional. The message was that I was “too much” to handle. My five year old mind translated this as being literally too much, too big.
So, I know from experience what it’s like to struggle, but I also know that complete transformation is possible.
What I’ve learned from my experience and by treating others, both in my clinical practice and my online programs, is that it’s never too late to change. There is always hope.
Why don’t diets work ultimately?
Diets work, until you go off them. I like what the body image activist Taryn Bumfitt says, which is, “Never trust a four letter word where the first three letters spell ‘die’.”
Diets are often restrictive, which leads to hunger and also a slower metabolism. When you don’t get enough calories, your metabolism gets more efficient. Then, when you go off the diet, you gain weight because you need fewer calories just for maintenance.
Essentially, dieting makes you gain weight more easily. This is the secret that the $60 billion diet industry does not want you to know.
In terms of the psychology of eating, which is my area of expertise, diets fail because on some level they’re about deprivation, which always leads to overeating or bingeing.
If you’re thinking about not eating pizza, ice cream or anything with a carb, then you’ve got food on the brain all day. That puts the focus on the wrong thing, which is what you are eating instead of why.
Diets do not address the underlying conflicts that make you turn to food in the first place. There are many reasons, ranging from wanting comfort or distraction, numbing out, symbolically filling up an inner emptiness, or even to expressing pain. Some people eat until they are in pain, a way of unconsciously converting physical pain to emotional.
The good news is that when you stop dieting and start responding to yourself in a new way, you lose weight naturally.
What’s the best way to deal with food triggers?
People often think they are being triggered by food, but they are actually triggered by situations, which cause them to turn to food for comfort or distraction.
The first step is to identify the true trigger, which is what’s eating “at” you. I developed a formula to help you figure out the food-mood correlation. There are three basic categories.
If you tend to go for sweet, smooth and creamy, like Jenna, it’s likely you need some nurturing and soothing, which is often related to positive and happy childhood memories.
Filling foods point to loneliness, since they are bulky and fill an inner void.
If you crave them, you may be feeling deprived or lonely and symbolically filling up with food.
Crunchy textures are associated with anger. Chips, pretzels, everything that makes you bite down hard is a sign you may be angry, frustrated, or annoyed.
I sometimes hear from people who say they express their feelings and nothing changes, so clearly food is the problem. That’s because they’re feeling emotions they’re aware of, but something else is going on.
If you’ve cried and cried, and you’re still sad, there’s another emotion that’s not getting expressed – anger, for instance. Women are given the message that it’s not okay to experience anger. There’s even an expression, “Nice girls don’t get mad.”
As a result, lots of women only express their anger by getting mad at themselves for what they’re eating or what they weigh.
Or if you’re mad, and you’ve been super-angry for a long time, maybe underneath all that anger is a lot of sadness. A lot of men have a hard time expressing vulnerable feelings – boys don’t cry, right?
If you’re mad all the time and nothing is changing, then maybe you have underlying conflicts about sadness and vulnerability.
If you’re turning “to” food, you’re turning away from something else. There is always a reason.
Why do some people sabotage their weight loss efforts?
Some people are always on a diet but never quite their goal weight. Or, they get to a healthy weight, but it’s impossible to maintain.
In my online program, I have a module on how to stop the sabotage, and one reason is fears about expectation or disappointment. People usually have all kinds of ideas about what life is going to be like when they reach their ideal weight. They imagine they’ll start dating, or get a new job, or be happier.
There’s often an expectation that their personality will change by losing weight. If you’re insecure, you’ll become confident. If you’re shy, you’ll become outgoing. If you’re single, you’ll find a partner.
But, what if that does not happen? What if everything in life stays exactly the same, except for the label size on your clothes?
I had a patient who had a hard time getting into a relationship and she always blamed it on her weight. She thought that if she were thinner, she could get a boyfriend more easily.
Eventually, she lost weight. And she still did not get a boyfriend.
She had to face the fact that maybe it wasn’t her weight that was keeping her from having a relationship. Also, she had to give up the idea that she could resolve issues, losses or disappointments in life by changing her body.
Another common reason for diet sabotage may come as a surprise. It’s anxiety about happiness. When I say that, I get responses like, “What are you talking about? I’m miserable right at this weight. Of course I’ll be happier if I lost weight!”
But when we dig deeper, we discover some anxieties attached to happiness.
Some people are afraid to be too happy in case it’s taken away from them. They think the rug is going to be pulled out from under them. As if by daring to be happy, they’re inviting punishment from the universe.
As long as they are unhappy with their weight, they feel safe from other bad things.
Other people attach a positive meaning to unhappiness, almost like it’s noble. True artists must suffer, or being miserable makes you a better person.
Keep in mind these are all unconscious ideas, but once you make them conscious and challenge them, it’s easier to stop the sabotage.
What are some of the practical things people can do to make realistic and long-term changes?
One step is to get rid of your scale. If you’ve ever gotten up in the morning, in a good mood until you step on the scale and see a number that ruins your day, it’s time to rethink your relationship to your scale. Do not let a piece of plastic and metal have that much control over your wellbeing.
But even more importantly, turn your inner critic into a friend.
Imagine you have a friend who’s feeling upset. Maybe they had a fight with their husband, or they had a bad day at work – whatever the case, they tell you they’re upset.
Do you say, “Oh, you’re upset? Here, have some cookies.”
Of course not. The best way to help is to say is something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry you’re upset. That’s really tough. How can I help?”
Practice doing that for yourself. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and ask yourself what you need. And, if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, child or loved one, don’t say it to yourself.
Also keep in mind the pronoun you use about yourself. Recently, someone told me she was at a party that was catered by a really great restaurant. She said, “I decided this wasn’t the time to worry about what I was eating so I just ate what I wanted. Afterwards I thought, ‘You’re such an idiot, you’re never going to lose weight, and I can’t believe you did that.’”
Notice the way she switched from “I” ate what I wanted to “You” are such an idiot.
When I asked her to say, “I’m such an idiot” she couldn’t do it because it felt too harsh. As you can see, changing the way you talk to yourself can be very powerful.
Also, take care with your tone. The same words can feel very different depending on what tone you use. A soothing tone can feel like a verbal hug.
Last, if your comfort zone has become your rut zone, it’s time to do something different.
Don’t rely on changing your weight to make the difference in your life. Make changes now.
· If you always wanted to learn a new language, or go horseback riding, or take ice skating lessons – sign up for lessons.
· If you can’t imagine life without technology – take a walk without your phone, tablet or computer
· If you only exercise in the park – check out the local gym or YMCA (they usually offer one day passes for a reasonable fee)
· If you are shy – try smiling at a stranger.
· If you only date tall people (or short people) – try going out with someone who doesn’t meet your height requirements.
By figuring out what’s eating “at” you instead of dieting, and being responsive to yourself instead of critical, you’ll feel better. When that happens, you won’t use food for comfort. And that is how you win the diet war.
*All names are changed to protect patient confidentiality
Dr. Nina runs a private practice in Los Angeles, writes an award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food, hosts a popular podcast, Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, and offers “food for thought” on her video series, The Dr. Nina Show. She has contributed to two books on psychoanalysis, and her own book “Food For Thought” is an Amazon bestseller.