Last week, I was rummaging around in a box of old photos when I came across something that made my stomach flip: an old diary from ten years ago. As I leafed through the dog-eared pages, reliving the cringe-worthy outfits (tight white Lycra, really?) and the even more embarrassing men, I noticed a pattern in how I signed off each entry – my weight followed by the amount I wanted to lose. I stopped on one page, where I had signed off “61 kilos, five kilos to go”. My heart plummeted.
At the time of writing that entry, I was 23 and preparing to go off on my first big overseas adventure, backpacking to Asia and Australia with some girlfriends, and I was desperate to slim down. Typical 20-something body neurosis, right? But what struck me was that a decade on, at the ripe old age of 33, I still weigh the same. And worse, I still long to be thinner. I’ve lived on three different continents, got married and even bagged my dream job writing for women’s magazines, but here I am, still five kilos away from my happy-ever-after.
Granted, I’ve yo-yoed up and down the scales a few times in between. My move to Dubai in 2006 prompted the dreaded six-kilo weight gain every expat woman seems to experience thanks to all-you-can-eat brunches and takeaways on speed dial. However, I weighed in at a gratifyingly tiny 54 kilos on my wedding day after a regimented bridal bootcamp. But ultimately, I am right back where I started. Still ‘five kilos to go’… Sigh.
And I’m not alone. According to research by British food-delivery service Diet Chef, 90 per cent of women have been on some type of diet in their lives, with the average woman losing her body weight nine times during her lifetime. More shocking is another report by market-research experts Ipsos Mori, which found that the average woman in the UK spends 31 years of her life counting calories, with more than one-fifth of us on a permanent diet in a bid to get body beautiful. I’ve seen it with my girlfriends.
A lunch date with the ladies always starts with the obligatory ten-minute dialogue about what we should and shouldn’t order. “Are you getting the salad?” “I’m only getting dessert if you share it with me.” “If I have that, I’m definitely going to the gym tonight…” This is followed by bespoke ordering that would make Victoria Beckham proud. “I’ll have the dressing on the side,” and, “I’ll have a side salad instead of chips.”
I can’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant with my girlfriends and everybody ordered what they actually wanted (if you don’t count blurry 2am visits to Burger King after nights out). It’s depressing. I’ve been dieting on and off since the age of 16 and if the statistics are anything to go by, I have to contend with another 14 years of this monotony.
It’s not even like the end goal feels that amazing. On the rare occasions when I have managed to slim down to my fantasy weight, I’m either so anxious about putting it back on, or so grumpy from starvation, that I’m no happier. And the real rub is I should know better.
As a magazine journalist, I write about diet and fitness as part of my job, and I know deep down that faddy diets don’t work. Yet every time a new diet book lands on my desk I can’t help myself. Seduced by the list of super svelte celebrities subscribing to it, I’m convinced every new diet craze that erupts holds the secret formula to losing those pesky five kilos for good.
I’ve tried them all with varying results: the Atkins Diet (pongy breath); the Cabbage Soup Diet (smelly); the Grapefruit Diet (boring); the Hollywood Diet (not as glamorous as it sounds); the Macrobiotic Diet (thanks, Gwyneth)... not to mention the GI Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Zone Diet (that one was your fault, Aniston)… Just last week a friend lent me The 17 Day Diet which she swears I’ve got to try.
These kinds of quick-fix promises are destructive, warns Dr Melanie Schlatter, a Dubai-based health psychologist (healthpsychuae.com). “We are being taught that miracle solutions and instant results are the only way to go about feeling good about yourself and to be accepted in today’s society, which is completely unrealistic.
It sets women up to fail.” She adds, “Women wanting to look slimmer or be fitter is not the problem, it is how they are going about it. Dieting can make us feel in control, but the effects are only short-lived, which turns the dieting cycle into an obsession.” I can certainly relate to that obsessive cycle.
There always seems to be some event in my life that I need to be thinner for – a holiday, a party, a milestone birthday... This month my mission is to squeeze into a bridesmaid dress. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t lose weight on these diets – I’ve lost those five kilos more times than I can count, sometimes more, and often in a frighteningly short span of time.
The trouble is, after the diet ends I put it all back on along with a few extra kilos for good measure. According to Dr Schlatter this is a common phenomenon. “When favourable results are obtained over a very short period of time, the benefits are often short-lived as the individual tends to see the diet as having worked,” she explains. “There is psychological pressure to discontinue with the restrictions, setting yourself up to overindulge and then have to start the cycle all over again.”
Hmm, sounds familiar. Ironically my constant dieting could actually be making me fatter in the long run, not thinner. Forget about having your cake and eating it; I’m not eating my cake, but I’m having the calories. Instead of aiming to lose weight, Dr Schlatter suggests I should shift my focus and aim to be healthy, not skinny. “Know that none of us are completely perfect,” she adds.
“Focus on what makes you happy and appreciate the qualities and skills that you have, instead of focusing on obsessive dieting, comparing yourself to others, and fixating unnecessarily on your flaws.” So there you have it: diets are doomed to failure. So I’m quitting – just as soon as I’ve finished reading The 17 Day Diet… apparently all the celebs are doing it.