R’ Perspective: Why starvation diets will never work

Courtesy of Rush University
Courtesy of Rush University

Being born in a developing country, my parents never put a premium on having a skinny child. In fact, I think having a chubby kid was a source of pride for them. In a world where food was scarce, I was a statistical anomaly. Their encouraging attitudes toward my eating habits resulted in me growing up treating eating as a hobby and never discriminating between healthy and unhealthy food.

Needless to say, by the time I reached puberty, my relationship with food was less than healthy. It also didn’t help that there were a hodgepodge of societal expectations that hacked away at my already fragile ego. In our society, there’s a general expectation for Asian women to be delicate and petite — both of which I was not. I was still an anomaly, but not the kind that attracted praise. I was no longer a child — being chubby wasn’t “cute” anymore. With family members dropping well-meaning yet hurtful observations about my weight, I found myself scrutinizing my appearance in the mirror and comparing myself to actresses on television and my much skinnier peers.

Being uneducated about nutrition and weight loss and also too lazy to do my own research, I embarked upon a weight loss journey that was destructive to both my mental and physical health. I figured, if eating a lot of food made me fat then doing the opposite would make me skinny. Following that flawed logic, I began restricting my food intake and consuming food in tiny, ascetic portions.

When that ceased to yield results I began skipping meals altogether. These periods of abstinence would be followed by binges and I yo-yoed between the two regularly for about a year. I lost over 10 pounds in this lifestyle and people complimented my appearance. The social affirmation dulled the hunger pangs in my stomach.

Even though I had reached the goal weight I had set for myself, I was still extremely unsatisfied with what I saw in the mirror. I felt that I could do more — which meant eating less.

However, self-control is like a muscle, and mine was extremely fatigued from overuse and when I entered college, I snapped and fell into a year-long food bender. The thing with starvation dieting — restricting food intake instead of eating the right kind of foods — is that it’s incredibly depriving and unsustainable.

In addition to being unsustainable, starvation dieting is really similar to cheating. It’s like trying to get a good grade without being willing to work for it. Though it might lead to desired results, there will never be the same feeling of accomplishment gained after working hard for it. There’s never a sense of satisfaction, only a constant feeling of never losing enough.

Once I began exercising on a regular basis, I felt great about my body even though I wasn’t losing much weight at all. Maybe it was because I had lived a sedentary lifestyle for most of my life and I was just impressed that my body was capable of doing things that were remotely athletic. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see fat and imperfections. I saw a body capable of running, lifting and other incredible things. I felt better than I did when I was skinny and starving.

Starvation diets never work because they make people hungry, which is a pretty miserable feeling. So perhaps the best way to approach weight loss isn’t by focusing on appearances, but by paying attention to personal wellbeing. Self-compassion should be given priority over vanity. Happiness shouldn’t be contingent on factors like appearance, but rather, should be adopted as a state of mind.


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