The Diet Trap and Surviving the Holidays

Santa on a diet

“When you focus on your weight and the rules you must follow to lose weight, something very important is lost: your life!” – The Diet Trap

Christmas cookies, Christmas cakes, Christmas turkey, egg nog, …I’ve been thinking about how compulsive eating, emotional eating, dieting, and disordered eating affect so many people this time of year, the stress and distress of it. I always feel sad when I hear Karen Carpenter singing Christmas carols, how her dying of an eating disorder is such a tragic backdrop to the gift of her voice. That is what happens in an eating disorder: your voice is lost.

It can be so tempting, during this time of year, to use food as a comfort for unmet feelings or to to diet/restrict food as a way to avoid or control uncomfortable feelings.

Diets don’t work

Here’s are some by now well-researched facts about how diets don’t work and yet how prevalent dieting and disordered eating continue to be:

  • 95% of diets fail and most will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years
    (Statistics on Weight Discrimination: A Waste of Talent, The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, 2011)

And yet:

  • 75% of American women surveyed endorse unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies (Three Out Of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating, Survey Suggests, Science News, 2008)

In the book The Diet Trap (Lillis, Dahl, and Weineland, 2014), it is reiterated that our brains and bodies are set up to crave certain foods, and we crave them whether we eat too much or them or avoid them. People experience food as being pleasurable and when you deprive yourself of certain foods, they may actually become more rewarding (Saelens and Epstein, 1996). Eating sugary and fatty foods changes our brain chemistry in ways similar to taking addictive drugs (Volkow and Wise, 2005). 

Myth: There is something wrong inside of you and once you fix it your life will be better. *

Have you ever told yourself that you’d initiate sex with your partner only if you felt freedom from all negative body image thoughts, that you’d go to a dance class once you lost weight, that you’d eat a healthy meal only if you didn’t feel deprived or you’d eat dessert only if you were guaranteed to not feel anxious and completely free of guilt?

What I love about the “acceptance and commitment therapy” approach that The Diet Trap uses is that it really nails your mind into acknowledging its own craziness without trying to “fix” it. Like Buddhism, it basically closes the option on any kind of fantasy that you will reach a point of no suffering, while also holding true that you are completely whole and do not need to continue to suffer, fix, or be fixed. Though this may sound like the bad news, it can also be quite relieving to realize, which some part of you has known all along: diets don’t work, your mind as actually the source of where the suffering is, there is no escape from your mind, and also there is nothing wrong with you.

Let’s look at a few more myths:

  • If you lose weight you’ll be happy and think good thoughts.
  • If you lose weight your life will automatically be better.
  • The more disgusted you are with yourself, the more motivated you’ll be to change.

Nope. I can reliably say from my own experience and 15 years of working with recovering women that these truly are myths, not reality. So what to do; how to survive the holidays without resorting to using food?

Here are some simple-but-not-easy tips for navigating the holidays:

1) Breathe diaphragmatically

This sounds like a simple thing, but is not always easy to remember. By breathing into your belly (think Santa NOT on a diet) and expanding it like a balloon on the inhalation deflating it on the exhalation you shift from sympathetic (fight or flight) into parasympathetic nervous system. This allows you to relax, get a bit more perspective, digest food more easily, pause on impulsive urges, and decrease anxiety.

2) Detach with Love

If you notice your mind obsessing (about food, about presents, about relationships, about feelings), breathe and detach for a moment. Imagine that most outcomes about things the mind obsesses on turn out to be ok, even if they are not the scenarios your mind wanted. If you obsess about your mother making triggering food, your father making comments about needing to “exercise away his belly” after a meal, or you getting the wrong present for your mother in law, detach with love. You are powerless over changing other people. You can change you, not them. Practice distress tolerance for 24 hours, and know this, too, shall pass.

3) Do something you love that reminds you of contentedness or joy.

Whatever that something is, playing music, making a collage, practicing yoga, dancing, going to nature, do it! Even if it is just for a few minutes. Do it to remember the experience of peace and joy. If you have a part of the holiday, that you truly love (singing carols in candlelight, seeing the lights, helping others) then make an effort to do that yourself or invite others to do that with you.

4) Practice metta

Metta is a Buddhist practice of lovingkindness. You can practice sending lovingkindness to others as a way to help your own self. If you are feeling lonely, you can imagine all the other people in exactly the same feeling as you experiencing loneliness during this time. If you are with people but feeling not-belonging, you can imagine all the other people in exactly the same situation. If you are struggling with your eating disorder or alcohol, imagine all the other people that are struggling with this obsession. Practice sending lovingkindness to them as a way to bring compassion to yourself. You are not alone.


The Diet Trap: Feed Your psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle Uisng Acceptance and Commitment Therapy By Jason Lillis, PhD, Joanne Dahl, PhD, and Sandra M Weinland, PhD (New Harbinger Publications, 2014)

One response

  1. Reblogged this on recoverymama and commented:

    Reposting this to support non diet approach to enjoying the holidays! Many Blessings.

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