All I want for Christmas is You (to not go on a diet)

Jen Lyman, registered dietitian at New Leaf Nutrition, wearing a cozy sweater, sitting on a couch

In 2015 I developed anxiety and panic attacks. I’d never had them before, so I had no idea that my amygdala was working overtime and my hippocampus was snoozing on the job, I just felt like I was dying. My anxiety presents itself by making my throat feel like it’s closing and that food was always stuck in it, which made it hard to want to eat. I was already feeling like I was having a heart attack all the time, and I didn’t want to add the sensation that I was choking to death on top of it. In addition, my stomach would get really upset and make me feel like I was going to throw up and I’d get diarrhea. Looking back, I know that my body thought I was in a fight for my life, which makes sense that it dropped my appetite to zero. A full stomach would only slow me down if I needed to run. Remember, our bodies can’t see the actual circumstances of the biology that’s happening inside of them; they’re just trying to keep us alive. 

Because of all this, I lost 15 pounds in about two months. I got out of the situation that caused my brain to lose track of reason, got therapy, and started taking some meds to get my hippocampus back in the game and make my amygdala settle down. I honestly have no idea how long it took me to regain the weight, it was the least of my concern at this point in my life, but I do remember being relieved that I could eat again and that my clothes fit better pretty quickly. And then they started to fit kind of tight. And I got worried. I started keeping track of my calories (and made myself feel CRAZY from tracking). I remember feeling so frustrated that even though I was eating normal amounts of food I couldn’t lose the extra weight! 

I wanted you to know my little tiny weight story because I want you to know that, to some extent, I understand how it feels to have your weight feel totally out of control. I realize that I live in a privileged body. My genetics make it easy for me to follow my hunger/fullness cues and my set point weight is what society views as acceptable. I haven’t lived in the shoes of someone who has dieted since they were 9, but I can empathize with the out-of-control discomfort that goes along with being dissatisfied by the number on the scale. 

When I regained my weight, I gained an additional 5% of my set point. My set point, at that time, was 128 pounds, and I gained up to 135 pounds. This regain of 5-10% of a person’s set point is biologically very smart and normal for a body to do. My cells had no idea that I was experiencing anxiety, they just knew they were in a famine. And then the “famine” ended. So, relieved that there’s finally enough to eat, they pushed my body to store a little extra, just in case we ran into a “famine” again. Biologically, this is very smart! If it were a real famine, this ability to create additional storage could be the difference of whether I made it through the winter or not! My body was only trying to keep me alive. This very same thing happens when someone diets. 

I don’t really care which diet someone does. Keto, Paleo, Whole 30, a juice cleanse, Weight Watchers, they all have the ability to create a calorie deficit, which causes weight loss. And OF COURSE you want quick results, right?? So you do the most extreme version you can because you want to be toned and tight and it needs to happen today! So you put your body in this state of “famine.” And you lose some weight and then get lax on the diet. And your body says THANK GOD we are no longer dying! The rains have come and the crops have been harvested, oh happy day! And it makes you gain weight, plus a little extra. And when you realize this, you go back on the diet, because it worked before. And the cycle continues. 

Cup of tea on top of a grey knit blanket

Can I give you a little insider tip? Your body is very, very smart. It wants to function efficiently. When I was at 135 pounds, I ate a balanced, normal diet, and within six months, my weight was back to normal. My body took six months of me proving to it that I would feed it consistently to settle down and lose the extra storage (remember, your body doesn’t actually want to carry around extra, it wants to be efficient—carrying extra baggage is not efficient). Six months. And I had never created this kind of “famine” before. Now imagine if I had been yo-yo dieting since I was a kid, it’d probably take wayyyy more than six months of consistency to convince my body that I was done with these recurrent “famines.” 

For Christmas this year, can you do something for me? Can you give yourself the gift of not going on a new diet when January 1st comes around? I really do understand how scary that can be. If it feels bigger than you can handle on your own, I’m here. I’d really like to help. I want eating to be easy for you, and it can be! Click here to send me a message.  

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