As a family physician, I’ve heard so many of my patients say – “My New Year’s resolution is to go on a diet…” Then they describe the latest diet that they’ve read about in a magazine, or heard about from a friend, or saw advertised on TV. Many of those people do lose weight – sometimes dramatically – but over time, they almost always regain the weight they lost and even put on a few more pounds.
The research evidence is clear: Diets don’t work. They are ineffective at producing lasting weight loss, and they can be harmful to a person’s sense of self-worth. When a dieter regains the weight she lost, she often blames herself for lacking willpower. The resulting distress can be a powerful trigger to use food for comfort – thus beginning a vicious circle of unhealthy eating.
Dieting puts people at risk for developing an eating disorder - whether it be anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or various other patterns of disordered eating. They are complex illnesses that usually have many different root causes. And they are dangerous – anorexia, for example, has more than 10 times the mortality rate of any other mental illness. Yet because they are poorly understood, eating disorders do not attract the attention they deserve, either in research or in treatment.
My daughter Sonia developed an eating disorder in her first year of university. This was a great shock to my husband Pradeep and myself. Neither he nor I had any problems with eating or body image, and we’ve had a happy family life. But now, Sonia was falling into the depths of a serious eating disorder, and we were beginning to lose sight of the happy, confident young woman she had been. As the eating disorder worsened, she had to drop out of university and became withdrawn and depressed.
Pradeep and I were desperate to find help for her. Initially, she saw a therapist specialized in eating disorders, and later entered a hospital treatment program. But she relapsed after discharge, and her condition became increasingly dangerous. Our family went through a terrifying journey over an eight-year period. For parents, the sight of one’s child slowly starving to death is an agonizing experience. But the greatest suffering was borne by Sonia herself, who lost so much during that time – career goals, friendships, and above all, a sense of well-being.
But little by little, she began to take the first steps to recovery. There was no specific turning point in her journey back to health. Many small events helped her – a therapist, insights from books, support from friends and family, and a trip back to India where she’d spent her childhood.
It’s now been five years since her recovery. She was able to complete university, obtain work as an economist, and she met and married a wonderful man. But she and I could not forget the tough journey we’d gone through while she was ill, and how desperately hard it had been to find help. We were also acutely aware of the
need for more public information about the dangers of eating disorders. We decided to create a nonprofit organization to support people with eating disorders and to raise public awareness about these devastating illnesses. Body Brave has now been running for just over a year, and we’re making some exciting steps forward. Check out our website at www.bodybrave.ca
As a family physician, I’ve changed the way I approach people who say, “My New Year’s resolution is to go on a diet.” I talk about the dangers of dieting, and instead discuss a more sustainable approach of making small but manageable changes in lifestyle and eating habits. Also, I ask them to think about the underlying roots of their disordered eating – are they feeling unfulfilled or in need of comfort? Are they wanting to avoid something painful in their lives? Going to the root of the problem is difficult, but can be life-transforming.
Let’s all make this a “No-Diet” New Year!