How Ditching the Diet Changed my Life
Editor’s note from Elizabeth: Two months ago I met Alisha on Instagram and we started talking non-diet lifestyle. I had recently written a
Non-Diet Lifestyle Coaching
I’m not going to hand you a meal plan or protocol for how, what, or how much you should eat. I’m also not going to tell you how you should move your body. Additionally, you won’t find me cheering you on to just keep grinding to get the weight off. I’m not here to sell you on the next 12 week bootcamp or total body transformation. You definitely won’t find me promoting 21 day diets, detoxes, or other programs helping you create a more dysfunctional relationship with food, exercise, or yourself.
However, that wasn’t always the case.
My life before fitness
When I think back on my childhood, I remember being active as a kid. Whether it was riding my bike up and down my street with childhood friends, or throwing myself around in the field at recess pretending I would be the next world famous gymnast, I was a mover. As I got older though, I became less and less active. Most of my friends were busy with sports, but not me. My family couldn’t really afford to enroll me. Not to mention, my parents never emphasized the importance sports played in the lives of young girls. I’m guessing the latter is because they themselves didn’t know how much sports positively impact girls.
Instead of playing soccer or volleyball I pursued boys, drinking, and drugs. At that time in my life those things seemed to provide what I was looking for most. In the midst of partying I found pain relief, a place to belong, and even though ironic, confidence too. No matter how damaging those behaviors actually were. I needed to fit in. I wanted so bad to belong somewhere, to feel wanted.
I wanted so bad to belong somewhere, to feel wanted.
Not ironically though, the less active I became, the worse my lifestyle habits and my self-image were. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually I was broken, empty, and unhappy. When I looked in the mirror I hated what I saw. I hated how I felt about myself in my own body. I hated that I didn’t feel beautiful because my body didn’t resemble what society told me was beautiful.
This self-hatred spiraled into other dangerous and damaging behaviors around food and exercise.
Growing up I lacked positive role-models when it came to many areas of my life. Especially on the lifestyle front. On one hand I saw my mom using food as a way to cope with her own pain (a behavior I later discovered she learned from her mom). On the other hand, I saw a woman (my aunt) who was so afraid of being fat she would go to extreme measures to ensure that never happened.
During my early adolescent years I spent many days with my aunt. Her behavior became the standard by which I judged all others. Her standards for what was beautiful or acceptable became my standards. Because my aunt was so fearful of creeping over 112 pounds, I always thought that was the golden number I myself needed to reach. Dieting was normal behavior at her house. It still is, but today it looks more like mainstream health and fitness.
I found myself in my early twenties without a clue as to what a healthy lifestyle actually looked like. Left to try to figure it out myself, I dabbled with all sorts of supposedly ‘healthy’ behaviors. I tried gyms and diets. Detoxes and eating disorders. Nothing seemed to work… at least not permanently.
Success as a dieter
After trying and failing more diets than I care to admit; I stumbled on one that did seem to provide a temporary reprieve from the body I was living in.
Weight Watchers at the time seemed like a true God-send. Through the meetings (which I now see were a blend of community and fear based accountability) I learned a little bit about how to eat in a way to lose weight. Weight Watchers taught me how to manipulate and manage my caloric intake, even if it was just in favor of losing weight no matter the cost. However, unhealthy it was, it worked. I dropped about 15 pounds within the first few months. The scale continued to move slowly, and I saw the weight loss results I was desperate for. It was everything I thought I wanted.
Over the next few years I continued working on my “healthy lifestyle” through exercise and dieting. I picked up running and kicked my clean eating into high gear. I was smaller than I’d ever been. In some ways I felt more confident, in many I was still so insecure. You would have thought living in the thin ideal body would have had me on cloud nine.
The thing I feel compelled to point out, is that even at my smallest weight and/or size, I was still unhappy. I was still self-conscious. I still compared myself to other women and often still felt inferior.
The thing I feel compelled to point out, is that even at my smallest weight and/or size, I was still unhappy. I was still self-conscious. I still compared myself to other women and often still felt inferior. Here’s the thing about diets and all the healthy lifestyles we see on social media, yet, no one is talking about–there will never be a weight, size, or shape that will give you the confidence you desire. That kind of confidence has to come from within, and is available long before you ever reach your goals.
An up-side to diet culture?
However, messy my relationship with fitness and myself was, on the one side, I could see ways adopting healthier behaviors had helped me. Fitness had given me confidence and courage, not because of the size or the weight loss goals reached. Learning to live a fit life taught me to believe in myself. Fitness taught me discipline and self-control. It taught me to persevere, set goals, and believe in myself in a way I needed. Pursuing fitness goals gave me the courage to try other things I never thought I’d do.
In 2011, I enrolled in my local university to get a degree in Exercise Science. This was one of those very things I never thought I’d do prior to getting into fitness. Though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my degree; I knew on some level it was going to be helping other women find confidence in themselves through fitness. The ultimate goal then, as it is now is to help them show up in the world around them as they were created to.
I graduated at the top of my class (another personal shocker). Full of excitement, I was ready to get out there and begin ‘helping’ women shed their body weight, body fat, and their insecurities. At the time, I didn’t realize you could shed your insecurities independent of body weight or fat. Looking back, I feel a bit naive in believing the lie that your confidence and worth comes from what your body looks like.
Healthy habits or diet culture?
Shortly after graduating I started a coaching business through a large and well known ‘fitness’ company. I got to work building my clientele. Running boot camps, and giving out meal plans like candy on Halloween; business was off to a great start. Every woman was put on a strict caloric deficit in order for them to lose the most weight in the shortest time frame possible. This is after all the standard set by the fitness industry.
Some of those women had success early on. Others didn’t. My solution at the time, was they needed to try harder. They needed to push themselves in their workouts more, they needed to be more compliant with the diet. Unfortunately, that is the same kind of narrow, diseased thinking that’s perverted what true health and fitness are. It’s important for me to mention this way of thinking wasn’t what I had learned in college. Rather it was what had been taught to me early on through cultural norms and media exposure.
I honestly thought I was helping these women create a healthier lifestyle. They were exercising more, more aware of their food choices, and how much they were eating. At the very root, I was only teaching them how to diet better thus promoting a more disordered relationship with food as well as themselves.
Leaving diet-culture behind for me and my clients
A couple of short years into my coaching business I started to feel defeated in my work. My client’s results stalled or were non-existent all together. The method of try harder wasn’t cutting it. Not to mention, I was miserable on the diet hamster wheel myself. The final straw was when some of my own old food habits started to creep back in.
My obsession and food fantasies started back up. I’d ‘be good’ following my strict meal plan for a certain number of days. Then over indulge and call it balance.
You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but I felt like a fraud. In a moment, I realized not only was the life I was living personally a diet fueled by disordered eating behaviors, but was a lifestyle I was selling too.
Writing those words and reading them back to myself even now, I have to fight feelings of shame and guilt. The hard part is, so many fitness professionals or health coaches believe they are helping people with the same kind of tactics.
Mainstream health and fitness is really only selling diets and delusional ideas about what wellness, health, and fitness look like. Sadly, no matter how disordered or damaging the behaviors are, consumers of the health and fitness industry continue to clamor to it because it’s what they know.
Diet mentality and fitness pros
I’d be lying if I said I thought everything I did was horrible in those earlier years of coaching. In many ways, I was helping these women create some healthy habits, but from the wrong place. The intention was all wrong, and so was the methodology behind it. Unfortunately, I’m not the only health coach out there pedaling diets on their clients, and passing it off as a healthy lifestyle.
The demand is high for this kind of coaching. We still live in a world that sees being skinnier or smaller (no matter the cost) as the ultimate goal. Until we make a radical shift away from current diet minded approaches, we will always be fighting the same battle of food obsession and negative body image issues.
In order to make the shift, we need more practitioners of the non-diet approach to link arms and start working together. Just to be clear, non-diet isn’t synonymous with anti-health or unhealthy. It just means we don’t focus on weight loss or physical appearance as the primary goal. Instead, the focus is on cultivating healthy lifestyles through habit change, and a more holistic approach making fitness a thing every woman can achieve regardless of the shape of her body.
Just to be clear, non-diet isn’t synonymous with anti-health or unhealthy. It just means we don’t focus on weight loss or physical appearance as the primary goal.
Being smaller doesn’t automatically mean you’re healthier or happier. I found I was just as unhappy in my smaller body as I was in my larger body. The only thing that changed was the source of my unhappiness. Instead of being so consumed with trying to get skinny or shredded, the thoughts that occupied much of my mental, emotional, and physical energy was now focused on staying skinny and ripped. Either way I felt trapped.
Shifting to a non-diet approach
My strategy has very little to do with weight loss and fitness goals. Yes, my clients are still getting results. Yes, they are still reaching their goals, but they aren’t doing it using traditional methods. Instead of a complete lifestyle overhaul, we work on slow, sustainable changes to habits and routines.
We also do a ton of work around mindset. Because we’ve been drilled with diet BS for so long, we have a lot to unlearn. Instead of focusing so much on the outcomes (you know, the things we can’t control anyway), we focus our energy more on building daily, doable behaviors that promote holistic health.
Taking a non-diet approach means you reach your goals with more ease, and the results are truly more of a lifestyle with compassion, flexibility, and fit around the rest of your life instead of the other way around. You can absolutely reach your goals. And as a coach, it’s my job to help you do so. It doesn’t have to be painful or super restrictive. Your mindset around weight loss, your body, food, etc will have to change a little.
I’m fairly certain my former clients will not see this. I feel it’s important to apologize for perpetuating and promoting unhealthy behaviors and calling it health. I’m sorry for selling disordered eating and calling it a lifestyle. And I’m sorry for not being the coach they needed. The coach who would have pointed them to the research that says 95% of diets aka “healthy” lifestyles fail, and learning to adopt healthy behaviors regardless of weight changes is where it’s at. Most importantly I’d tell them they were beautiful just the way they were, and that they didn’t need the scale or a six-pack to tell them that.
Author Byline: Alisha Carlson | Find Your THRIVE
Helping women ditch the diet mindset so they can: create food freedom, find joy in movement + exercise, and make peace with their bodies long before they reach their goals.
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