A good friend of mine in Italy swears by dieting. For years, she has been successfully controlling her weight in the same way: about twice a year - usually in January and then again in July she puts herself on a controlled eating and exercising regime that lasts a month or so and she gets the results she wants. She's perfectly fine with this method and it causes her no great distress. Observing her over the years, I have come to the conclusion that, for some women, dieting really does work.
We often talk about our different approaches to weight-loss - I think we are mutually fascinated by each other's take on it. Sara's is quite straightforward: at certain times in the year, mainly Christmas and in deepest, darkest winter, she tends to sit around on the sofa eating too much and as a result she puts on a some weight. Her clothes feel tight and she feels sluggish and uncomfortable in her body. Her tried and tested solution is to cut down on sugar, refined carbs and processed foods and alcohol for a certain period whilst working out at the gym at least 3 times a week. Within 4 or 5 weeks, she has shed the extra pounds, has gone down a dress size and is back to 'feeling like herself', as she puts it.
When I ask her how she feels when she's on her diet and how she motivates herself to stick to it she says: "Well it is a little boring, I do sometimes crave chocolate and I don't always fancy going to the gym but I remind myself that it's not forever and that I really will feel better when I lose the weight. I know that I feel uncomfortable in a bikini if I'm feeling 'fat' and I hate the muffin top I get when I put my jeans on after all that eating at Christmas. It's no big deal, really. I've been doing it for years. It works."
"But don't you go off rails once you've reached your target weight. Don't you have the urge to make up for the deprivation and stuff yourself with all the stuff you haven't had for ages?" I ask. "Uhhh...no. I don't really see it as depriving myself - more like I'm doing myself a favour," she replies "in fact, I tend to carry on making healthier choices for a while after I've come off the diet. I find I eat less crap and move more. It's like it gets me going - until Christmas comes round again and then I just think, 'oh what the heck' and dive in!"
Several things strike me when I speak to Sara about her approach to weight management. The first one is that she has a relatively simple relationship with food. She likes it, she sometimes has too much of it but ultimately - food is just food. Although she's not what would commonly be defined as an 'intuitive eater' - she does tend to label foods as good and bad, she does manage her weight with deprivation - somehow, she has that 'take it or leave' attitude that is common to intuitive eaters. She doesn't have that tortured, out of control relationship that is common to so many Beyond Chocolaters. The other thing that stands out for me is how kind she is to herself. Sara views her dieting as something positive that she is doing for herself. As she puts it, she sees it as 'doing herself a favour'. On the flip side of that, I've never heard Sara berate herself for overeating or about her body. She'll say things like: "I really stuffed myself at Christmas, I practically lived on panettone! And look where it's all ended up!" as she grabs a roll of fat around her middle, "It's time for a little self restraint ladies. Salad bar and gym - here I come!" There's humour and kindness there - something which I rarely hear coming from Beyond Chocolate newbies.
So where is all this leading? Well nowhere special except to say that there will always be people who will diet successfully. People like Sara who don't understand what all the fuss is about and who really do live successfully by the 'east less, move more' mantra.
And then there will always be people like us. Women for whom chocolate has never been just a 'naughty indulgence' but the friend and the enemy. Women who feel guilty whatever they eat and ashamed by the way they look, whatever their size. Women who feel despair when they are on a diet...and despair when they come off it. Women who go on diet after diet after diet and just end up getting fatter and fatter and fatter. Women who feel out of control, weak and hopeless whenever they think about food. For these women, Sara's approach to weight-loss will never work. It will only make things worse.
For us, dieting will never be the solution. It's not a simple equation. It's about working on our relationship with food and our bodies. It's about changing what, but also why and how we eat. It's about finding ways of dealing with life in ways that don't always involve food. It's about self esteem, it's about love, it's about patience and kindness and acceptance. It's about awareness. It's about not comparing ourselves with the 'happy' dieters like Sara and wondering why we can't do it that way. It's about support and community and talking with others who understand. It's taking one day at a time, taking one small action that brings us closer to a life Beyond Chocolate.