Traditions we may think of as changeless are sometimes not that old. Christmas as we know it in the English-speaking world only came together in the Victorian era. Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln, bowing to pressure, legally proclaimed it.
And these traditions are still in the process of changing. Thanksgiving is now celebrated in many parts of the US as Friendsgiving. Among some, Christmas has become Yule – keep the tree, 86 the overspending.
My proposal for the Tradition Most in Need of a Makeover? The New Year’s Day Diet, a terrible way to get a fresh start and the antithesis of self-care.
It doesn’t matter how extravagant your revels or what the scale has to say. Post-holiday dieting will ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE. (For my purposes, a “diet” is 1. a prescribed, i.e. “already written,” which is to say an inflexible and unresponsive to current conditions way of eating that 2. Doesn’t typically provide the energy your body legitimately needs.)
Consider two of the standout pieces of research on this topic, The Minnesota “Starvation Experiment,” and Traci Mann and Janet Tomiyama’s 2007 meta-study of dieting statistics.
You may already have heard of the Minnesota experiment, a study done to find the best way of re-feeding starving Europeans following WWII. A group of male undergraduates, chosen for their physical health and psychological sturdiness, were fed on a diet of 1600 calories per day for six months (more calories, you will immediately note, than are prescribed by many popular diets).
No surprise that the men quickly became preoccupied with food. They cut out recipes, collected cookbooks and obsessively discussed what they’d eat first when the experiment concluded. They also lost interest in the news, in their classes, and in sex. One of them became spectacularly self-harming.
In other words, they were a lot like women on diets.
When the experiment concluded, the men gained back all the weight they’d lost and then some, a finding that dieters the world over have reproduced endlessly. The difference between these young mid-century men and the mostly female dieters of today is that, as far as I know, none of those guys ever went on another diet as long as he lived.
Another bleak piece of research is the survey of scientific studies of dieters that Traci Mann, Janet Tomiyama and colleagues published in 2007. Their meta-study looked at every study published on the results of dieting and rolled up the results into one inarguable conclusion: 98% of dieters fail to maintain weight loss. In fact, many gain it all back … AND THEN SOME.
In her follow-up book, Secrets from the Eating Lab (2016), Mann easily shows that if the goal of dieting is weight loss, diets don’t work. I don’t know what Santa and Mrs. Claus traditionally do on January 1, but I know what science would want them to do after a season of indulgence: Go straight to the middle way without swinging to the other extreme.
If you’d like to start the New Year with a little structure, here’s a method I can recommend in good conscience: Gillian Riley’s Eating Less (EL) method, described in her book by the same name. It’s the most lightweight framework I’ve ever come across, consisting of a basic mindset and two simple tools. I use EL in my own life, and with all my clients. The method is nothing like a diet, but it does closely resemble what any thoughtful person might do to control her eating instead of being controlled by it.
I wish you the best in 2017, and as ever, I welcome your comments and questions.
Image CREDIT: Banquet Still Life, Adriaen van Utrecht (1644), Rijksmuseum