Updated: Jan 12
Ok here we are in the New Year again, and along with it the exhortations to become a new you. So, there’s the usual bombardment of adverts and newspaper articles extolling the virtues of new diet and exercise plans plus home furnishings, fashion and cars to complement this new you. Most of us by now are aware that the shiny new you is a marketing myth, but it’s still hugely tempting.
Perhaps in the past I’d have indignantly started this blog with the question what exactly is so wrong with the current you? And are we going to let some marketing person tell us that we’re not good enough, and sell us a vision of adequacy? But right at the moment I want to talk about slightly different things. Unlike my usual blogs that are usually rooted in science, this one is more my thoughts about being kind to ourselves and what is reasonable to expect right now.
We’re in the middle of deeply unsettling times. There’s a great deal of uncertainty and worry that seems to have crept into every aspect of our lives. Even walking down, the road is fraught with stress regarding decisions that normally we wouldn’t even think about; how close to walk to someone, should I got to the supermarket again this week or is it still allowed to go on that socially distance walk with a friend? There’s worry about our loved ones and ourselves, about our businesses and jobs (even the marketing person is probably worried about theirs too).
With so little that we can control it can feel very tempting to want to take control of the things we can, such as diet and exercise, particularly when we are at home with time on our hands. And for many people this has been a great time to shop more carefully, cook healthy meals from scratch and get out for a daily walk in the fresh air. This is a great thing to do if you find doing these things enjoyable and it reduces your stress levels and improves your health.
But not everyone finds making changes enjoyable. You might have a long history of trying to lose weight and eat healthily and have tried every new diet as it comes along. Perhaps you were successful at first but found the restrictions difficult to stick to longer term and ended up going back to your old habits and regaining the weight and perhaps a bit more. This can lead to guilt and feelings of failure.
But perhaps you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Our bodies have long evolved to cope with periods of famine and starvation and your fat cells are stores against exactly these times. The modern human body can’t tell that you are following the latest trend in dieting – as far as it is concerned another famine has come along and it must slow down, conserve energy and replenish the fat as soon as possible. So very restrictive diets are well known for leading to weight regain.
If you have a secure home and job and good health, then it is very easy and quite right to say that others have things worse. But none the less it is still a difficult time and we can only really cope with so many stresses in our lives at once, and it may not be the right time to add the stress of severe calorie restriction into the mix. Being well-nourished and fit helps our bodies to fight any infection we might get but taking it to extreme with too few calories and hard exercise is also more likely to make our immune system less effective.
Food is also one of life’s great joys. It’s something we enjoy and share with others around us (even if it may have been by Zoom for many this Christmas). Taking time over preparing a meal and sitting down to eat it can take our mind off sad things for a while. Comfort eating has got a bad rep, but there really are worse ways of dealing with stress and sadness than eating something we enjoy.
So now might just be the year to be kind to ourselves and think again about what might be helpful and what might be doing more harm than good.
Perhaps a very strict diet with lots of rules and good and bad foods isn’t the best idea. But that doesn’t mean making no changes at all. Rather than concentrating on cutting things out, maybe plan for what you can add to the diet to make it healthier. Easy wins like preparing a favourite meal from scratch using a recipe, or perhaps just adding extra vegetables to a meal. With everyone wanting to cut down visits to the supermarket, planning meals in advance makes more sense.
More about healthy changes to the meals you enjoy in my blog on the Mediterranean diet.
While taking up a vigorous exercise plan might be adding extra stress to the day, there’s no doubt that getting outside and moving can help with both physical and mental health. No need to rush about – you will get fitter and be able to do more even working at a gentle pace. If you want to invest in a new you in the January sales good quality, warm waterproofs will help make more days suitable for exercise. I believe it was Sir Ranalph Fiennes that said, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”.
We’ve all seen the memes about dry January ending with the third lockdown. But January doesn’t need to be completely dry, maybe just drinking more moderately if the amounts have been creeping up recently. The same could be said for screen time – doom scrolling is rarely good for the mental health, but social media is the best way to keep in touch with our friends at the moment, so there’s little point in berating yourself for time online doing that.
Learning about Mindfulness and meditation can be hugely helpful for some, and I would recommend the Headspace app or the book Mindfulness by Prof Mark Williams. But it does take a little time and perseverance to learn and might not be the best idea if you live in a busy, loud household. So, you might find reading a good book or even a Netflix box set is a better way to take your mind off things for now,
So, concentrate on simple things that you can include in your life, rather than concentrating on cutting out the “bad” stuff. And don’t be too hard on yourself, perhaps now isn’t the best time to worry too much about using half a packet of biscuits to deal with a difficult day.
And if you want to learn a bit more about a kinder way to look after yourself maybe find out a bit more about Intuitive Eating or Health at Any Size. If you'd like to get a bit more support from a qualified dietitian find out about what I can offer here.