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I “Failed” My Diet, Here’s How My Experience May Be Able to Help You

Trigger warning: disordered eating, weight loss

Start of the “fail”

It was a bright and breezy Saturday at the start of the semester. Normally I’d be out and about, meeting friends or running errands. But today wasn’t a normal day. I lay in bed, weary and light-headed, scrolling through food delivery apps on my phone. Grab, Foodpanda, Deliveroo, then back to Grab… my eyes dwelled on every picture of food and every line of description; all the cells in my body seemed to be screaming, “Eat!” 

Between browsing the restaurants, I’d switch to a calorie counting app and key in the food item I wanted to eat. The system then deducted it from my “Calories Remaining” for the day. For months, this had been a crucial ritual for me, as I was on a diet to lose weight. The tallying of calories took more than an hour, and after eating, I went back to bed to look at more pictures of food. When nighttime came, I realised I’d spent the entire day thinking about food, counting calories, eating, and thinking about food again. I didn’t do anything else. 

Before this, I’d never gone on a serious diet. Having heard some comments that I gained weight, and also having been routinely exposed to a social media feed full of gorgeous, thin women, I started to experiment with some “clean eating” habits, such as cutting out sugary drinks and high-fat foods. Then, seeing that my weight wasn’t decreasing fast enough, I downloaded an app to help me track and restrict calorie intake. After a few months, I became increasingly restrictive with what I ate, measuring things to the exact gram, and avoiding more and more foods altogether because they were just too high in calories to fit in my diet. 

Much to my dismay, though, my hunger was rapidly growing at the same time. I was perpetually hungry and soon developed an obsession with food. Increasingly, I found myself losing control over how much I ate. Whenever I exceeded my desired calorie intake, I would feel extremely upset and guilty, and try to compensate by eating even less the next day. Of course, this only led to even more hunger and even more days of “exceeding calories”.

All these eventually culminated in that Saturday, when I realised that I could do almost nothing besides eating and counting calories. Dieting was, in fact, preventing me from living a normal life. Not only did I feel physically weak from the lack of food, but I was also mentally exhausted from trying to control my overwhelming hunger, with little energy left to study or socialise. I was constantly irritable and on edge. My intuition as a Psychology student kicked in: this lifestyle couldn’t be right. 

I thought to myself, “I don’t want to do this anymore; I’m going to fail my diet.”

How to “fail” successfully

If I just started eating like I used to, everything would be okay again… right?

The short answer is: wrong. 

After months of heavy restriction, I was both physically and psychologically unprepared to return to the way I was originally eating. In other words, I was simply too hungry. As soon as I started eating, I just couldn’t stop – be it extremely sweet or fatty food that I’d been deprived of, or food I didn’t even like that much, I devoured them without a second thought. There was a huge gap between my physical hunger and psychological hunger: even when my stomach was full, my mind craved more. I found myself often eating to discomfort, and for a good while, this unusual hunger didn’t show any sign of stopping. My weight began to increase quickly, and I started seriously doubting myself: should I trust this unusual and unceasing hunger?

Fortunately, I came across some online resources like fitness YouTubers Natacha Océane and Stephanie Buttermore, who promote a sustainable, scientific approach to fitness, including non-restrictive eating. Stephanie, in particular, had experienced extreme hunger for years while trying to build a “shredded” physique. In 2019, she decided to embark on an “all in” journey, allowing herself to eat whatever she wanted, which successfully resolved the extreme hunger and fixed her relationship with food. Backed by research and expert opinions, these videos explained how the body has evolved to respond to a lack of food, and hence why a restrictive diet would fail.

I also started following some anti-diet-culture accounts on social media, such as @diet.culture.rebel and @jennifer_rollin on Instagram, run by registered professionals who challenge toxic ideas about eating that have been popularised by diet culture and advocate for food freedom. Their posts explore the causes and consequences of disordered eating behaviour. When we try to control the body, what are we really trying to control? What are we missing out on in life when we’re preoccupied with eating less? Why do we think that a thinner body means a better life?

I shared these experiences and thoughts with my family and friends. To my surprise, disordered eating as a result of dieting was not uncommon among my peers. Neither was I alone in my struggles with weight and body image. With a renewed understanding of the issues about diets, and with the support of people around me, I decided that to successfully “fail” my diet, I must let go of any urge to control or change my hunger and my body.

Mission accomplished

Uncomfortable as it was, I embraced this new, hungrier version of myself, and trusted that the body knows what to do. For several weeks, I let myself eat as much as I needed to. Slowly, I started to see improvements in my life. 

Removing the restriction and knowing that I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, helped reduce my compulsion to eat huge amounts of food in one go. As I ate more, I noticed my cravings wearing off. My psychological hunger became increasingly attuned with my physical hunger, and sometimes I naturally stopped eating because I felt satiated, not because I was overly full — which I’d almost thought to be impossible. As my weight steadily returned to where it had been, so did my hunger cues. 

More importantly, normalcy was being restored in other much-neglected areas of my life. Shifting the focus away from food freed up so much time and energy for the more important aspects of my life, such as my aspirations and quality time with loved ones. Studying was so much easier because I was fuelled enough to focus. Going out with friends no longer posed a problem, because I wasn’t spending hours looking up restaurant menus to count calories, or starving myself the entire day just for dinner. When someone offered me homemade food, I could enjoy it wholeheartedly, instead of worrying that it didn’t have a nutrition facts label.

Now, as I sit here writing this article, munching on a doughnut, I feel so glad that I “failed” my diet. Allowing myself to overeat helped allay my fear of calories, and gaining weight didn’t change my value as a person. Moreover, I developed a new appreciation for my body, for its remarkable ability to adapt to change and maintain my health. 

Perhaps, then, this wasn’t a diet that failed, but a mission accomplished. 

To diet or not to diet

While my experience with dieting wasn’t all that pleasant, I know that consciously choosing to eat balanced meals can help people improve their quality of life. Individual experiences of dieting can be very different, and mine is just one of many. Instagram accounts like @lukehannanutrition and @the_fitness_dietitian provide useful and credible information on how to eat healthy in a moderate, sustainable way (they’re also on TikTok). You can make simple yet effective dietary changes to enhance your lifestyle, without having to go on diets.

More importantly, though, I encourage you to reflect on the ways you might be thinking about food and the body. Do you see some foods as inherently “bad” (like sugar) and others as inherently “good”? Do you believe that you only “deserve” to eat if you exercise? Do you compare yourself to certain body types portrayed in the media? Do you feel that all bodies should look a certain way, despite genetic differences? The diet industry often relates itself to health, but at which point do “healthy behaviours” become unhealthy? 

These are big questions that require big solutions in terms of our advertising, our education about food and even our culture. But let’s start small; hopefully, by reading about my failed diet, you’re now in a better position to make good decisions about your own food.

Ruijia Huang

Nanyang Tech '23

A Psychology & Linguistics undergraduate who is a little obsessed with lifting and Chinese food.