Let’s Not Forget Mental Health When We’re Talking About Dieting

Should we be forced to sacrifice our mental health for physical?

I can’t get through a day without hearing someone talking about a diet.

My coworker is on a ‘cleanse’, so she can’t eat any solid food for 10 days, and after that she’s going to be cutting out all sugar from her diet. There are less extreme examples: the friend talking about how they cut out red meat because they’re trying to improve their digestion, a family member counting calories at the table to figure out how many miles they’ll need to jog the next day if they eat dessert – you can’t even go grocery shopping without being bombarded with health magazines that can’t wait to tell you about the latest weird trick to help you ‘trim belly fat’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with dieting. There’s a lot of problematic behavior etched into the edges of it, though. It has us focused on numbers like BMI and the weight on the scale, when ultimately these things tell us next to nothing about our health. It focuses heavily on women and does its level best – often successfully – to make us feel like failures for not fitting into a very specific kind of body. And in addition to all of that, when we’re talking about overall health, we consistently forget to factor in a piece of the puzzle that’s every bit as crucial: mental health.

We all understand the concept of doing what we can to improve our level of healthiness. No sane person would expect someone who’s new to jogging to start out on a tough five-mile mountain path – you begin small. You make allowances for breaks, for learning how to stretch. You understand that you can’t dive into your long term goals right away. Hell, you even understand that not everyone has the same goals. “You don’t have to run up a mountain,” a fitness trainer once told me, “just get out the door.”

Given how easy it is for us to wrap our minds around this concept, why is it so hard to understand that we may need to sacrifice some physical health aspects in the name of mental health?

I’m something of a perfectionist. Which isn’t to say that I do everything perfectly, but it does mean that if I don’t do something perfectly, I can slip into a place where I don’t see any value in putting any sort of effort into it whatsoever. Back when I hated my body and was determined to take on every fad diet I could in an effort to abuse it into what I thought was its proper shape, I would start off great. I’d log my food, note my initial measurements, go on long walks, or hit up the gym. But something would inevitably happen. I’d eat something I shouldn’t have, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be doing that anymore. I’d skip the gym because I was too tired. Then I’d stop logging altogether. And stop going to the gym at all. I’d failed, and therefore the entire attempt was a failure. I was a failure.

This is what depression does to my mind. Counting calories, measuring myself by what I’ve eaten, watching the scale – these are all things that are absolutely detrimental to my mental health. So should I be forced to sacrifice my mental health for my physical? Which is more important? Is living longer worth it if I hate myself the whole time?

Spoiler: it isn’t.

I’m the only person who gets to decide what my health priorities are. I get to decide if I want to train to jog mountains or if I’m too stressed out and need to take that extra time to look after my mental wellbeing. And I encourage you to treat your body with the same respect, to remember that it’s about more than weight and muscle mass and calories. Your brain’s up there too, and it’s just as vital as every other organ in your body. More so, even. So the next time you set health goals, remember to include your mind.

Images via tumblr.com.

Comment: How has dieting affected your mental health?