Become familiar with the stages of (dieting) grief

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the 5 stages of grief as consisting of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though there is no one way to grieve – and many have critiqued this description of the grieving process as oversimplified – having specific milestones to look for can help orient us to a painful process of change.

Three weeks into the New Year, I imagine many people are experiencing their own stages of grief related to dieting. Know that these stages are not linear; similar to the principles of Intuitive Eating, we can find ourselves in more than one stage at the same time and we can move back and forth between the stages throughout our lives. With that in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on the stages of grief as they relate to dieting to help you “locate yourself” in your own process.

Denial: Many of us spend a significant amount of time here. Despite the evidence that dieting doesn’t work – that it leads to long-term weight gain and is harmful to everyone in the process – many of us remain in denial of these truths. This is not shocking given all the conflicting messages, images, and pushy pseudo-scientific marketing ploys hurled our way. Many of us feel very tense and torn during this phase.

Anger: One of my favorite parts of Intuitive Eating is how it encourages us to get angry at the lies, to scream and thrash against the persistence of fraudulent and sneaky diets-claiming-not-to-be-diets. Anger can feel good and strong in response to feeling wronged. But beneath anger we can often find softer emotions that we only feel ready to experience a bit later. The anger we feel may not be focused in the right direction – ie, at diets and the diet culture. Instead we might direct our anger at our bodies or at the people telling us that dieting doesn’t work. This is normal and understandable, but feels very uncomfortable. In this stage we are feeling the big squeeze between our hopes and our fears.

Bargaining: Sometimes we continue to fight with reality. “I’ll just go on one more diet to lose the weight and then I’ll do Intuitive Eating” or “I’ll listen to my body but I’ll remain vigilant by turning Intuitive Eating into a diet.” Bargaining is the manifestation of how difficult it is to let go of dieting. We think there must be a way to let go of dieting but not let go of the hope for weight loss.

Depression: Finally letting go is a huge loss and in this stage we feel it. Many of us are not terribly comfortable with this level of discomfort and so rather than staying with it, we drop into depression. This is where you might experience “F*ck it eating” and feelings of “why bother?” But this might also be where you start to experiment with finding a middle way. Some revisions of the stages of grief have inserted another stage here called “Testing,” which may be when we start to listen to our bodies more, question our beliefs and rules, play with the idea of shifting our allegiance from external cues to internal ones.

Acceptance: As we move into acceptance, some of the tension and resistance around us drops and we can see through new eyes. This is not to say that acceptance is easy. Change is hard work, but so is moving through all the stages that got you here, and you should acknowledge that.

Where the stages of grief drop off, the stages of Intuitive Eating pick up – these can be found toward the beginning of the Intuitive Eating book and I highly recommend becoming familiar with them. Wherever you are in the process, know you are not alone, that this is a path that will continue to unfold as you work with your mind and body and heart.


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