What do you think of when you think of self-care? Probably a relaxing bubble bath, meal prep, or some other soothing ritual to help bolster your body and mind. At its core, self-care is about taking steps to preserve your holistic health — “holistic” meaning having given consideration to a person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
But lately, discussions of self-care have focused entirely on the physical. As a result, the pressure to diet and lose weight has stepped in and stripped self-care of some of its integrity. What may have begun as a well-intentioned push to get people to take care of themselves has turned on itself; in some ways, it has started to interfere with our ability to take care of ourselves at all.
Allow me to explain.
Lifestyle-focused websites have started publishing articles about why forms of self-care I thought we all agreed on (resting, treating yourself to a cookie, etc.) are actually huge problems. Greatist’s opinion essay “The Easy Way That Self-Care Can Backfire,” for instance. Or The Seattle Times’ “When ‘treat yourself’ goes too far: 6 self-care mistakes you might be making.”
Both articles — and many others like them — seem to have the same message: Yeah, taking a break and eating pizza is OK every once in a while… but don’t overdo it! Self-care needs limits!
And the scariest consequence of self-care taken “too far”? People might get fat. Never mind all the mental and emotional benefits that may come from these self-care choices — if you gain weight, it’s a no go.
When I read these pieces, I’m disappointed. There seems to be a huge misunderstanding about a) what self-care even is and b) the actual consequences of “treating yourself.”
Let’s start with a) what self-care even is. There’s a fear that if you let yourself indulge all the time, you’re going to go off the rails and consume every dessert and cocktail in sight. But that wouldn’t be self-caring, either. If you’ve ever tried eating nothing but pizza and chocolate for an indefinite period of time, you know: It does not feel good.
“Self-care is about listening to your body and caring for yourself in mind, body, and spirit,” Dr. Kelsey Latimer, licensed psychologist and assistant director of operations for outpatient programs at the Center for Discovery, explained. “If we are truly taking care of ourselves, this does not equate to going rogue with overeating.”
Not because overeating is wrong — but because you genuinely wouldn’t want to.
Sometimes, this kind of eating can serve as a way to tolerate and process difficult emotions. You probably know this coping mechanism as “emotional eating.” In that case, it’s probably self-care. And as coping mechanisms go, it’s probably less harmful than some other ways people try to cope (like, I don’t know, binge drinking, doing hard drugs, or wrecking your close relationships). Like, all you’re doing is eating some chocolate. Low-risk situation.
But in most cases, where you’re just treating yourself because it feels good or because chocolate tastes nice, there is a point at which these foods no longer feel like a treat. Your body will let you know that it’s done with that food for the time being.
The craving will go away naturally — until, unfortunately, you introduce a limit on certain foods. Which brings me to the second misunderstanding.
People don’t seem to understand b) the actual consequences of “treating yourself.” Namely, that there are none, unless you have a medical condition that makes certain foods harmful.
Once you put a limit on a food, your brain picks up on the scarcity (cutting out sugar, for example, or eating no more than X calories per day) and starts to crave that food even more.
“Removing foods from our diet makes it far more likely that we will overconsume these items when we finally ‘give in to the temptation,’” Latimer explains.
Why? Because your body is smart. It prepares for the future. If your diet starts tomorrow, you can bet your body is egging you on to eat everything in sight today.
So your “self-caring” decision to limit yourself to a certain amount of food, number of desserts, or whatever else could actually backfire. Imposing such limitations essentially amounts to dieting, which has some serious negative effects from a self-care perspective.
“There are always exceptions in the areas of medical need,” Latimer told The Active Times, “but otherwise ‘diets’ are not only not self-caring, but they also do not work.”
In fact, diets of any and all kinds have shown a 97 percent failure rate across the board and can be inherently harmful — not only to your physical health, but to your mental and emotional health, too.
“Weight loss only tends to occur in year one of a diet, but then most (if not all) weight is gained back by year eight,” Latimer explained, “in many cases slowing down metabolism and creating a higher starting weight.”
But take away the limits, and your natural cravings and hunger cues fall into place. Voila.
Self-care, in its purest form, involves living by those natural cues — the physical, mental, and emotional ones. Once you introduce this fear of weight gain and impose a limit where you’re “overdoing it,” self-care becomes so much harder. You’ve interrupted the signals that tell you what you actually need. You no longer have as much information. You also don’t have as much power to do what would actually work to preserve your physical, emotional, and mental health.
These articles are instilling a fear that self-care needs to be limited, that it can go “too far.” And that actually takes away people’s abilities to care for themselves. They’re introducing a new diet. They’re disrupting people’s natural instincts out of a fear of weight gain. And that, in my opinion, really, really sucks.
Holly Van Hare is the Healthy Eating Editor at The Daily Meal. Her interests include petting other people's dogs, wellness, and reading good books. You can listen to her podcast Nut Butter Radio and follow her Instagram for more!