Today is No Diet Day, and I remember the first time my Binge Eating Disorder therapist suggested that I stop trying to diet. I stared at her, uncomprehending. It didn’t even make sense to my brain…NOT diet? Did people even live this way? It was only a few short weeks earlier that I had stumbled onto Dr. Christopher Fairburn’s book “Overcoming Binge Eating” and working through the checklist, I was shocked to discover that, yes, I did have disordered eating. My hands started shaking as the impact of this realization washed over me.
I wasn’t just lazy?
I didn’t have a defective personality?
I wasn’t lacking control and a strong will?
I was in my early 30s, recently divorced, and spending most of my non-working hours physically hiding out in my apartment protecting myself from the emotional and monetary ravages of lawyer meetings and legal bills as my ex worked through his own emotional turmoil by dragging us through the family law process.
The town where I lived had a well-stocked used DVD store, and bought season after season of shows…Deadwood, Rome, Battlestar Galactica, Sex and the City, Friends, Arrested Development, Sons of Anarchy, Gilmore Girls, House, Castle, and on and on. I watched great tv and ate lots of food.
I felt horrible about myself and my body, but I didn’t know how else to make it through this sticky swamp my personal life had become. I really wish I remembered how I came across Fairburn’s book, but it felt like the Universe giving me a compassionate break from the self-torture I was engaged in.
Learning that my struggle wasn’t about me being good in some areas of my life and sucking in others, or that there was something really f*cked up about me, or that I was just a hopeless case, liberated me and gave me enough momentum to ask for help (something I’m not great at doing!). My workplace had an program that paid for 6 therapy sessions, and I was matched with an eating disorder therapist who was now sitting across from me, challenging me to stop dieting.
Dieting has been part of my life for as long as I could remember. When I was 11 years old, I would steal money out of my mom’s wallet, sneak a visit to the convenience store, buy chips and chocolate bars, and eat them in secret. And then I would “diet”. In my 20s, I did ALL of the diet programs from Atkins, to Chromium Picolinate pills, to Dr. Bernstein’s, to Weight Watchers. I even thought about taking up smoking to loose weight because my cousin had done that and said it worked. There was also my friend in university who ate a sandwich and felt so horrible about her body right after, that she went into the bathroom and made herself throw up, which popped a bunch of blood vessels in her eyes. There was also another friend whose boyfriend said he wasn’t finding her as attractive as he used to because she’d gained a few pounds.
How could I NOT diet? Dieting is how we take control of our bodies, keep them tiny, and earn handsome husbands, healthy kids, and lead wealthy, happy lives. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s what we’re told by diet culture.
So, why wasn’t it working for me?
The more I developed a critical awareness of how our world is constructed and how much of what we do and think is influenced by media, advertising, and patriarchal world culture, I began to see that I wasn’t making decisions based on what I valued. There were many parts of my life impacted by gaining this awareness, but none more than how I feel about my body and my relationship to food. I knew that to save myself from spending a life living from binge to binge, I would have to acculturate myself to a new paradigm, one that blatantly defied diet culture and popular media. I agreed to accept my therapist’s challenge and stop dieting, even though it felt like the most radical mental shift I would ever undertake. And it has been.
Here’s what I did to stop dieting:
I started by decreasing the number of times I weighed myself until in about a month, I stopped completely. When I weighed myself, if I was up a few pounds, I’d proceed to starve myself all day, which would lead to a binge at night when my body chemistry rebelled against my will. Biology always won. When I weighed myself, if I was down a few pounds, I would feel great and then eat because I could, often over-eating which led to starving myself which led to binging again. And the cycle went around and around and around. When I stopped stepping on the scale each morning, I didn’t know if I was up or down a few pounds, therefore there was no need for me to be triggered into binging or starving. Instead, I would eat a wholesome breakfast, pack a lunch, and head off to work.
I let go of doing food math all day, which allowed me to focus on checking in with myself to see what my body actually wanted to eat. From calories, to carbs, to points, I’m fluent in multiple diet languages, and my brain was busy calculating and tabulating all day. Training myself to unlearn these diet languages took some time, but it’s given me great relief. I can now simply choose to eat something because it appeals to me. I never knew eating could be like that!!!
I buy varieties of foods, even the “bad” kinds. Neuroscientists have proven that whenever we feel scarcity or lack, we’re wired to act in a way that alleviates the suffering that scarcity brings. With food, scarcity puts us into a tunnel-vision mindset and all we can think about is food. Food scarcity triggers a brain-based biological imperative to eat everything indiscriminately so that the hunger will stop and our suffering will end. When that happens, our brain feels happy because it’s achieved its mission. So, by having all different types of foods at home, from chips & popcorn, to perogies, to fruit & veggies, to chicken and fish, to chocolate, my brain never gets triggered into scarcity because one look in my cupboards and fridge assure my brain that there’s food available. This one was really, really hard for me because I’m so used to never allowing certain foods in my home because I didn’t trust myself. As I’ve begun eating more intuitively and trusting myself around food, I’ve been surprised to find that chocolate will last on my counter for days. (Also, enough with good vs. bad foods! I don’t think in those terms anymore.)
If I want something, I have it…pizza, pad thai, sushi, french fries. This is my favourite tool! As I describe above, scarcity puts us into I-must-eat-all-the-things mode, so to let go of that, when I have a craving for something, I eat it. When I first started doing this, I was super stressed out that it would be one binge after another, and in the beginning, that’s what happened a few times because I was still in scarcity mindset. But, in a few short weeks, that urge to binge got really quiet. When I ate what I really wanted, I was fully satisfied, and I naturally ate less. My body, so pleased to finally have a voice, started letting me know what it felt like eating, and it usually wants wholesome, crunchy, yummy foods. (Sidebar- when I started eating intuitively, my bloodwork went from high levels of all the bad indicators, like triglycerides and cholesterol, to totally normal ranges. The body knows how to take care of itself. Trust yours.)
I stopped participating in “friendly food talk”. This was the most emotionally challenging task because I began to realize that we talk about food all. the. time. Brunch with girlfriends and someone always remarks that she’s going to have the waffles because she earned them by going to yoga that morning. That comment leads to another friend sharing that she’s on a cleanse so is going to just have an egg-white omelette and greens. And then another friend will say that she’s going to order the eggs benedict and be bad today because it’s her cheat day. As a plus-size women sitting with these women, I felt like I could never win. If I ordered the “bad” breakfast, then I was obviously proving that’s how I got to be fat. If I ordered the “good” breakfast, then inevitably someone would ask if I was on a diet and how was it working. In both scenarios, I would feel shame and embarrassment and not be able to enjoy my food, and likely do McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home. Instead, I now call that $hit out and set dining table boundaries. There is no more good/bad food talk in my presence, and I have had several uncomfortable conversations with loved ones about what’s acceptable conversation and what’s not. And if someone disagrees with me, great! Let’s have a lively and respectful debate about diet culture. That’s great brunch conversation!
Also check out Amanda Scriver’s article, Stopping Stigma: Putting an End to Size Discrimination, in celebration of No Diet Day and the impact of size discrimination in our culture (and I’m quoted in it, heehee).