Controlling your Diet ≠ Controlling your Life

A physician administers leeches to a patient.
Sometimes dieting is about more than just wanting to lose weight. When I first joined in 1994, my mother was dying, I was unemployed, and I felt like I my life had no direction. I may have been unhappy about my weight, but this had not been a problem for me in earlier, happier times. No, it was life itself that was getting me down.

Suddenly, though, I found a great deal of comfort in controlling what I ate and talking about it weekly with a group of (mostly) ladies that were trying to do the same thing. I loved the feeling of doing something that yielded such immediate results, so different from all my other problems. So even as my life felt like it was tumbling out of control, dieting and those meetings were my personal eye of the storm. It came to seem that by solving my fat problem, I was solving my life problems! But like an actual eye of the storm, it continued to move, bringing the storm with it. My mother passed away, I struggled with depression and making ends meet was always a challenge. But dammit, at least I was thin.

When I decided, eight years later, to lose “those last 10 pounds” – to finally get that “ideal” body I had dreamed of – a lot was going on in my life once again. I’d moved to a new country and was missing my life back home, I was in a relationship that wasn’t working, and I was starting out in yet another job that I didn’t love. As before, instead of acknowledging and facing these problems, my knee-jerk reaction was instead to change my body. My BMI was 23 and I was by society’s standards “normal sized,” but somehow my life would be better if I could just be thinner.

I don’t think I am the first person that thought that if I could just perfect my body, then my life would be perfect. Dieting has become the go-to fix-it tool that we use to deal with our problems, because society tells us right now that obtaining total control over our bodies and our health is the most important thing we can do to have a good life. But that is just plain misguided. I lost that 10 pounds – slowly, painfully, unhealthily – but my problems didn’t go away until I finally acknowledged their existence and decided to solve them. And dieting created a whole other set of problems: hunger, body dissatisfaction, food preoccupation, and eventually, a lot of weight gain.

I see this use of dieting as a way to solve our problems sort of the way medicine once used leeches to treat headaches or ear infections – it’s just the wrong cure for the ailment.

There are still the occasional days when I don’t feel great about the way I look, but now I stop and ask myself why – what kind of a day did I have, what were the frustrations I faced, and what is it I’m really worried about? Usually I find that I’m using my feelings about my appearance as a stand-in for my actual feelings about what’s happening in my life. I make sure to work on the real problems, give myself a big break and treat myself well.

The diet industry takes advantage of this. They know they sell a product that doesn’t work 95% of the time, and they show us the sad before and happy after pictures, peddling happiness in the guise of weight loss. Don’t buy it – try to find out what it is you really want or need and then find out what it will take to get you there.

But What if I Get Fat?

Big_Fat_Red_CatI think a question people contemplating giving up dieting might ask is, “But what if I get fat?” I think it’s a good question and it doesn’t really get talked about enough in the intuitive eating world, in my opinion.

I first heard about HAES® while sitting in my introductory nutrition class in college, given by the woman herself, Dr. Linda Bacon, size acceptance activist and author of the book Health at Every Size®. She really turned my head with her talk of not-dieting and fat acceptance. It took a few months before I was fully able to digest (pun intended) all that she was saying. When I did finally take it all in and decide to give up dieting myself, I didn’t think about whether I would get fat again. I was so hungry and tired of dieting while continuing to be dissatisfied with my body that I just couldn’t bear to do it anymore. Naively, I thought I had taken care of my “fat” problem years ago when I first began dieting and then, against all odds, maintained a lower weight for 8 years before my dieting got really crazy.

Had I asked myself that question at the time – but what if I get fat? – I’m not sure what the answer would have been. I was definitely not in a fat acceptance headspace for myself at that moment. For others? Sure! For me…uh….no. All I knew is that my dieting and the quality of life it gave me was not sustainable or enjoyable and almost anything would be better, including whatever consequences of not-dieting might be.

And so yes, after a number of years of not-dieting, I did get fat again. It seemed inconceivable that just eating in a slightly more relaxed way – the way I ate throughout most of my 20s! – would cause my weight to suddenly and dramatically go up, and yet up it went. Every year was another 10 pounds gained until I arrived at my original pre-any-diet weight last year. My body now maintains that weight – at least for now – without me thinking much about it.

Why on earth, one might ask, would anyone give up dieting if they are “successfully” maintaining a lower body weight? Good question. Well, that person might feel the way I did – that dieting had taken over their lives and they are no longer fully themselves. Or they might be sick of fighting constant food cravings. Or being hungry all the time. Or fearing food. Or someone might have an eating disorder that is threatening their lives. Everyone is different and I respect any and all reasons to give up dieting – or to keep it up if that’s what feels right.

But for those wanting to say goodbye to dieting, what can you expect if you give up dieting? If you were originally a heavier person and you’ve been maintaining a lower weight than your natural body weight…yes, you might gain weight once you start to eat more intuitively. If you’ve been suppressing your natural hunger cues for a long time, you’ve sent your body a message: there is not enough food available in your environment. Your body responds by becoming very efficient at storing energy – i.e., hanging onto fat. This is also why dieting often yields fast weight loss results initially, but then slow down and eventually stop (and then reverse) the longer the diet continues. It’s just your body trying to save your life in a perceived famine.

If you’re one of those folks who gains weight, you’ll likely have some self-acceptance homework to do. I’ve talked recently about how this isn’t easy, but totally worth it. While you might have heard a lot of kudos for your weight loss – the ubiquitous “You look great, did you lose weight?” – unfortunately, the way society currently operates, you won’t hear the opposite: “Omigod, you look amazing, did you gain weight??” On one hand, this kind of sucks! On the other, you realize quickly that relying on the opinions of others for your self-esteem is a no-win game.

Sometimes the only critic you have to contend with is the person looking back at you in the mirror. That can be even harder to deal with than facing the opinions of others. For me, learning to accept my body started with first being able to see the beauty of other fat bodies. I poured over fat fashion blogs in awe – these women look fantastic, why did I see fat as ugly for so long?? I stopped seeing weight as a measure of my self-worth. I also decided to focus on what my body could do for me rather than what it looked like. I am lucky to be able to walk long distances, use a hula hoop, swim, lift weights, ride a bike and dance in my living room, so I focused on celebrating that instead of what shape my body was. I focused on my behaviors – eating healthfully (and enjoyably) and engaging in movement I loved. Working at appreciating my body was a worthy endeavor that eventually paid off – I’m much more at peace now with myself than I ever was on a diet.

In the end, there are many worse things than gaining weight and getting fat. For me, life on a diet was worse. I know this because I was willing to give it up without even thinking about the possible consequences. Eventually I was able to trust in the wisdom of my body to take me and my weight where it needed to go. Then I just needed to take my mind there with it.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Ditching Dieting

L: Hungry.......R: Happy.
L: Hungry…….R: Happy.

There are many good things that can happen when you ditch dieting and embrace Health at Every Size® and intuitive eating. You will start to feel more relaxed around food. You will have more time to do cool things once you no longer obsess about food 24/7. You will no longer endure intense hunger for hours at a time, distracting yourself with “food” that is akin to gravel. Your body will find its way to the weight that is right for it without your constant vigilance. You might find your palate opening up to new foods you previously avoided. You will likely enjoy the feeling of being kind to yourself instead of punishing yourself with food.

But I’m not gonna lie: there are some things that you might miss about dieting. At least at first.

The diet-life thing that you may find the hardest to give up is The Fantasy of Being Thin (FOBT) which I first read about on Kate Harding’s wonderful fat-acceptance blog, Shapely Prose. As dieters, we pin our hopes for happiness and acceptance (others’ and self) on our future thin selves, the selves that will finally feel confident enough to wear a two-piece bathing suit at the beach (or even just in the fitting room); the selves that will rock skinny jeans without the desire to also wear a butt-and-gut-covering tunic. As Ms. Harding explains so accurately, it’s not just the idea of thinness we are giving up, it is the hope of becoming a whole different person that we fear losing. If we give up the FOBT, we face accepting something we have spent possibly years rejecting: our bodies—and our very selves—as they are now.

I can tell you that this self-acceptance business is no easy task. After quitting dieting, my body changed constantly for four years. Just as I was set to accept my body-as-it-is-now, it changed. And then changed again! Even if your body doesn’t change an inch, it will still be hard to say goodbye to Fantasy Self after having invested in it for so long. Learning to fight all the negative body-image messages we are exposed to each day and play a new mental recording takes time and practice and it’s not going to be easy. Of course, just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing or not possible. And just because you love your body one day doesn’t mean you won’t backslide and lament it the next. But the reality is, when I was thin and supposedly living the dream, I had just as many and more of those self-hating days. It didn’t matter how much weight I lost, my body was never going to be right. I finally figured that if I was going to feel like that, I might as well not be hungry doing it.

On the plus side, once I started accepting myself and my body as they were, wonderful things started to happen. I became my real self again. People are much more relaxed around me now, and I around them. No one rejected me (and even if they had, ew. Who needs that person around?). I smile more and people smile back. I took charge of my career. These are not things that happened when I was struggling in a body that wasn’t me, trying to be a person I wasn’t. Even if they had happened, I wouldn’t have had the energy or time to notice.

The other thing I missed after dumping the diet was my intense obsession with food. Feeling well-fed is wonderful and stress-free – I no longer spend all day worrying about what I am going to eat next, pining after foods I feel I shouldn’t eat (because now there are no foods I shouldn’t eat), and then overeating on those foods when I get the chance. But imagine my surprise when one day I realized that I might not even be a “foodie,” that I might be someone who merely enjoys many foods, but generally has many other interests besides food. Some days I even get annoyed that I am hungry and need to feed myself, so little is my interest in eating at the moment that I am busy with something else. And I can tell you, that is a little disconcerting!

Early on, I based my decision to become a dietitian on the fact that I was “obsessed” with food. Learning that in fact I was not food-obsessed, and merely starving, required me to find other reasons to continue on with the profession of dietetics (turns out there are much-needed voices in the non-diet arena, and I ran with that). I still get hungry – after all, that’s my cue to eat – and I still really enjoy many foods, but that’s about the extent of it. Sometimes I miss thinking of myself as a foodie, but just a little.

Consider this post my full-disclosure: breaking up with dieting can be daunting. Really, though, I could only think of these two things that represented the immediate downside of ditching the diet life. I listed a whole bunch of things, and not even everything, that I think are wonderful about not dieting, tipping the scale, for me, forever in that direction.

Of Mice and Men and Diets

Black_6_mouse_eatingAn article about a recent study popped into my inbox last week. The article describing the study called it the Feast-and-Famine diet.

For a while now, researchers have been able to show an association between fasting in mice and extended lifespan and improvement in age-related diseases. And not just in mice, but in many other species whose lifespans are generally short enough for us to study from beginning to end. Yup, I’ll say it again – calorie restriction seems to extend life in many species. Researchers are now starting to study whether the same is true for humans.

But since even researchers admit that daily fasting isn’t sustainable for most people, intermittent fasting – severe calorie restriction every other day in this case – is being looked at as a viable option to produce the effects of daily fasting. In the study I referenced above, researchers at the University of Florida recruited 24 participants to eat 25% of their caloric needs one day and then 175% of their needs on alternating days for six weeks. After six weeks on the diet (three weeks without antioxidant supplementation and three weeks with), researchers found a “marginal” (their lingo) increase in “SIRT 3, a well-known gene that promotes longevity and is involved in protective cell responses.” They also found a slight a decrease in plasma insulin levels (none of the participants had diabetes). The researchers also determined that, after only six weeks, the “intermittent fasting dieting paradigm is acceptable in healthy individuals.” It’s not clear what criteria they used to determine acceptability.

Never mind that six weeks is a ridiculously short time to determine whether a diet will have long-term adverse effects, is sustainable for most people, or that a small increase in a gene that is associated with longevity will actually produce longevity or to what degree…never mind all that. Let’s say it all works and maybe you’ll live a few years longer.

Now you’ve decided you want to take a gamble on longer life and you’ll take a stab at this diet. So on one day you eat 650 calories, and on the next you eat 4,550 calories. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam. How much of your time, on a daily basis, is now devoted to getting this diet right? Study participants reported that they actually had a harder time meeting the intake requirements on the feast days. What if you’re not hungry on feast day? What if you’re really really hungry on famine day?? And do I get more years in my 20s or 30s? Or just tacked on to the end, in my 70s or 80s?

And now let’s talk about those mice. It’s easy to put them on a fasting diet, because we didn’t ask their opinion about how they wanted to eat and we gave them only what was allowed. But people aren’t mice. We live in a world where we go to work, raise children, drive by McDonald’s, experience joy and stress, share food with loved ones…I don’t want to judge, but I’m pretty sure the daily life of a mouse is not quite as complex as that of a human. I’m willing to bet that if we took those mice out of the cage and let them have at it on the kitchen table after a 9 year-old’s birthday party, very few would choose to fast over hoovering every last cake crumb. I’ve had some up-close-and-personal experiences with free-range mice in my lifetime and they are remorseless in their eating habits. So this isn’t even a sustainable diet for your average house mouse when you think about it.

It’s really too soon to see how all of this calorie restriction is going to play out in humans. We need to study people long enough to:

  1. Get to the end of their lives to see if they actually lived longer or suffered fewer diseases, and
  2. See if more than a tiny of fraction of people are able to live their lives on this diet.

UCSF has already done some research in this area, check it out here. Fun fact: one of my friends was in the control group!

In the meantime, I’ll stick to listening to my internal cues of hunger and satiety to guide my nutrition. Because even if intermittent fasting could give me a longer life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy any of it. I’m sure any mouse would agree.

Your Stomach is not a Bottomless Pit…It Just Feels Like It

By Silar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Enjoy food! This kid’s not worried about her stopping point.
I frequently talk to people about food and eating, sometimes because I am a dietitian, sometimes because we live in a culture that obsesses about food and eating. Often I’ve heard this: “I don’t have a limit when I’m eating. I just won’t stop if I don’t force myself to. ”

To this I say: bunk. It just feels like that.

Everyone has a stopping point*. You might not think so because maybe you, like I did at one point, have stood beside the cheese tray at a cocktail party scarfing ungodly amounts of mediocre cheese cubes fearing you’ll never stop. Maybe you did eventually stop at that “I’m gonna burst!” point and regretted the whole ordeal. And maybe you simply don’t know your stopping point, as I did not, because you are hungry much of the time…so very, very hungry.

Here’s a little secret: dieting and calorie and food restriction create a false impression in your body that you are a bottomless pit. That you are a well that will never be filled, especially when you are confronted by a favorite or particularly delicious (or sometimes even mediocre) food. Maintaining a body weight lower than what is natural for you will also cause your body to constantly crave food, large amounts of it.

On the flip side, honoring your appetite has the opposite effect. Once you begin to eat satisfying amounts of food when you feel hungry and your body weight adjusts toward its natural set point, your bottomless pit starts to find its bottom. As you practice honoring internal cues more often, you may start to find that your stopping point is not, in fact, stuffed but satisfied. You may even find yourself easily leaving food on the plate, or turning down the offer of a homemade brownie if you are simply not hungry for it.

My bottomless-pit acquaintances are incredulous when I suggest that they do have stopping points. They don’t trust their bodies. Some are invested in maintaining a certain external appearance and don’t feel their natural appetite will support their desired size. I sympathize. I was once a bottomless pit too. But I became sick of being ruled by food and by fear of the cheese tray. I became tired of living my life solely to support a certain body size when there were so many other interesting things to do. When I started truly honoring my internal signals of hunger and satisfaction, I no longer had fearsome insatiable cravings. Yes I gained some weight, but I began to lose the fear that had driven my need for a smaller body size; honoring my appetite came from a place of love and, for me, was the truest act of self-care.

If you, too, have become weary of being ruled by food, you can take some baby steps now toward honoring your hunger and eating more intuitively:

  1. Make a delicious meal for yourself. Make sure there is enough of everything for seconds if you want them. Before the meal, give yourself full permission to eat as much as you desire…which may or may not include second helpings. Stop to occasionally check in with your gut – do you feel satisfied? Hungry for more? Be curious, not judgmental, with yourself in this exercise.
  2. Stock one of the foods you are afraid of overeating in your cupboards. Buy enough that you feel confident you won’t run out and then give yourself permission to eat as much of that food whenever you want. People have expressed disbelief to me over this one; they think they will never be able to stop eating that food. Trust me, you might eat a lot at first, but even the best ice cream gets tired very quickly.
  3. Try using the hunger scale to assess your readiness to eat and to explore your satisfaction point. I love this one from Green Mountain at Fox Run. Aim for 3 to start eating and 7 to stop.

Eating what you want and as much as you want may feel scary at first. As your body adjusts, that fear may turn to comfort as you realize you are taking care of yourself and your needs and you no longer have to fear your own bottomless pit.

*Sufferers of Prader-Willi Syndrome excepted.