Dieting Killed My Inner Foodie

Yum.
Yum.

Full disclosure: I was once a foodie. I loved trying new and unusual foods; I looked forward to meals out at fancy restaurants and holes-in-the-wall; I looked for recipes that challenged my burgeoning cooking skills – all while maintaining my love for grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft Singles (because it’s just best that way).

I grew up in a small town without a lot of culinary diversity (although I did first try Tibetan food there thanks to my friend’s enthusiastic siblings screaming “Try the momos! Try the momos!” at me from their booth at our town’s ethnic food festival), so when I moved to the huge Canadian city of Toronto at age 24, one of the first things I set out to do was taste everything.

A friend and I took the ethnic food listings from the local free paper and decided to conquer every cuisine listed. We started with a Moroccan restaurant (“A” for Africa – we were going alphabetically, at least at first). We ate earthy, spiced couscous and tender meat encased in a phyllo pastry crust. I’d never had anything like it. From there we tried food from Bolivia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Peru, Portugal (and we abandoned alphabetical order). We brought friends with us and it was fun.

It wasn’t just ethnic cuisine I tackled; I also tried ostrich steak, boar, lamb, bison and sushi (“Raw fish?? EW!” and then found it immediately and completely addicting. Except for sea urchin. Still ew.) and more fusion combos than you can shake a ladle at. I found out what really amazing pizza tastes like. I was once on a date with a guy who didn’t know what avocado and sun-dried tomatoes were or what they were doing on his plate and I decided then and there it would probably be our last date. I was already in a committed and exciting relationship with food.

At home, I learned to cook fancy(ish) meals using exotic ingredients I could find in the various markets of Toronto: Chinatown, Kensington Market, St. Lawrence Market, Little India. My inner foodie flourished.

I was not dieting very restrictively at this time, despite having lost 30 pounds a few years earlier (perhaps I had just reached the lowest end of my natural weight range, as Traci Mann advocates but I’ll never know) although I do think that my lazy, halfhearted dieting left me hungry enough to crave very rich foods often and fueling my foodieness. It wasn’t until I began severely restricting my calories in the name of bodily perfection that my foodie self came into conflict with my dieting self.

To be thin, I simply could not afford the calories of a truly delicious meal – ever. I couldn’t even afford the calories of a very basic, average meal. By this time I was living in San Francisco, another great food town, but instead of enjoying it, I ate a half PBJ sandwich and fat free canned soup every day for lunch (I would have preferred the French cafe down the street) and hoovered bags of microwave popcorn to keep my stomach from growling. When I did eat out, I would starve myself all week and then binge till I was sick, followed up with a terrible guilt hangover. I don’t remember any of those meals fondly. Ironically, during this time I started telling people how much I lurved food, how obsessed I was by it. That obsession and preoccupation was even why I became a dietitian.

As you know, I eventually quit dieting because it was ruining my life. For a while, I ate everything again. I was in school and funds were limited but I still had fun not constantly worrying about what I was eating. I have since developed acid reflux which has recently limited my experimentation and even enjoyment of food. I know this is partly stress-related and I fully expect some improvement with upcoming life changes. But I’ve also likely inherited my mother’s delicate middle-aged stomach and will probably always have to be cautious around some foods (avoiding too much garlic, too much heat, too much fat or fried).

And part of me thinks I will never be quite that excited about food again because 1. I’ve tasted a LOT of foods, and the novelty of experimentation has worn off over the years and 2. I’m never starving enough to get into a food frenzy. Eating is generally pleasurable for me but I’ve got other things to do, and that’s a bit of a relief.

I still pine a bit for my former inner foodie, though. At the very least, I want to reclaim the joy I once had in cooking. I want to make bagels in my kitchen again because my bagels rock and it’s really fun. While writing this post, I slaved over an amazing pot of chicken posole. This weekend was jambalaya which I haven’t made in years. At the very least, I’m thrilled to be able to eat these foods without any diet anxiety. What I lost through dieting, I will reclaim through liberation.

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.