I’m amazed to say that before a few years ago, I had never heard of the condition Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS for short). A friend in college had first mentioned that she thought she may have it, but couldn’t get a firm diagnosis.
Since then, I’ve met many more women who have PCOS – so many, in fact, that I have a hard time believing the statistic that 1 in 10 women have it. If I had to guess, it’s more than that – but the typically poor attention and research around many complex women’s medical conditions will probably hinder proper diagnosis and of course, appropriate treatment.
PCOS causes hormonal imbalances, can hinder fertility, may be related to unexplained weight gain, and is related to insulin resistance and diabetes. One of the common treatments suggested has been weight loss – and you know how a HAES® dietitian feels about that. Weight loss in absence of any medical condition is already difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to maintain. PCOS makes it even harder. And as we know, it is in all likelihood a temporary solution at best, with the most likely result being even more weight gained in the long run.
That’s why I’m so glad my wonderful colleague and fellow podcaster, registered dietitian Julie Duffy Dillon, is an expert in the area of PCOS. She’s on top of all the latest research. So, of course, I reached out and said, “Julie! Make sweet, beautiful podcast magic with us on this incredibly complex condition!” and happily she said yes without hesitation.
If you or someone you know struggles with PCOS and related weight gain or insulin resistance, I think you’ll find this episode of Dietitians Unplugged incredibly enlightening and reassuring. There are things you can do for your health and your fertility, but luckily, one of them isn’t suffering under the tyranny of yet another weight loss regimen.
Needless to say, I’ve been remiss in posting the last few Dietitians Unplugged podcasts here, on my blog. I’m particular about things being complete, so I’m going to tuck the last few eps into one neat and tidy post for you all to find some day in the future when you’re casting about the internet, looking for some vintage HAES podcasts…
When I decided to stop dieting, it felt like the biggest relief ever. I was so tired of trying to trick my body into thinking it didn’t need food, ignoring gnawing hunger pangs, coming up with ideas for meals that tasted great but had next to no calories in it, counting “points,” and acting like the worst thing that could happen to me would be to get fat again (it wasn’t), that the final decision – made after several months of a nutrition class taught by Linda Bacon in which I was introduced to HAES® – felt easy. But the process of learning to eat normally? Not always so easy.
Eating without restriction at first felt scary. This was before I’d even heard of intuitive eating or eating competence, and I just thought eating normally would happen naturally. I wasn’t prepared for the lingering sense of manufactured food insecurity that drove me to eat quickly and voraciously of portions that were bigger than I was hungry for. I felt way out of control at times.
So I totally get that people can have a hard time with learning to eat normally after dieting. The posts I see in the various groups I belong to on Facebook tell of people struggling with “getting it right” or listening to their bodies with any degree of accuracy. I hear a lot of frustration. Years of dieting can totally fuck with your head and your stomach, and can make this whole process a lot harder.
There are two things that can make this process even harder: Perfectionism and Judgment.
Let’s start with Perfectionism. When I hear people talk about learning to eat more intuitively, so many are beating themselves up for “slipping up” and eating too much, or not “getting it right.” As former dieters, we may have felt our “success” depended so much on being perfect, getting the diet right, and never falling off the proverbial wagon. Isn’t that why everyone blames people for diet failure? They didn’t stick to the diet, they weren’t perfect enough, and therefore they didn’t achieve the results. Even though we know this isn’t a personal failure – that the state of dieting is a completely unnatural one, that nearly everyone fails at weight loss over the long term, and that it has nothing to do with willpower – we often persist in this idea that if we had just done it perfectly enough, it would have worked out differently. So even when we give up dieting, I think we suffer from residual perfectionism. Normal eating is just a new thing to perfect. But really, it isn’t. I Ellyn Satter’s definition of what normal eating looks like:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Notice she didn’t say anything about normal eating requiring perfection? There is room here for a lot of mistake-making. So make those mistakes and learn from all of them!
That leaves Judgment. It begins with wishful thinking. It’s like somehow even though dieting didn’t work to make us thin, we hope normal eating might. We are dismayed that when we start to listen to our bodies, they actually start to gain weight (for some, at least). I went through this myself. I felt betrayed that normal eating meant I might gain weight –that wasn’t right, was it?!? Intellectually, I knew that I had been suppressing my weight with dieting, and that weight gain might be natural – but emotionally I felt destroyed. Surely if I just learned to eat “normally,” I would have a “normal” sized body? (Those were early days and my ideas about what constituted a normal body were still dictated by crappy, oppressive cultural ideals.)
So we look at our bodies that seem out of control and decide that it probably has something to do with our new way of eating, which also feels completely out of control. We start to apply the brakes to our eating here and there. We try to eat a bit less, or eat more healthful foods than we want, or we go the other way and binge because we’re so stressed out or starving again. All of this behavior stems from the judgment we’re putting on our bodies and what we think they should or shouldn’t be doing. Next thing you know, eating normally doesn’t feel good at all, and it’s now not any easier than dieting was. Thanks judgment, you judgey asshole!
Despite being freaked the hell out, I decided to roll with the wisdom of my body, if only for one simple, driving reason: I could NOT go back to dieting. The mere thought of more restriction made me want to cry. And I wanted to be authentically me, not someone who lived in fear of what my body actually was when I satisfied my hunger in a totally normal way.
That decision was the key to me finally clicking with normal eating. I decided to not worry about nutrition (a challenge when you’re in the middle of a dietetics program), eat foods I felt like eating as much as possible, experiment when I wanted, and just tune into what my gut was telling me without stressing about whether I got it right or not. That last part was key – it didn’t matter if I wasn’t getting it right. And then one day, after a lot of reading* on the subject and experimentation, it felt like I was getting it right more often than I was wasn’t. And yeah, I still make lots of mistakes. Sometimes I eat too much, sometimes not enough. Whatever. I’ll get it right the next day. Or the day after that. I trust my body to make up for the mistakes.
If you’re in the middle of this process, have a stern talk with Judgment and Perfectionism. Thank them for whatever they’ve given you, and then kiss them goodbye. They don’t have a place in your diet-free life anymore.
Dietitians Unplugged podcast – episode 6 available now!
Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.
Listen on Libsyn or iTunes. Give us a review on iTunes if you like us — this helps to spread the non-diet love to more people. Check out our Facebook page for our latest episode and news and more weight neutral, HAES® friendly podcasts!
I love a good pop culture analogy, and so I was pretty happy when this one popped into my head while I was walking down the hall at work recently. In the voice of Glinda the Good Witch no less!
I wasn’t dressed particularly well, I wasn’t having a great hair day or anything, in fact I’m pretty sure I looked a little meh, but I just felt happy to be alive. And because of that, I was walking tall and I was smiling. If I had to guess, I was probably the picture of easy confidence. People smiled back and said “Hello” as I passed by, and I greeted them in kind. It was a good day.
That’s when it hit me – this must be what confidence feels like. And it surprised me, because this was not something I came by easily when I was younger, thinner, probably cuter. Which is ironic, because isn’t that one of the reasons, or so we are told, that we try to lose weight in the first place? For a long time, I was pretty good at faking confidence. Faking it can be useful – you know the old adage, “Fake it till you make it.” But frankly, in those years, I never quite made it. Maybe because this particular brand of confidence was but a thin veneer over a deep layer of insecurity about my looks and my general worthiness. It was based on others’ approval of my appearance, not my own sense of self-worth.
I’ve always been a bit of an oddball (so my significant other likes to remind me of OFTEN, but he means it as a compliment) which was fine until about the age of ten, when I became self-conscious about not quite fitting in. Coupled with becoming aware of apparently being in the “wrong body” – a fat body – well, this was not a recipe for confidence building (as it probably is for no one).
As I made my way through high school, college and early adulthood, although I became less self-conscious about my oddball self as I learned to make the most of my sense of humor, I became increasingly more self-conscious about my shape and weight (especially after my doctor told me, at the age of 15, that I was getting too fat). I did everything I could to deflect notice from my real self: big distracting hair, lots of make-up, clothes that shrouded my body. I was hiding some serious insecurities.
So when I went on a diet and lost weight – my personal adventure to the Land of Oz, where everything was new and shiny but also illusory and threatening – and suddenly had a body that I felt more approximated the mainstream ideal of beauty, I did feel like I was owed a little more confidence. Not that I actually was more confident – but that’s all a part of the deception of Diet Oz.
Here’s why: that confidence was built on a house of cards. I secretly felt I only fit in because I now better approximated the cultural standard of beauty. While I was still me on the inside, I thought people’s attitudes changed toward me because I had gotten smaller, more “normal” looking, and if I ever changed back, I’d lose all that approval that was the basis for my confidence.
And in fact, the “worst” – in my mind – did happen: I eventually gained back all my weight after I had decided I could no longer tolerate the miserable life of dieting I had created for myself. The consequence, for me, of becoming a normal eater was weight gain. At first, I was dismayed at the unraveling of my external image, but committed now to a quality life, nothing in the world would make me go back to dieting. I decided to learn to like and accept my body, however it was going to turn out. In for a penny, in for a pound (or 40), and damned it I was going to go back to feeling bad about myself ever again. That’s when I decided I needed to get the hell back to Kansas.
Remember at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when Glinda the Good Witch says to Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas…” That’s what I realized, this confidence — this feeling good and okay with being me in my fatter body — was in me all along. I only had to decide on it.
In a world that fosters and profits from our self-doubt of our bodies, it has become more necessary than ever that we believe in ourselves and like our bodies and not rely on others for that validation.
So I clicked my ruby red slippers together (and perhaps this explains my life-long obsession with red shoes), decided on being just fine with me, decided that I was the only approval I needed, and after some serious emotional and intellectual work around this (and, I must add, a soupçon of “Screw you, stupid society standards!”), I arrived at some real confidence (the kind that remains even in the face of a bad hair day).
I am by no means saying any of this was easy. It was not. This journey will be different for everyone, and may be harder for some and easier for others. But I do think it’s worth the trip. And hey, if you can skip that totally futile jaunt through Diet Oz in the first place, even better.
Dorothy got back to Kansas and realized that what she had all along was pretty damn good. It took her a long, dangerous trip through Oz but she figured it out in the end. I learned to feed myself and let my body be what it was going to be, and gained a genuine sense of confidence about my whole self. Because, like Dorothy, I had the power in me all along.
Need some help getting started with body love? Here are some suggestions of places to start: