Day 31: eating disorders, disordered eating, and the trouble with “diets”

Like a lot of fat folks, I was raised by a dieter. My mother swears by Weight Watchers; she has been on and off WW for her entire adult life, she has been thin and fat but she has never maintained a steady weight, and she has never expressed any sort of contentment with her body. “I need to lose weight” has been her lifelong mantra — even at her thinnest. Recently I watched this video, a perfect, poetic description of contemporary womanhood : we are trained by our well-meaning mothers and socialized by popular culture to believe we should occupy less space, reject food, and second-guess our voices. It was the perfect description of my own experience and the experience of so many women I know. I learned to hate my body at a very young age (I already “knew” I was fat in first gradeand I felt bad about it).

All of this cultural, familial, and self-imposed baggage I’ve been carrying around for the last 25 years has done its damage. I have a history of several behaviors symptomatic of disordered eating (see the Mayo Clinic’s website for all the symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating):

  • Eating only a few certain “safe” foods (the cereal-soup-oranges-alcohol year in college, plus the year in high school when all I ate for lunch was canned peaches)
  • Collecting recipes (my entire adult life)
  • Persistent worry about being fat or gaining weight (25 straight years! holla.)
  • Not wanting to eat in public
  • Eating in secret

And I have several symptoms of binge-eating disorder (B.E.D.), an eating disorder just as pathological as anorexia or bulimia:

  • A sense of guilt and shame over your eating (frequent and persistent over the last 25 years)
  • Eating to excess even when already full
  • A feeling of loss of control over food intake, inability to stop eating

I’m a borderline case of B.E.D. at best — the second and third of these behaviors are extremely infrequent (every 12-18 months or so I’ll have a couple “bad weeks”), and I don’t exhibit any of the other symptoms of B.E.D. — but nevertheless they are behaviors I have demonstrated.

Although I probably don’t have a full-blown eating disorder, I certainly have patterns of disordered eating. I can blame society or the media or my mom or my peers all I want, but I am well aware that this is my problem and only I can fix it. However, my eating behaviors are not unusual; in fact they are representative of how many (most?) American women interact with food and their bodies. Check out the full list of symptoms of disordered eating from the Mayo Clinic — it’s shocking how many are components of “being on a diet”. Because of cultural expectations, the media, unintended pressure from our peers, and internalized shame, “being on a diet” has become the natural state of women in the U.S. And so, even though my past eating behavior is my problem to solve, at the same time, it is also a component of a much larger cultural problem that I cannot solve on my own.

I am 30 years old and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really been able to begin working through my issues with food and my body. And I’ve got a lot of work yet to do. But there is one thing I am certain about: I reject “diets” as a means of being fit or losing weight because they’re just one more thing that makes women feel bad about themselves.

On this blog, I typically use the word “diet” to mean “food that I consume in order to fuel my body and mind” (as in “my cat’s diet consists of dry cat food, weird little guy won’t eat the wet stuff”). But out in the world, the word “diet” (as in “being on a diet”) usually refers to a set of rules or a specified process: (often temporary) food restrictions or substitutions imposed to cause weight loss. And I have a big problem with the second kind of “diet” for the following reasons:

  1. It suggests your food choices are temporary. I’ll eat less [calories, food group X or Y, etc] until I’m at the weight I want, then I can go off the diet — which leads to weight gain, yo-yo dieting and chronic dissatisfaction — not health.
  2. Food is fuel. Your body needs protein, fat, and fiber to function at its peak and to burn fat (which is what you want if your goal is to lose weight, right?). Every body has different needs — what makes your body operate at its peak performance? what makes your body feel good? do you know? When you choose “a diet” you are entrusting choices about how to fuel your body to someone you’ve never met, who doesn’t know you or your body.
  3. “Diet food” — like all those Healthy Choice frozen meals, Nutrisystem, Slim-Fast, Special K, fat-free half-and-half/single cream (seriously, what is up with that stuff?) — is stripped of fat because common wisdom says that dietary fat is unhealthy. But dietary fat gives food rich flavor and makes us feel full. We have evolved to crave that kind of rich flavor in our food because it ensures our bodies get the nutrition they need to be strong and healthy, and because it helps us know when to stop eating (too much food prevents peak performance). Eating “diet food” stripped of dietary fat doesn’t have the flavor that we crave from food, so to replace that flavor “food scientists” replace the dietary fat with sugar and chemicals. Two problems: one, it’s “fake flavor”, and our bodies know it, so we don’t feel full the same way we would if we ate a little fat. Diet food keeps us hungry. Two, it takes a lot of sugar and chemicals to substitute for the flavor we get from just a little fat. If it’s sugar, that’s a lot of non-nutritive calories. If it’s calorie-free sweetener, then… where are the calories coming from? If there aren’t very many calories, then what’s fueling your body?
  4. Structured diet programs want us to stay fat. I have heard many people struggling through a structured diet say, “anyone can succeed on a diet (e.g. Weight Watchers, Healthy Choice meal replacements, Nutrisystem) if they just stick with it.” In principle, that’s true, but the diets are designed so that in practice we can’t stick with it long term. The diet companies are for-profit companies — they survive because they earn profits, and to earn profits, they need fat people to consume their product — the “diet.” If the products worked long term, fat people would get thin and not need the “diet” anymore, killing the companies’ revenue stream. They need us to fail, blame ourselves for failing, and return to the “diet”. So what do the diet companies do to ensure we won’t stick with it — or, if we do manage against the odds to stick with it and lose weight and go off the diet, regain weight so that we need the diet again and again (hi, Mom)? They structure their products as systems of significant deprivation. Too few calories (very few people are actually satisfied over the long term on 1200 calories per day — the Weight Watchers average). Too little nutritional fuel (fat free half and half, Slim-Fast, Special K). Too little food satisfaction (Nutrisystem, Healthy Choice meals).

If Weight Watchers or diet meal replacements or some other structured diet has worked for you over the long term and helped you not just lose weight but keep weight off, you enjoy your food, and you aren’t constantly hungry, then honestly, congratulations! Keep at it. Do what works for you. But this is a fact: you are exceptional and a statistical anomaly.

But Julie, you say, you make food choices that contribute to weight loss. By the definition you don’t like, that’s a diet. You are such a hypocrite!

Okay, that’s probably true. But given what the word represents in contemporary culture and for the diet companies, I choose not to call it that. Although my food comprises a diet, here’s why I am not “on a diet”.

I listen to my body. My food choices are based on what makes my body feel good, not on what a diet company thinks I should eat. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full (the second part is a work in progress but I’m getting a lot better at it!). By the standards of any “diet”, I eat a lot.

I don’t eat “diet food”. Food can have positive psychological effects. I love cake– a fabulous piece of fatty, sugary, carb-y cake makes me happy in a way that shitty “diet cake” doesn’t. My pleasure is a valuable component of my psychological well being, so once in awhile I will eat a piece of real cake and feel good about it.

No food is off limits. That includes: real cake! fish and chips! cheese! chicken with the skin on! pasta! bananas! salmon! Brussels sprouts! bell peppers! sweet potatoes! sauteed shrimp! almonds! chocolate! craft beer! lentils! and so on, and on, and on. There are foods I eat infrequently or in small quantities — refined sugar, grain-based products, deep fried foods, fruit juice — because those foods don’t keep me full so I end up eating more than my body needs. But I like how they taste, so I happily eat them once in awhile. There are also foods I choose not to keep around the house. As a fat person with a lifetime of disordered eating, I have a small set of “trigger foods”, foods that given the opportunity I will eat massive quantities of and then feel guilty about — ice cream, pasta, cottage cheese, and peanut butter are the big ones. So for now, I don’t keep them around.

While it is true that I know I need to lose weight, it’s not because I wish my weight or jean size was a particular number. I am not more valuable as a thin person. Rather, it’s because I currently take medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol; because I am winded easily; because carrying heavy boxes is hard. I have said it before and I’m sure I will say it many times again: I want to be strong and fit and healthy. I am making changes to my fitness and eating habits that contribute to  improved strength, fitness, and health and will get me off medications I don’t want to take. Weight loss is a side effect.

If you’re “a dieter”, you owe it to yourself to really examine why you’re “on a diet”, whether you are satisfied with your “diet food”, and how your body really feels on your “diet”. Can you power through your day, let alone your workouts? Are you hungry an hour after you eat? Do you feel bloated or gassy or nauseated after eating? Are you sleeping well? Do you feel just as fulfilled with your “diet chocolate snack” as you would with a piece of real chocolate? Your food is your body’s fuel, and you’re stuck with your body for life — treat it well. It’s not worth it to suffer through hunger or food you don’t like just because a “diet” says you should.

Fitness today
Strength training: squats (body weight & with kettlebell), incline pushups, lat pulldowns, overhead dumbbell presses, pseudo-mountain-climbers.
Walked a little.

Food today
8:45: 1 kind bar
10:30: Greek yogurt, 1 apple, 2 Tbsp nut/seed “granola”
1:30: salad (lettuce, onion, bell pepper, pistachios, 4oz roasted pork loin, blue cheese vinaigrette)
3:45: 4oz pork loin, 1 slice butternut squash cake
6:30: 5oz pork, 1 slice butternut squash cake
80: 4 oz pork loin, Brussels sprouts

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