CW: If you have struggled with disordered eating in the past or are currently struggling now, you may want to skip this post as some of the content could be triggering for you. If you do decide to read the post anyway, know that you can always close out of your browser at anytime and seek support. You never have to continue reading if it feels unsafe to do so. To find support near you, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
When I was growing up, I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, in whatever quantity felt satisfying to me. My parents did not impose food rules on my sister and I. We had complete permission to eat.
Even if it was fifteen minutes before dinner, I was welcome to have a snack from the pantry without asking for permission. In fact, whenever I asked if it was ok to eat something, my mom would always kindly remind me that I didn’t have to ask. There were no rules about the types or quantities of food we were allowed to eat. There were no off-limits foods. White bread carried the same moral value as a tomato. And eating ice cream right before bed was no different than eating ice cream right after lunch. Time carried no weight, either.
Of course, we didn’t always get to choose the family meals, but we did have a choice about what and how much we ate of whatever was put on the table. We were never forced to eat beyond fullness (a.k.a. the “clean your plate” mentality) and were never told to eat less (a.k.a. the “you’ve had enough” mentality). My parents always wanted my sister and I to have unrestricted and unlimited access to food, and this might have been one of the greatest gifts I received as a child (Thanks, Mom and Dad!).
You may be thinking that my sister and I were out of control eaters. I mean, isn’t that why it’s so common for parents to control their kids’ eating patterns and food choices – because if they didn’t, the kids would only eat cookies and ice cream forever and always? Actually, the opposite has been shown to be true in the research: having restricted access to food is what leads to food preoccupation and eating in the absence of hunger.
If you’re told to stop thinking about chocolate cake, you’re going to think about chocolate cake even more. If you’re told you can’t have chocolate cake, you’re going to crave it. However, if you’re given the freedom to think about and have chocolate cake whenever you want, your thoughts and desires neutralize because the scarcity has been taken away. As kids, my sister and I ate a very balanced diet with a wide variety of foods, and I don’t recall any bingeing behaviors. We ate based on our own intuition, not based on rules or restriction.
Sadly, the call of diet culture could not be drowned out by the insulated safety of home. In my late teens, I started noticing that the “skinny girls” at school got more attention. They always seemed to get the guy – and not just any guy. They always seemed to get the guy they wanted. So, I thought, maybe I needed to make myself smaller, despite the fact that I was already thin, in order to get the guy I wanted. That’s when I started experimenting with dieting for the first time, mostly via restricted eating and depriving myself of foods I enjoyed.
I never took dieting too seriously in high school, though, and completely forgot about it altogether my first year of college. But it didn’t take long for me to be seduced by the sweet siren song of weight loss once again. My body had, of course, changed a year into college. I no longer had the body of my youth. I looked more like a woman.
Somewhere inside of myself, I knew this change was normal. After all, bodies change over time, just like everything else under the sun. But it was still unsettling. I missed the praise I got for being thinner, despite still being in a relatively thin body. The positive comments were not coming as frequently and I was instead met with questions like, “Are you getting bigger?” (Yes, someone really asked me that.)
As my internal discomfort with my body grew, I began to seek out a solution. I loved food and didn’t want to give up the food freedom I had enjoyed up to that point. So, the question became: how could I drop pounds and still be able to eat?
My brain quickly landed on purging. I knew this was disordered. I knew it was unhealthy, but I thought I could control it. I decided I would take laxatives for a short time – just long enough to jumpstart my weight loss – then I’d give it up and everything would be fine. Except…that’s not what happened.
What happened was I became addicted to laxatives. An “innocent” attempt at quick weight loss had turned into a full-blown eating disorder. Now I know that attempts at weight loss are never innocent. Even if you’re just “watching your calories,” research shows it can have a negative impact on your physical and psychological well-being.
I knew all along that laxative abuse was dangerous and had serious health consequences, including death. Yet, I was still obsessed with the idea of controlling my body size. So, after a few grueling years, I slowly swapped out my purging disorder for a different disorder: anorexia. Instead of eliminating food I had already eaten, I started eliminating food before I ate it. I would meticulously watch my calorie intake, down to a stick of gum.
Photo Credit: Debra Snell Photography
It took several years of therapy and sheer force of will to heal from purging and anorexia. Unfortunately, though, I hadn’t healed from the diet mentality. I was what people in the recovery community call, “recovered enough,” pursuing weight management in a less life-threatening, yet still unhealthy, manner.
I started exercising more often and trying to eat “right.” I would go on sugar fasts and juice cleanses. I eliminated all kinds of foods I perceived to be “bad,” like sodas and chips and my beloved white bread. And I added in foods I perceived to be “good,” like whole grains and organic peanut butter and green smoothies. I weighed myself every day. I even ordered the lower calorie menu options at restaurants and made sure to skip dessert.
These behaviors may seem innocuous, especially by popular measures of health, but moralizing food choices, fasting, cleansing, cutting calories, eliminating foods based on fear of those foods, hyperfocusing on weight and exercising solely for weight management are all unhealthy dieting behaviors.
I had fallen long and hard for what Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN calls “The Wellness Diet,” which she defines as “the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about ‘wellness’ but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like.”
Eventually, after several more years of dieting, I finally saw the light. I happened upon Christy Harrison’s Food Psych Podcast, where I encountered intuitive eating and Health At Every Size® (HAES). Learning about a non-diet, weight-inclusive approach to health felt like discovering age-old wisdom hidden in plain sight. It felt good and true deep in my bones.
I was reminded of the food freedom I had as a child, and how happy and healthy I was back then – before dieting. I was reminded of all of the people I know in larger bodies who are also happy and healthy, and, suddenly, the facade of dieting came crashing down.
I finally started seeing diet culture for the racist, classist, ableist, sexist, sizest, unhealthy and harmful behemoth that it is, and I decided I no longer wanted to participate in such an oppressive system. Instead, I wanted to fight for the liberation of all bodies, including my own.
That was about a year ago. Today, I’m still working to heal my relationship with food and my body. It’s certainly a process to unlearn years of dieting beliefs and to walk away from disordered behaviors. But I can assure you, it’s been well worth the fight. I’ve never felt closer to full recovery than I do right now.
If my story resonates with you and you’re looking for a way out of dieting, I recommend reading the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S endorsement.)
And if you’re confused as to whether or not your dieting behaviors have crossed the line into disordered eating, the National Eating Disorders Association offers a free Screening Tool that can help you determine if you need to seek professional help.