We're back with part 2 of the dieting chronicles. In the past 2 weeks I've shared the introduction to the series, as well as the first installment in which I talked about my first experiences with dieting. A journey through 23 diets (some of them two or three times), none of which worked, and all of which left me with a very unhealthy relationship with food, not to mention the opposite of what I was striving for which was of course, weight loss. As I mentioned last week, I had always believed that it was the emotional and overeating patterns I learned as a child that were the ones that made my relationship with food "complicated" (to say the least), but it took me years to realize that although some healing needed to occur there too, it's actually the dieting, the restriction and the deprivation that ruins our chances of finding balance and peace with food.
When we restrict, and that can have so many different names, from having a strict meal plan on paper, to counting calories or points, to having simple guidelines and not rules, eating clean, etc., we not only put our bodies through stress which can have its own negative consequences, but we start developing food fears, we add power to foods that foods don't really have. We enter the world of perfectionism, unrealistic goals, and what is even worse, we enter the endless cycle of dieting and then overeating, we lose our biological cues that will help manage our eating naturally (aka our own hunger and fullness signals), and we receive constant bruises in our body image, self esteem and contribute to an ideal of beauty that is so twisted it takes enormous courage to step out of that mindset and fill your very own shoes with confidence.
Behind all of my diets was the need to control, and so much of my journey had to do with looking at the underlying issues, fears and trauma I had experienced during my childhood that made the lack of control a constant in my early life, which in turn made me crave it, deeply.
As you can see so much goes into our relationship with food, and for me, my nutty relationship with food, my body image issues, even my weight and hormonal issues, they all went awry because of dieting. Hence the stories in this series.
Today I thought I'd do things a little bit differently from last week, I won't go into as much detail, and my goal is to pinpoint the aspects in each one that contributed to the whirlpool that is living with restriction when it comes to food. Once you're in that whirlpool it can be almost impossible to get out, especially when diets are designed by dietitians or dieting experts, are on the best seller list and have phrases in the cover that tell you why no other diets have worked in the past and why this one is different.
The points, the thigh gap and why my face "could take it"
Almost every dieter I know, knows exactly what I'm talking about when I say the word points. Call it weight watchers, or its equivalent, as was the case for me since we didn't have weight watchers in my country growing up. The specifics of this diet are not important, but the effects it had on me were.
This was a diet in which I went to an actual weight loss clinic and heard a whole introductory orientation speech by a nutritionist explaining the ins and outs of the diet, explaining they were going to give out "all-natural" diet pills (which of course they didn't actually call diet pills, and which turned out to be amphetamines in an exposé in the paper that was done on this clinic years later. Hint: If someone mentions the word diet pill, RUN!). She told us success stories, and would constantly use words like "natural", "effortless", "sustainable" and "game". Yup! One of the selling points they use with point systems (which by the way should just be called "Install the fear of foods in your life systems"), is that you can play around with it, that it's a kind of game and you can have whatever you want as long as it fits into the points you've been allotted for the day.
It sounded easy enough, after all she used the word "effortless", and about 100 more words targeting people who had tried everything.
Now that I think about it that little orientation meeting was the most similar thing to being sold a time-share. Same marketing strategy, same sign up sheet immediately after listening to the expert talk, since after you crossed the door the price would go up. Still, I drank the kool aid and got started. The follow up session was with the same nutritionist, in which she weighed and measured me, determined my fat percentage, and set my goals.
Here's where things got crazy.
The weight loss goal she set for me was so low it would have put me in the underweight category of the BMI scale. The reason, and I quote: "Your face can take it". Translation: I wouldn't look like a big headed skeleton yet, even though I would surely feel like one. She then discussed thigh gaps (oh brother...), and gave me a big dose of body shaming.
We get so much of this through the media, the chit chat we engage in with friends, magazines, TV, but it can cause serious harm when someone with letters after their name tells you these are valid concerns and promises to get your body to unrealistic, unsustainable, and definitely unhealthy places.
Of course this didn't work, I blamed myself, and I found another one.
The endocrinologists' diets, the doctor with an eating disorder and the magazine meal plans
In the months to follow, and in the hopes to fix some of the hormonal problems I've had since I was a teenager, I went to countless doctors, who all gave me a very rigid and unsustainable meal plan. I went to a doctor who told me to tweak my diet in such a way that even I could tell there was something odd going on, and who I quickly and by coincidence learned that she herself had an eating disorder. When none of these worked, and I wouldn't even dare to go back to my doctors and admit how much I had failed on my diet, I would try to do whatever any of the women's magazines were promising. After all, my doctors had insisted that losing weight would help my hormones regulate and that I just had to live like this forever. I felt defeated. I felt I had something broken in me that no one around me was struggling with. I felt I lacked self discipline and that I wasn't trying as hard as I could.
This was the biggest lie I told myself, because as the crazy over-achiever and perfectionist that I am, I followed those plans to a tee. I always tried to go the extra mile, I would sometimes add rules on top of rules, and I still fell off the wagon EVERY time. Why? Because it's a wobbly wagon, with only one wheel in its proper condition and the fall is just inevitable no matter how much discipline you have or who's sitting on top of it.
The war against my belly
Ah yes, the area countless doctors, friends, magazines and billboard ads would quickly determine as my problem: my belly. It could have been my thighs, my hips, my arms, my booty. This idea that we have a problem area is so destructive to our self-esteem. It's the spot you zoom in on every single time you're trying on clothes, taking a shower, looking in a mirror, getting dressed. In my particular case, I was "lucky" (not so much really), because there was now a bestselling book that targeted precisely the belly.
I bought it and went at it like there was a bag of gold at the end of the rainbow and all I had to do was crawl my way over to the other end and it would be mine.
Here are two things I haven't mentioned yet when it comes to dieting. The first is the thrill and excitement you have in the beginning, which combined with the hope that this one will actually work makes you tell everyone you know about this magical diet you're now on, it makes you a walking infomercial, not to mention a walking encyclopedia of nutritional data. Dieting becomes a new hobby, the little activity that uses up so much of your mental space and time that you have no time to think about real problems, anxieties, sadness or any feelings that really need to be dealt with. It also gives you the illusion of perfect control, something we all love to feel in this crazy little world we live in.
I said so many times that I felt I was going to be able to stay on this diet for life. That it was easy and I wasn't really that hungry or didn't have cravings, that I had finally found my way to eat. None of that happened.
The war against carbohydrates
We all know this one well, and so many of the diets I tried included restricting carbohydrates, a macronutrient that is quite possibly the most essential, our body's preferred source of energy, our literal "food for thought", the number one thing to help you protect your muscles and in turn your metabolism. This has been public enemy number two in history, the first one was fat back in the 80s but that was before my dieting days thank goodness. So many diets and diet books include a restriction of this essential nutrient, and although this type of diet (and the many names it had for me because I tried 3 or 4) wasn't the one that caused the most harm to my psyche and eating (we'll cover that one in part 3), it certainly was the runner up.
When you're told over and over again by so-called diet experts that carbs are the devil, the most dangerous thing occurs. Even when you still include healthy, whole grain or limited carbs in the diet, you begin opening the doors to food fears. You create that voice inside your head that promptly sets off an alarm if a carbohydrate is in sight so you "watch yourself". It also makes you go down the shame spiral when you inevitably cave by eating a slice of birthday cake. Food fears are so ingrained in us now that we call it common sense, or balance, but it's actually a natural side effect of being constantly bombarded with the carb-phobia, fat phobia, or [insert here] food phobia.
Nothing has taken me down an unhealthier, food obsessed and overeating path as the restriction of starches and carbohydrates. These diets were also my first few, and thankfully last, experiments with detoxes, since most of these plans included different phases, and the first one was always a food excluding detox. Aka, a few days or weeks in which you lose so much water weight it acts as bait to keep you hooked on the diet, thinking you've finally found the one. These diets were also my first introduction to "cheat days", and I could talk forever about "cheat days".
The "cheat day" conundrum
If you've ever been on a diet, you know what a cheat day is. You also know diets clearly state it's not really a day, just one meal in which all diet rules are off. Aka, the "eat until I have to unbutton my pants and need to take a nap on the table" meal. Through all my diets, but especially the low carb ones, cheat days were my doorway into a sad and uncomfortable place that was what I was trying to actually work on, my overeating patterns. I would mark cheat days on the calendar, I would plan out the meal to a tee, I would make reservations for the greasiest, starchiest, burger joint I could get my hands on, I would eat, I would feel full, and I would continue to eat until every last morsel of food was gone. I knew the diet started up again tomorrow.
This is what experts now call last supper eating, although it isn't reserved for cheat days, it refers to those meals before you know a period of restricting is going to begin again, and how we overeat in fear of the future food deprivation that is to come. This usually includes one or more of the following: ignoring hunger and fullness signals, eating quickly to eat more, eating quickly to ignore the feelings that are bubbling. It includes emotional eating, overeating and often times binge eating. All with just the prospect of starting a diet and also without an official diet in sight. Sometimes the mere presence of a delicious meal can trigger this feeling because you "know" that you have to eat "better" in the next meal. There's no space for balance, there's no space for allowing all foods and letting your hunger and fullness levels (and also your desire to eat something yummy) guide your eating.
As you know, in the introduction to this series I gave you a little public apology regarding a previous series I had decided to remove from the blog and podcast. Cheat days, although I called them by a different name, are now a part of that apology as well. In the past, when I've recommended including your favorite indulgences I did so from a place of having balance between what you love and what is healthy for you. I now know that part of finding balance with eating cannot include the feeling that you won't have this again until God knows when (even if that is next week). This is also a part of the deprivation mindset, and it can completely turn off your internal cues and make you bypass mindful eating. Although I always mentioned my hatred of the words "cheat day", I know that a scheduled treat can send this message to your body and especially your mind as well.
If I told you what I ate on my official cheat days while dieting your eyes would pop out of your head. Any diet plan that needs a sanctioned day to stuff your face so you can keep going with the diet is not something that is sustainable, in fact it says a lot about the diet itself and how rigid or deprivation-centric it actually is. Yet these are so popular we never bat an eye. In fact they're fun. It's permission to be bad and we all love that!
Eating like a French woman
If you're a regular here, you know how much I love and admire French culture. I went to Paris for the first time when I was 15 and I fell in love with everything I saw and experienced. It was only natural that I would be drawn to several popular diet books many moons ago, that taught you how to not diet like a French woman.
This book helped me and it also didn't, proof that we can learn from both the good and bad experiences we have in our lives. I read about how women in France include natural movement throughout the day, no need for soul crushing soul cycle, or hours on an elliptical, just movement you enjoyed. Pretty cool. It taught me how women in France spend their social times with friends discussing politics, art, the cinema, but never diets or fitness. Awesome. It taught me how women in France find pleasure in the act of eating, they take their time to sit down to eat, plate food beautifully, think of flavors and textures, eat real foods, and eat smaller portions. Most of these things are fantastic, and it was certainly the first glimpse I ever had to seeing that a life without dieting was possible. Whenever portions are mentioned though, and especially the focus on making portions French-size small, the dieting mindset gets activated, and our not-naturally French personalities come out to turn it into a diet.
It also adds the focus on being "thin" like a French woman, on believing that all French women have the same perfect body, that there is a magic bullet we just haven't found or experienced yet. That word "thin" nowadays can be dangerous, since the thin ideal has gone way beyond what we can see in a normal woman who eats as she pleases and is not at war with food, and it has entered dangerous territory. We see the women in magazines and TV and think that is beautiful, that it is balanced and healthy, which is sadly not the case. So often the women we admire are in the deep throes of disordered eating, unhealthy behaviors around food, chronic dieting and its twin sister compulsive eating. Our idea of "thin" at least the image we have in our heads, is one that allows no imperfections, and to do that we have to do the extreme.
Of course this isn't the fault of French women, or the authors of the popular books that said this was the key to a thin physique, the problem is our weight obsessed culture, and our own ideals of beauty, thinking that everything except what we have is better. I know this is a strong statement, and it's a sad one, but so many beautiful wonderful women I know believe this to their core.
Here's where my hat's off to French women, they love food and eating, it's a source of pleasure, not worry. They have dessert, they don't exercise to burn off what they ate, they walk to see the bridges of the Seine and might stroll right into a patisserie if they feel like it. Not all French women are like this of course, but it was my introduction into saving my relationship with food. This was a very big hint into what would soon become a lifeline for me, unfortunately at that time, these books and their various authors were still making recommendations within a diet framework.
This list of diets I've mentioned until now and in part 1, is not in chronological order per se. Meaning, that after eating like a French woman I went back to several of the low carb diets, failed at those again, tried ketogenic style diets, felt terrible. Went on and off many others, moving further and further away from healing my relationship with food.
Eventually, I found veganism, and you can read that story in an old post I wrote about it here, and although I felt I was now ready to finally find balance with food and in many aspects I did, veganism had a little surprise in store for me. By veganism I don't mean veganism, I actually mean the dieting filter we've started to add to it, one that felt so familiar to all the diets I had been on for years. As it turns out, this has nothing to do with being vegan, as we'll discuss soon when we talk about the inherent restriction that is present when you eat vegan, it has to do with our food fearing, perfectionistic, weight and beauty obsessed framework, and there are ways to separate these two and find balance. More on that and what happened to my eating when I went vegan in the next installment of the series.
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