Dear KJ: How Can I Take Care of My Body Without Depriving Myself?
Janice asks: I don't believe in diets but I sometimes want to attempt some version of one or restrict, which can be triggering. I am not sure how to find a balance. I want to take care of my body but I don't want to deprive myself. Any advice?
We have something very important in common: I also don’t believe in diets. Well, to be more specific I don’t believe that diets work, at least in terms of long-term weight-loss, and tons of scientific research supports this fact. The weight-loss world is a $20+ billion dollar industry that completely depends on diets NOT working. I mean, think about it, if even ONE diet worked for most people, the weight-loss industry would crumble. We wouldn’t need a whole industry; we’d just need that one diet that actually worked. Too bad it doesn’t exist. Instead, literally thousands upon thousands of new weight-loss books and plans hit the shelves every year, all promising to unlock the secret of weight-loss, while accepting zero responsibility for failing 95% of the time, because it’s OUR fault for not having the “willpower” to eat nothing but cabbage soup for the rest of our lives! (BTW – Cabbage soup 24/7 is no life, and if the misery and crankiness didn’t kill your social life the flatulence certainly would!)
OF COURSE we feel tempted at times to diet and restrict, especially if we have a history of disordered eating. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that we can’t be beautiful, worthy or loveable unless we’re as thin as possible. We’ve been led to believe that food and our appetites are enemies we need to fight and that taking pleasure in our food isn’t feminine or sexy (unless, of course, for those ultra-thin-yet-busty B-list celebrities in hamburger commercials). We’ve been (incorrectly) taught that dieting to maintain an unnatural low is healthy (it’s not), even though dieting and poor body image are associated with all sorts of negative health outcomes. Worst of all, we’ve been taught that it’s okay to hate ourselves if we don’t look like Photoshopped models, and that it’s perfectly fine to be cruel and hateful to anyone who isn’t thin.
Okay, okay, I’ll stop ranting. (Taking a few deep breaths…) Here are my suggestions:
1) Get angry. I’m not ranting about all of this to lecture you, I’m writing it in hopes that you’ll get as righteously ticked off as I am at our bogus, miserable, greedy and dangerous diet industry. Why do I want you to feel anger towards the weight-loss industry? That’s simple: anger is more powerful than fear, and it’s often fear that drives our urges to restrict food and “dabble” in dieting in the first place. Fear of not being in control, fear of being rejected for not being “perfect,” fear of being bullied, etc. You seek balance? Perhaps you’re thinking of a balanced diet (more of that below), but I say balance your fears with anger. Anger literally saved my life. I suffered from an eating disorder, and I felt like I’d never climb out of it. One day I decided I’d rather be an angry activist than a terrified victim. Did I ever feel triggered to diet again? Of course I did, and I still do sometimes. But instead of hating myself or my body, I direct those feelings of anger and outrage outward, towards the political and economic forces that benefit when women and men hate themselves. Try it sometime.
2) Find another outlet. Feeling triggered to diet or restrict is rarely about food, and almost always in relation to another stressor (or maybe dozens of them). Your first responsibility is to simply ask yourself, “What am I really feeling right now, and why?” Maybe this will come to you quickly (e.g., “I’m feeling anxious about school” or “I’m feeling frustrated about a relationship” or “I’m feeling upset about something that happened today”), but it might also elude you. Either way, if your first answer is “I’m feeling fat” I can tell you with complete certainty that “fat” is just psychobabble code for something else. Figure out what that is, and find another way to manage that feeling. I tend to feel better after talking to a friend or my sister, and if that doesn’t work I’ll write in my journal until I’ve exhausted myself.
3) Develop a more balanced relationship with food. What does a balanced relationship with food even look like? I can tell you straight away that it doesn’t mean eating perfectly at every meal or snack, even if there were an objective measure of perfect eating. Rather, balance is more about flexibility and trust. This means giving yourself the flexibility to eat a variety of foods in response to your feelings of hunger or fullness, and also in response to what’s going on in your life (e.g., if you’re running out the door it might make more sense to eat an apple and a granola bar than a sit-down meal). It also means trusting your body to make up for occasional over-eating or under-eating. Trust, by the way, comes from practice not perfection, so start practicing trust. When I’m out of whack with this stuff my mantra is “fake it ‘til you make it,” which helps me behave with flexibility and kindness to myself, even when I’m not feeling it. Sometimes your mind can change your behaviors, but other times your behaviors can nudge your mind back into a good place. Try it. Practice trust.
4) Seek treatment. Getting angry at the weight-loss industry, finding new outlets to manage triggering feelings, and practicing flexibility and trust are all awesome DIY approaches, but don’t hesitate to seek treatment with a therapist or physician who specializes in disordered eating if you’re still experiencing distress.