By Heather Bixler
Last January, I once again researched the latest diet and wellness trends to kick off my new year resolution to eat healthy. The option were endless: low carb, low fat, low sugar, high fiber, apple cider vinegar shots, turmeric lattes, intermittent fasting. Starting a diet had always filled me with a mix of hope and dread. Maybe this was the year I’d finally fix my relationship with food. Maybe this year I’d learn to love my body once those pesky few pounds were gone. But to do so, I would need to carefully scrutinize everything that went into my mouth, take meticulous notes in a food journal, limit entire food groups, and weigh myself obsessively. The night before my newest diet (or “lifestyle” change) began, I stocked my fridge full of compliant food and ate my “last supper” of carbs and sweets, knowing I’d be deprived of them for weeks (or, if I had enough self control, months!).
The first few days of my 2018 diet were easy. Like times before, I felt a sense of superiority and control as I consumed vegetables and protein for every meal. My energy level was low and my digestion screeched to a halt, but I chalked it up to my body making the necessary adjustments to my new eating habits. But the novelty wore off quickly. I dreaded upcoming holidays and social events for fear of tempting foods. I daydreamed about brownies. I went to bed with my stomach rumbling because I wasn’t supposed to eat anything after dinner.
Soon, the physical and mental fatigue of food restriction overwhelmed me, as it always did. I ate a forbidden carb, which lead to candy-eating binges and then periods of restriction. I blamed myself for my lack of self control and vowed to make a fresh start the next week, after consuming some more of my favorite foods. Once again, I was caught up in the diet-binge cycle. My relationship with food and my body was at an all-time low.
The prospect of another diet made me depressed. Was another way possible? What would happen if I gave up dieting? What if I stopped trying to shrink my body through food restriction and control and started eating whatever I craved? What if I learned to trust my body to maintain a healthy size for me, rather than rely on external rules? So, last winter, I started a new journey to heal my relationship with food and my body: I decided to give up dieting for good.
First, I had to face the hard truth: diets don’t work, according to the research. The average person tries 5 to 7 diets in their lifetime. The weight loss industry is worth over $65 billion, yet more and more Americans are being classified as “overweight” or “obese.” Long-term studies show that weight loss is not sustainable after five years. In fact, 97% of dieters regain everything they’ve lost and then some. I had experienced this in my own life. How many “sugar detoxes” had I tried and failed? How many “forbidden foods” had I cut out of my diet, only to binge on them days or weeks later? Diets don’t work for the vast majority of people who try them, and yet I continued to blame myself.
I also had to address my own internalized fat phobia. At its core, diet culture convinces us that we must control and manipulate our bodies to fit a thin ideal. We live in a society that villainizes and stigmatizes fat bodies, so it’s no wonder that many of us are in a constant battle with our waistlines. An important step on my journey was accepting that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, that body size diversity is normal, and that my own body will change shape naturally due to variety of factors that are beyond my control. My mantras for the first few weeks of my non-diet journey were, “All bodies are good bodies,” and “All bodies deserve respect.”
In the same vein, I had to unlearn what I had been taught about body fat and health. Even while I was dieting, I appreciated the body positive movement. But I still assumed that I had to closely watch my weight to be healthy. What if I gained weight? Won’t I be putting my health at risk? Surprisingly, the research shows that “overweight” people live longer than those in “normal weight” categories. In fact, studies show that weight loss increases the risk of premature death in obese individuals. A recent study suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And weight cycling is proven to be detrimental to our health by increasing heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, and inflammation. Evidence does show that weight stigma is damaging to health and that focusing on weight and body size does not necessarily produce better health outcomes.
A particularly challenging but necessary step on my journey was recognizing my own thin privilege and mourning the loss of the thin ideal. My desire to maintain thinness was not simply personal but cultural. In our society, thin people have access to better healthcare, job prospects, insurance rates, clothing options, and social capital. When I stopped dieting, I had to let go of the picture in my head of what my body would look like after a successful diet. “That’s when I’ll be happy,” I would tell myself. But dieting left me striving for an unattainable goal that only lead to shame and depression. The journey towards thinness hadn’t brought happiness but a lot of misery. I needed to learn to live well in my current body, no matter my pant size. And I needed to strive to make the world more welcome place for people who live in larger bodies.
My non-diet journey has opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of diet culture and its toxic messaging. I appreciate Christy Harrison’s description of diet culture as a “life thief” that seeks to rob you of your time, health, money, happiness and so much more. To truly stop dieting and start living, I needed to cleanse my life of diet culture in all its subtle forms. I deleted calorie counting and fitness tracking apps off my phone. I unfollowed Instagram accounts that made me feel insecure, and started following Health At Every Size nutritionists, fat positive activists, and anti-diet influencers. I listened to body positive podcasts and read memoirs of fat people living full, rich, happy lives. I stopped “body checking” myself every time I passed a mirror. I gave away my too-small clothes and went shopping for new clothing that made me feel good in my current body size. I politely excused myself from conversations that involved body bashing or diet talk.
I also stopped categorizing certain foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy.” When we moralize food, we give it too much power over our psyche. We lose our own innate ability to regulate our diets naturally by tuning into our body’s needs and instead rely on external rules to determine what we should eat. Our bodies need a diverse array of foods to keep us alive. And when we diet, our bodies and our minds enter a starvation mode that convinces us food is scarce. That’s why we can’t stop thinking about “cheat” foods when we are on a diet. That’s why we binge on cookies, why we feels out of control around sugar (which provides our bodies with quick energy). When we restrict foods, our bodies and our minds become obsessed. Our bodies crave what we deny them. And when we tune into those cravings, we can get what we need.
I had dieted so much that I had lost my ability to trust my body around food. My body and my mind need to relearn trust. I gave myself absolute permission to eat. I could have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. This is very scary at the beginning. It meant keeping forbidden foods in my house. It meant eating when my body was hungry, even if I had already eaten dinner. It meant remaining non-judgmental about food choices, learning to see both an apple and a piece of cake as morally neutral. It meant associating food with pleasure, comfort, and celebration rather than guilt, restriction, and control. It meant eating something and moving on, not fixating on the calories or attempting to “work it off.”
My relationship with exercise also changed. Diet culture had convinced me that the sole purpose of exercise is to lose weight. I use to exercise as punishment for things I had eaten or to earn calorie-dense foods in the future. Exercise has amazing benefits, from preventing disease to lifting our moods. When we seek out movement that brings us joy, rather than movement that leads to weight loss, we are more likely to reap those benefits, because that exercise is life-giving habit than life-depleting chore. I stopped paying for my membership to the gym I never went to because I didn’t enjoy it. I started walking more with friends, riding bikes with my kids and doing yoga at home. I spent the time I would have been punishing myself at the gym planting and digging in my garden.
Like most journeys, I have experienced twists and turns along the way. I have days when I’m tempted to dust off the scale and weigh myself. Or pass by a mirror and scrutinize my body. But many days, I feel unburdened by calorie counts and body loathing. I listen to my cravings and feed my body satisfying food. I enjoy dessert, movie theater popcorn and late-night chocolate bars without guilt. I enjoy moving my body in ways that aren’t punishing but life-giving. I encourage anyone interested in starting on this journey to begin with two foundational books: Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. These books are essential reading in the non-diet movement and address the perils of diet culture, the toxicity of fat phobia, and the redefinition of “health” uncoupled from weight. More great resources are listed here.