When was the first time you thought there’s something wrong with your body? I might have been only 5 or 6. Ever since then, a large part of my life was an uphill battle to lose weight, and to keep it off afterwards. Only recently I managed to quit this wicked game.
As a kid, I supposedly was a picky eater. Most of the time I’d rather not eat at all. This got my parents understandably worried, and they tried all possible tricks to make me eat more. Until one day they asked a doctor for advice, and he said, maybe you shouldn’t try to force any more food into this kid, cause she looks fat enough the way she currently is.
The funny thing is, I was neither skinny nor fat either before or after this “diagnosis”. Looking at my photos from that time, I fitted right in the middle of the so called normal range. But somehow at the crazy age of 6 I got to believe I was fat, and carried this belief with me for the rest of my life.
As a teenager, I decided to solve this problem once and for all. I knew my BMI was okay, but when you’re a teenager, “objective” criteria matter much less than what your peer group says. At that time my peer group consisted almost exclusively of girls much skinnier than me who considered themselves fat and were all permanently trying to lose weight. Of course I joined them in their neverending dieting cycle. How couldn’t I?
Soon I realised losing weight was the easy part
The real challenge was to keep it all off afterwards. Every period of intense dieting was followed by a celebration once I’ve finally achieved my goal, treating myself “right” for a while because I “deserved it”, or punishing myself with even stronger restrictions when I felt that I “didn’t deserve”.
And then I went to college and for the first time had no adult around to comment on my nutrition, meal times, and eating habits. Soon I found myself on a diet that consisted mostly of beer, vodka, potato crisps, and kebab at 6am. I knew this wasn’t right, so then I’d punish myself twice as hard, and fight with twice the force to make up for the damage.
Over the years, I’ve lost more in total than my current bodyweight. Every time, the weight would come back, usually multiplied. I thought maybe the diet I chose wasn’t that good after all, so I would try a different one next time. At one point I counted calories. At another, I tried to eliminate sugar, fat, meat, carbs in general, or even vegetables. I was vegetarian for 5 years, paleo for one, keto for almost a half, and miserable most of the time.
The craziest thing I’ve tried was the Dukan diet. I ate only lean protein (mostly chicken breast) for 5 days in a row, followed by another 5 days of lean protein and lean veggies. At the end of the cycle, repeat. No fruits, fat, or even complex carbohydrates were allowed at all. Alcohol was forbidden too, but quitting alcohol was harder than quitting fat, so I drank the “healthiest” thing I could find–vodka with Coke Zero, usually on empty stomach. My stomach didn’t consider it too healthy to be honest.
This diet felt wrong on so many levels, and yet I persisted, thinking it’s the only thing that will help me reach my dream bodyweight. This was the only time when I literally had dreams about pizza. Then after a few months of struggle I finally reached my dream number on scale, and slowly relaxed the regime, first a little bit, then a little bit more. All that struggle and sacrifice lasted for less than a year. Two years later I’ve regained twice the total weight I’d previously lost.
No, I haven’t found a perfect diet since then
When you hear stories like this on the internet, there’s always a “happily ever after” somewhere in the end. You know, I used to struggle with my weight for a lifetime, but then I discovered this one simple trick, be it slow-carb, veganism, paleo, or carnivore, and then all my troubles were solved forever. For just $99 I’ll share my secret with you so that you can be skinny for life.
No, I only broke out of the vicious circle of dieting, binge eating, rewards, punishment and yo-yo effect, when I realised how the whole effort is misguided. It was all based on the false premise that I need to keep my natural instincts in check. I thought that given a chance, my body would stuff itself with fat and sugar until death, so under no circumstance I was allowed to let it have what it wants. No matter if I was eating vegetarian, low calories, or carnivore, my attitude was always the same. I couldn’t trust my body. I had to keep it under control at all times.
It wasn’t until I started meditating that I realised my struggle with food is emotional, and that I had to solve it on that level first. I used food and alcohol to address emotional needs, cause I lacked better tools to do it at that time.
Feeling upset? Let’s go for a drink or 5.
Tired? I totally deserve a pizza.
Sad? I’m sure a cookie will help.
Depressed? I’m gonna stuff myself with all the food and vodka I can find, until I don’t feel any feelings anymore.
Trying to control portion sizes or the kind of the food I ate didn’t make these underlying emotions go away. I kinda suppressed them with willpower and force, until a bad day would inevitably show up. Once it did, all the stuff I was trying to run away from attacked me twice as hard as before, and I gave in to all my cravings while trying to cope.
I didn’t have a problem with craving unhealthy stuff
No, the problem was that I got so used to suppressing all the signals my body was trying to send, that after all these years I no longer knew what is hunger anymore. Many times I thought I was hungry when I was actually feeling sadness, anxiety, fear, boredom, or unspecified unease.
It wasn’t until I gave myself a permission to actually feel all these feelings without running to booze or comfort food, that I learn how real hunger feels like, and how different it is from all these other things. As I created space to work through challenging emotions, I found myself less and less compelled to fix my mood swings with food.
At first I was like “I feel like I must eat a cookie right now, and I know it’s likely not going to help, but I’m gonna have it anyway and see how it works”. Then I would check in with myself again after eating that cookie, and surprisingly it sometimes did help, but more often it did not.
With time I got to learn the difference between craving a cookie because I hadn’t eaten anything in hours and had no more blood sugar to function, and craving a cookie because someone reminded me of something embarrassing I did, and I wanted to push away that feeling and replace it with a pleasant one. The first situation happened less, as I became more sensitive to the actual feeling of hunger. In the second case, I knew food wasn’t really going to help, and I had to find other ways of dealing with it. The more I did, the more I learned to trust how my body feels.
Trusting your body for the first time requires lots of courage
Eating whatever I want, whenever I want, as much as I want? That’s insane, isn’t it? Given the chance, I would immediately stuff myself with pizza and cookies all day. I remembered what happened when I let go of control after Dukan. Sure I would never want to go back to that?
I thought that given my pretty unsuccessful track record so far, I’d better rely on professionals to tell me what’s good for my health. Perhaps Dr Dukan was mistaken, but there are thousands other people researching nutrition, sure there must be consensus about what is right? Only recently I learned that nutrition as a science is quite confused, and you can find studies proving and disproving pretty much every claim.
But what actually forced me to trust my body was moving in with my partner, and seeing how differently we react to the exact same things. What worked for him made me feel miserable, and vice versa. Each of us was trying not to gain weight, but we had vastly different ideas what to do. After a few months of fruitless discussions about what’s the ultimate nutritional hack, we decided that maybe each of us should do one’s own thing, and give up on trying to convert the other or seeking objective truth.
At this point, doing my own thing means eating mostly veggies, sourdough bread, diary, seafood, and yes, the occasional cookie or cake. Every single thing on this list I used to consider forbidden at some point. But after experimenting with pretty much everything, from vegan to almost exclusively carnivore, this is what makes me feel the best right now. I know it doesn’t work best for everyone. Hey, it might not even work for me after a year or two. Who knows? I heard pregnancy hormones can make you crave some weird stuff.
Deciding to trust your body is a rebellious act
It goes against the cultural programming attacking us from everywhere. Dietary taboos are nothing new, but given that religions don’t carry as much power as they used to, food is now one of the very few taboos that most people share.
Nobody can simply eat cake anymore. They’ll either feel guilty, or explain how they deserved it this time. Cake is considered bad, period.
Eating too much on one day requires making up for it on the next. Looking fat is often considered a sign of moral weakness, and the only thing worse than this is looking fat and being perfectly okay with it.
No wonder people are afraid to let go of control. Who knows what will happen then? It might as well turn out that if you give yourself permission to eat what you want, as much as you want, you’ll never get rid of those love handles, belly fat, or thick thighs. What if you listen to your body, and it turns out to only want pizza and potato chips, followed by large amounts of beer?
But is it what your body really wants? From my experience so far, stuffing myself with pizza and beer was an attractive option only after I’ve been forcing myself to eat lean chicken breast for the previous 6 months. Which was quite understandable, given how my body was deprived of fat, and probably other essential vitamins or minerals.
At any other time, too much beer and pizza make me feel pretty bad on the next day. Why would I choose that if I can eat something that both tastes great and makes me feel even better when I wake up? Just like spending all day in front of TV sounds awesome only if you forgot how to dream, eating fast food all the time sounds attractive only if you forgot how to listen to your body. If you did, you would soon realize this kebab and french fries ain’t gonna make it super happy after all.
These decades of control can’t be magically undone all at once
When I have a bad day, my first instinct still is to grab a cookie, and more often than not I still give in to it. When I’m stressed or busy, I still sometimes forget to eat for the whole day, to the point where I’m an emotional wreck and cry for no reason at all, other than being hungry. All-you-can-eat buffets are still a challenge, cause I still often overestimate how much food I actually need.
But for the first time since I remember, I no longer think about food in moral categories. There are no good foods or bad foods. Food is not a treat, reward, punishment, or something to feel guilty and ashamed about. Food is fuel that keeps me going, so I’d better choose the kind of fuel that does the best job at that. When I feel like having a sandwich, I’ll have a sandwich. When I feel like eating a cake, I’ll eat a cake. When I feel like I’m not hungry at all for some reason, I’ll skip a meal or even two, until my body tells me to eat again.
Since I started doing this, at almost 31 I look and feel much better than I ever did. But most importantly, it requires almost no effort at all, compared to what I did for all these previous years.