One of the basic arguments against dieting, in the Intuitive Eating Workbook is: A diet mentality is the false belief that weight loss leads to happiness. But this has always felt true to me. As a kid, I was unhappy, and I wanted to believe that there was something I could do to fix it: if I could blame all of my unhappiness and loneliness on my weight, then I could at least hope that someday I’d feel better. In reality, I have lost weight over and over again, and it has never resolved the depression or self-hatred or loneliness, and yet I’m still afraid that if I let go of the belief that weight loss will make me happy, I’m letting go of the hope that I will ever be happy.
And it was reassuring to have a diet plan to follow. I’ve stayed on diets for months, or years, despite losing no weight at all, because the sense that I was doing the right thing made me feel better, even if it didn’t help me reach my goals.
I crave a diet plan to tell me what to eat, how much to eat, how to prepare it, and even when to eat it. Diets feel like safe containers for someone, like me, who has learned to believe that food is dangerous and unpredictable; for someone who is overwhelmed with too many choices and who believes, fundamentally, that her body is wrong and must be controlled and limited and made smaller.
The problem is that the diets themselves perpetuate those beliefs about the dangerousness of food and the dangerousness of my body. The diet tells me that I can’t survive without it; that I will crash and burn, and there is no alternative, except maybe for another diet. That’s why this transition to a no-diet life is so damn hard; because there is no plan, no safe container, just impossible lessons to learn, like: trust yourself, honor your feelings, respect your own body and wisdom.
I’m no longer on a specific diet plan (Like Weight Watchers or Noom) and I’m not counting calories or avoiding carbohydrates or fats, but I still have the endless voices in my head telling me that I shouldn’t eat this and I shouldn’t eat that, and if only I lost weight I’d finally be happy. And the voices aren’t just in my own head, they’re everywhere.
The frustrating thing is that the research on diets has been clear: the majority of people who go on diets gain the weight back, and often gain even more than they’d lost in the first place. And it’s not just that diets don’t work, they actually create health problems, because the cycle of weight loss and inevitable weight gain is worse for the body than maintaining a weight above what the charts suggest. But no one I know actually believes the research. So, are we all in a collective delusion? And how do I escape from a belief system that is constantly reinforced?
Doctors have been some of the worst offenders in creating shame around my weight. They have blamed any and every health issue on my weight, even when it was clearly unrelated, and they have had no interest in hearing that my health has never improved as a result of weight loss.
I recently had to see the gynecologist for my yearly checkup, and she said that my health is good except for one thing and you know what that is. But I didn’t know, because I could think of a number of issues that are currently impacting my health. But before I could even try to answer her non-question, she said, it’s your weight. And, she said, You just need to eat less. Then she proceeded to show me what a small portion of food would look like, with her hands.
Aside from the fact that I probably know more about dieting than she does, and that the size of food doesn’t determine its caloric value, what she’s ignoring is that being on a diet and just eating less has taught me to feel like a bad person for eating anything.
When I read in the Intuitive Eating Workbook that if I am hungrier on a given day then I should eat more, I was sure that that rule shouldn’t apply to me, because, of course, I would lie to myself about my hunger level, and sneak food past myself.
When the Intuitive Eating Workbook told me to respect my cravings and learn how to eat those foods when I crave them, and then to stop when I am full, I didn’t know what to do, because I was always told to do anything and everything to distract myself from cravings, and to never give in to them. I was supposed to drink water, or take a bath, or go for a run, to avoid eating the food I really wanted to eat, even if I had no interest in doing any of those things. I automatically assume that if I crave something, or even want something with any intensity, then I shouldn’t have it. I’ve read so many articles that say craving a food is a sign that it is bad for me, and that I will crave exactly the foods I am allergic to and that’s how I’ll know I’m allergic.
But is that true? Are the things I feel most strongly about the things I should avoid? Then what am I left with? How do I decide what to do if wanting to do something is a sign not to do it?
Who came up with this shit in the first place?
During this year of social distancing, a lot of people have experienced cravings for human contact, cravings so strong that they broke safety protocols to go out to parties or bars or restaurants, because the need for human contact was so insistent. Is it the craving for human contact that’s bad or the way they chose to satisfy that craving?
My students at synagogue school often crave movement by the time they arrive after a full day of school. They crave it so much that if I don’t create a safe and productive way for them to move, they will move in whatever way they can. I can choose to create a safe environment for them to move in, or I can choose to ignore their need and leave them to disrupt the class or drive themselves crazy, but either way, the kids are going to move; not because they are bad kids, but because they are human.
Can I accept that in myself too? Can I ever find a way to give myself permission to be guided by what I want, without worrying that I’m taking the road to hell?
In a recent visit with the nutritionist she said that I was confusing taste hunger with physical hunger, because as long as the food still tasted good I still wanted to eat. Ideally, she said, the yummy taste of the food would diminish as I became full, but that has never been my experience. So we planned out a very specific sequence of actions for me to check in with my physical fullness, and my taste hunger, separately, with the commitment that I would rely on my physical feeling of fullness to tell me when to stop eating, even if the taste hunger persisted.
I want to believe that I can learn how to do this and find a healthier and happier way to eat and live, but it still feels like a fairytale; like something I want to believe in that can’t possibly be true. I still live in a world where everyone thinks they need to be on a diet, no matter what they weigh. I still live in a world where we have no realistic idea of healthy sizes for different bodies, and we judge each other based on standards that fit almost no one. How am I supposed to ignore all of that noise and suddenly learn to trust myself?
I don’t know yet, but I will keep working on it.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?