I believe dieting is a violent act.
I don’t feel neutral, or calm, or indifferent about dieting. I feel quite clearly that dieting is a violent act that (predominantly) women are encouraged to perform against themselves.
I find diets to be physically violent, often leading to exhaustive cycles of weight loss and gain and sometimes insufficient calories (i.e. energy) and nutrition.
I find diets to be psychologically violent, often leading to mental obsession, increased stressed, shame, disempowerment, disembodiment, and a general sense of failure when the diet inevitably results not in weight loss, but weight gain.
I find diets spiritually violent, often severing the most sacred of ties between ourselves and the wisdom of our body. I can think of few things as holy as the act of feeding ourselves and this is exactly where diets wreak their havoc.
I have come to believe this about diets after my own stint on Weight Watchers (which fueled the start of my anorexia) at age 20 and a range of other diets in the years to follow. I have come to believe this about diets after a decade of thoroughly researching and formally studying the science and ineffectiveness of diets. Most of all though I have come to believe this after spending years on the frontline of healing women who arrive at my doorstep deeply wounded from years, often decades, spent dieting.
Dieting isn’t all that different than other forms of temporary soothing. Like eating, drinking, or shopping in order to numb out, for the person doing it, at first, it feels relaxing. It’s a bandaid solution that almost always leaves us feeling worse off.
Violence means destruction and that is what I know diets do. They destroy our natural ease with food. They destroy, albeit temporarily, our ability to listen to and honor our unique physical cues about what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. They destroy adult women’s sense that they are capable of feeding themselves without external controls.
The majority of people in the western world, including most of our medical establishment, believe that diets are an obvious and even healthy response to overconsumption of food and possessing a body size above what is deemed acceptable.
It’s just not true though. In fact it’s bullshit. Diets don’t improve our health and they don’t result in weight loss (never mind that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or wrong with weighing more or having a larger body).
It’s understandable that a woman would go on a diet, given the amount of money spent each year across various industries to sell her on the idea that she can’t be trusted around food and that she isn’t desirable unless she is thinner. I understand this. I bought into it too long ago. Yet given what I know, I believe firmly that diets are a violent act.
A word, or two, on the experience of holding a radical point of view: it’s scary.
For women, historically, our very survival has depended on being likable. To feel disliked, judged, and rejected, to women…to me…can induce panic. It is for this reason many women default to silence when their voice, however necessary, might run against the status quo.
So I share this most radical of beliefs knowing that you might not only disagree, but that you might criticize, unfollow, and reject me as a valued voice in your life. I know that my beliefs about dieting are radical. I also know that a lot of normal ideas were at one time radical. I also know that it’s the truthful but less popular ideas that need champions.
As long as it takes I will tell my story, stand for the truth, and call for peace—the peace that diets rob us of. I’m happy to put in the time, however long, until we see a cultural sea change happen.
If you share my view on dieting but feel alone this is me reaching my hand out to join yours. We may be a minority but from what I can tell that is quickly changing and a new paradigm is emerging.
That said while there is a growing awakening happening, there remains a lot of work to do. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey and her recent investment into and spokeswomanship for Weight Watchers…
Have you heard the term “The Oprah Effect”?
This phrase was coined to describe the success that resulted for a person, product (especially books), or business from a single appearance on her television show. And even without her television show, it’s a common belief that Oprah remains the single most powerful woman in the world. And her success is deserving. Oprah, without question, has improved the lives of millions of people.
As a woman, a fellow human, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for her long struggle with food and body loathing. But as a public figure, I believe her endorsement of Weight Watchers, while being a prudent business move (netting her $45 million on paper), is unethical. Simply put she has invested in and endorsed a product proven to fail in the long run.
If Oprah had come out endorsing the Volkswagon cars with faulty emissions readers we’d be up in arms. We’d be cross-eyed and confused.
“Why would anyone endorse a product that doesn’t deliver on its promises?!” we’d say.
“Why would anyone support a company that lies to it’s consumers?!” we’d exclaim.
When I learned that Oprah was coming out with a rousing endorsement of Weight Watchers I felt outraged, but more than that I felt and still feel utterly heartbroken by the incredible missed opportunity that Oprah represents. I’m pained by the incredible number of women who will, I believe, thanks to Oprah, feel a green light to diet.
If you feel drawn to dieting because you feel out of control with food and unhappy with your body please know there is another way. A more effective way. It’s entirely possible to make peace with food and your flesh without the “help” of rigid rules. If you haven’t read Intuitive Eating, please do. If you’re want support I offer 1:1 coaching and teach everything I know in my biannual masterclass, Feast.
Dieting might be the only way you’ve ever known to relate to food and your body, but it’s a violent way and peace is available, this much I know.
What I’ve shared in this post is more about my general view on dieting. Others have written brilliant and likely more measured responses to the Oprah-Weight Watchers scandal. Do check them out:
Somewhere between a recipe, a step-by-step plan, and a map here are 10 ingredients I believe add up to making peace with food:
Learn to manage anxiety and feel feelings
I believe that most chaotic, restrictive, or overconsumptive eating is driven by anxiety. Manage the anxiety and you’re a giant step closer to finding ease at the table. Whether through pharmaceuticals, meditation, or therapy, anxiety management is key in walking this path.
Stop blaming yourself and embrace your humanness
As a human being you are wired to respond to threats of famine (real or perceived) with a compulsion to overeat. You can’t override your wiring. Diets are inherently designed to set you to feel a threat of famine and thus set up to fail. You do not need more willpower. You need to ditch a system that is structured to cause you suffering and will always fail to deliver on it’s promises in the long run. Not your fault. Never has been. Never will be.
Learn the science of Health at Every Size
We take for granted the notion that fat people are inherently unhealthy because of their size. This belief is so common it’s not ever questioned—even though science does not back it up. Once we bust through this myth we take away an important part of the ammunition for restrictive eating.
Find a body role-model
Just because mainstream media presents a homogenous and often unreal ideal of the human body does not mean we can’t expand our own view. The world is full of a kaleidoscope of people who are beautiful, healthy, and loved. It is not, nor has it ever been, true that you have to look a certain way to be these things. Look beyond the magazines and find people who can serve as role models (or proof) of what is possible. Start a pinterest board. Embrace that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Celebrate what makes you unique.
Commit to giving up dieting
To make peace with food you must first commit fiercely to giving up dieting. Peace with food isn’t something we find when part of us is still plotting and pining for a new eating plan or program. Say goodbye to this toxic relationship that never treated you with respect or kindness.
Trade the scale for body-trust
Stop weighing yourself. Dump the scale in the trash, literally. Peace with food depends on letting your body determine the best weight range based on your new, peaceful behaviors with food. When “control weight” isn’t on your to-do list anymore, peace with food is exponentially easier to find.
Play the long-game
Peace with food isn’t something you find overnight or even in a year. It’s a slow-process of reconditioning. If you’ve been indoctrinated from birth with the hungry woman paradigm and dieted for decades, you can’t expect to find peace instantly. But play the long-game compassionate and you’ll get there.
Treat it like learning a new language or instrument: practice
Finding peace with food is anything by a linear path. You will practice, play a wrong note, practice more, fall down, practice more, get better at it, practice more, get lost less frequently, practice more, and so on. This is about hitting the reset button over and over and over again, without judgement, as you imperfectly find your way.
Understand what it means to be a ‘normal’ eater and pursue that
While dieting or bingeing are typical or average eating behaviors in today’s world, they aren’t normal. Normal eating, as well defined by Dr. Ellyn Satter is: “
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Find a mentor and community to join you in the trenches
When the dominant paradigm is one of disorder and/or many of your friends are still pursuing diets and weight-loss it’s essential that you have a support system. Integrating an entirely new way of relating to food, your body and self is no small order and a mentor can be a priceless anchor. Whether a coach or therapist find someone who knows the lay of the land and can provide you with essential tools and encouragement.
This is how I’ve spent much of the past seven months.
While leading six crazy-courageous groups of women through reading and implementing Intuitive Eating, and many of those women through an additional 10-week alumni intensive, I have become a professional jailbreaker.
At the heart of this work is illuminating something I call The Pendulum and then shepherding the participants to often hard to find off-ramp.
The Pendulum is the seemingly never-ending ride between some form of a restrictive state of mind and overconsumption state of mind. A say ‘state of mind’ here and not ‘behaviors’ because we need only psychologically restrict or overconsume to experience the tortuous ride. That is to say that feeling restricted or believing we have overconsumed is far more significant than behaving either way. The mind is a tricky thing. Certainly, we can (and often do) behave these ways, but it isn’t necessary in order to perpetuate The Pendulum and feel the inevitable mental distress that comes with the back and forth swing.
And back and forth we swing.
These two phases of the cycle manifest in a broad array of ways, but all with the same two flavors.
On the one side we feel in control, high even. Above our hungers and with a sense of calm.
On the flip side we’re in chaos, often experiencing some level of shame and self-loathing. We feel out of control.
You probably already know much of this. After all, this is human nature.
We’re hard wired to react to one swing of The Pendulum with the other. (Read: this is not your fault.)
I’m talking about food here, but this is a universal law of energy and applies to many other aspects of our lives.
Back and forth. Restrict. Overconsume. Feeling like we’re being ‘good’ only to be feel that we’re ‘bad’.
Sometimes minute by minute, hour by hour, or month by month. The time between swings isn’t important. What matters is that we can’t cheat The Pendulum. We can’t game the system. As human beings we’re wired to swing one way if we swing the other.
Unless we step off the ride.
The Off Ramp
Every pendulum has a center point. We must pass through this point on our way from one swing to the other.
We can stop the ride if we can only just slow the momentum and rest in that center point.
We do this by meeting the ride with compassion and nonjudgmental observation, this makes it much easier to slow the swing.
We do this by meeting the moment post-overconsumption with a conscious choice to return to the center (i.e. reject restriction).
We do this by returning to our body. The Pendulum swings are perpetuated by an override of our body’s preferences. The off ramp is found when we decide to cease the override.
Again, the polarity of the ride is hard wired into us. We often think that it is our own failing that leads us to over consume, but rather it is our beautiful and human need to both find soothing and avoid famine (real or psychological) that leads us to the ride.
So what does this look like in real life?
It looks like getting clear on your own unique tendencies toward restriction and overconsumption. It looks like getting to know your triggers and the fears and stories that fuel your ride.
Do you tend to restrict certain types of food? Do you restrict eating at certain times of day? Or is it about limiting quantity?
Where do you find yourself most often past the point of comfortable fullness? When do you find yourself feeling like you need to ‘recommit’ to whatever ‘plan’ or ‘program’ or ‘rules’ you identify with?
Identifying our patterns can be tricky as they are often subtle and entirely socially condoned. You can usually sniff them out by following the thread of where you feel guilty around food.
Draw Your Pendulum
Take a piece of paper and a pen. Draw your pendulum. On the left half write out all the ways you see yourself restricting. On the right half write out all the ways you find yourself overconsuming. Again, these can be restrictive or over consumptive thoughts and fixations, not just behaviors. Track your own pendulum swings. Use arrows. Note your flow. Observe how one sets off a chain reaction that leads back to the other.
If you’re tired of the back and forth, commit to returning to center as often as it takes. (It took me a solid two years of practice) Commit to taking the off ramp as often as you’re able to. Commit to paying loving attention. Commit to not blaming yourself for The Pendulum and accepting that it’s part of how our species operates. Commit to restrict nothing but restriction itself. Commit to using common sense instead of sensationalism when it comes to what to eat. Commit to choosing happiness over thinness. Commit to choosing real life instead of chasing perfection. Commit to being smarter than the false promises of restriction. Commit to breaking yourself out of jail.
Freedom is possible and it’s worth committing to it’s pursuit.
“I am never full.”
“The pain will never stop.”
“There isn’t ever enough love.”
“I will never not want to eat the entire grocery store.”
Many of us walk around with the sensation of deep emptiness.
With that sensation is often a fierce belief that there will never be enough.
Be it food or love—too often we walk the earth feeling as though we are a bottomless pit.
One strategy we use is to try to fill it. With entire bags of chips. With another pair of shoes. With 5 o’clock bottles of wine.
On the flip side, we attempt to cover the bottomless pit with a band aid tale of having minimal needs. This where we tell ourselves we’re fine to subsist on crumbs—literal or metaphoric. We keep it together. We stick to the diet. We keep our muscles toned. We don’t need a partner, or attention, or chocolate cake, we’re fine—or so we tell ourselves.
The sad part is the bottomless pit is an illusion. One that has us running in all directions for temporary salves that aren’t sustainable and never leave us feeling very satisfied.
Your local child protective services agency has shown up at your doorstep with two foster children you are charged with taking care of for a year. They tell you that the children came from a home where there was barely anything to eat.
Over the first few days you notice that one of the children eats until they are sick. They eat quickly and with an anxiety that clearly belays their fear of there not being having enough.
The other child eats very little. Nibbling on this or that but not taking enough sustenance or enjoying the delicious food you have offered. This child is attempting to exert some control where they can. When they wasn’t enough in the past, they told themselves that they didn’t need it as a way to feel a level of control where none was.
And all of this makes sense.
Neither of them can be sure that there will be enough. They can’t yet trust that there will be more food anytime they want, and that they don’t have to eat until they’re sick or continue to deny themselves nourishment.
What you find over the weeks to come though, as they learn that there is enough food and they have as much as they want, when they want, in any quantity they want, is that they normalize. They are each able to eat with enjoyment, relaxation, and able to stop when they are physically sated.
Are you getting the metaphor?
Our lives are the home where there will always be enough food.
The question is whether we are willing to heal the trauma of our deprivation by ceasing to deny ourselves. It is we who too often deny ourselves the love we long for. It is we who too often deny ourselves the food or pleasure we hunger for.
The result is that we feel like a bottomless pit.
And all along we had our hand on our own spigot able to turn it on and let it flow.
The trick is to turn the spigot on and don’t turn it off until we’ve had enough – and we find the point of ‘enough’ after a period of reconditioning ourselves to know that there will always be more.
We must let it flow long enough to teach the part of us that is traumatized from deprivation that there will always be enough. What we find when we do this is that that part of us relaxes.
What we find is that the bottomless pit, the one that never existed in the first place, disappears.
Sugar, specifically white refined sugar, has gotten a bad rap.
While I typically abide by a “to each their own” approach to food, it seems that lately there has been a deluge of bloggers ‘coming out’ about their sugar-free lifestyle.
To many this seems logical and saintly. To me this is yet another extreme shift of the dietary pendulum that leaves people swinging between restriction and over consumption, more obsessed with food and less at ease in life
Out of a desire to offer a different perspective and perhaps provide a middle path, I bring you my thoughts on the matter. This post isn’t for the nutrition police who have, for the time being, made up their mind. This is for those of you lost in the middle of a world that plies you with sugary sodas and tells you it’s poison at the same time.
Here are six thoughtful ‘spoonfuls’:
Thoughtful Spoonful #1 A sweet role model on the sweet middle path…
Henry Ware. “Hal” to most. Grandpa, or more often Bapa, to me.
At 91, my grandfather lives alone, remains active, and, for his age, is very healthy. He’s also eaten dessert nearly everyday of his life. [Cue needle scratch]
When I hear of people saying sugar is poison I simply call him up and reminisce about the lemon meringue pie I used to bake with my grandmother. It was so delicious.
Thoughtful Spoonful # 2: When there is nothing to rebel against…
In my experience, when I have something to rebel against, I rebel. When I have nothing to rebel against, I’m free and travelling an easeful middle path. A no-sugar rule would, and has, in my more restrictive days, made me straight-up bonkers. Being a freedom-junkie is what has kept me from being a sugar-junkie.
Thoughtful Spoonful #3: Play food has a place…
Here’s an excerpt from a favorite book of mine, Intuitive Eating:
“Sometimes you have a desire for food that has no nutritionally redemptive powers. We call this food play food. We prefer this term to one of the most commonly used terms to describe what’s considered unhealthy foods–junk food. The term junk food implies that there is no intrinsic value in this food–in fact, that it probably should be thrown in the garbage can. But we feel that this thinking is unwarranted. There are times when a piece of red velvet cake or a stick of licorice is just the food that will satisfy your taste buds. And eating these types of foods doesn’t mean you are an unhealthy eater.”
I have often found important, health-promoting, value in foods with little nutritional value.
Thoughtful Spoonful #4: Every body is wise…
I trust my body implicitly. This is a hard won fact. Most of the time my body, and most well-fed, well-pleasured bodies, don’t crave tons of sugar. Carbohydrates? Yes. My body and brain love carbohydrates. They keep me full, happy, functioning.
With my body leading the way I haven’t been lead straight to the firey hell of Candy Land…just to a sweet middle path.
Thoughtful Spoonful #5: The secret ingredient…
Food is way more than just a sum of it’s macro and micronutrients. Michael Pollan calls this misconception nutritionism. The truth is that there are intangibles in food that we can’t quantify. For example, why does, for some of us, our mother’s version of a dish taste so much better than our own? The answer is something we can’t see under a microscope or write into a recipe. Food, if we pay attention, has (or doesn’t have) soul to it. A factor often ignored when we eliminate whole categories of food.
Thoughtful Spoonful #6: Pleasure as a food group…
Speaking of intangibles in food. I’ve found that just like I can eat a diet deficient in fat or Vitamin C, I can be deficient in pleasure. I’ve learned to treat pleasure like a food group with a hearty dose of daily servings. This is how I feel most well-fed and this sometimes includes sugar.
Thoughtful Spoonful #7: We’re all moderators…
Some people argue that people can be divided into moderators and abstainers – people who have just a little of something and people who can’t. I balk at this argument.
In my experience, an inability to “have just a little” of something is a result of the pendulum swing that occurs for everyone where there is some sort of psychological belief that the item is scarce (“Remember, you only get to eat this when you’re on vacation”) or shouldn’t be eaten (“Good thing no one is here to see you stuffing your face with this naughty food”). When we truly feel free to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, in any quantity we want we naturally find that we don’t overdo much. In my experience, overdoing is a result of compensation for some form of restriction. Moderation is the result of being free and deeply trusting oneself.
Thoughtful Spoonful #8: Information overload…
Lest you think I’m clueless about nutrition and sugar’s effect on our bodies, rest assured that I know my omega-3’s from my omega-6s. At the height of my own eating disorder I was a walking nutritional encyclopedia. I also spent three years spent earning my master’s degree in holistic health education where I studied everything from the USDA guidelines to Ayurvedic eating approaches; raw food to the Weston A. Price approach; Chinese medicine to eco-political food systems.
In the end, I believe we suffer from a dangerous mix of information overload, food paranoia, and body disconnection.
I don’t want to live a life without sugar. I’m all for taking into account what my body and our planet need in order to be healthy, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my mental health for it. I also think the answer is always somewhere in shades of gray, not in the black and white approach of forgoing sugar all together. Turns out I don’t have to. Thank goodness.
So this is the path I have chosen: turn down the noise, ignore fads of the moment, aim for a middle path (all things in moderation, including moderation), restrict nothing, listen to my body, pay attention to the seasons and where my food comes from, and deeply enjoy sweet foods when I want them.