An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder—orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, et cetera. This number only reflects those who have been diagnosed. A higher number of people undoubtedly suffer in silence, and for many, severe disordered eating begins with a diet.
An estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, and Americans spend $33 billion each year on weight loss products. Yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans are categorized as "overweight" or "obese." Registered Dietician Whitney Stuart of Whitness Nutrition believes that the whole concept of a diet is backwards because our definition of a "diet" is "based on the idea of less." "Less" could mean cutting calories or food groups, obsessively weighing or measuring food, or only eating at specific times despite hunger cues. Most fad diets have strict, specific rules. Ultimately, Stuart said, these diets tend to be unsustainable for long periods of time, let alone the rest of your life.
One reason I personally enjoyed dieting was that the act of depriving myself granted me a modicum of perceived control. When I was heavily restricting, I felt surges of energy and pride when I denied myself food. But restriction was mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially difficult. Extreme deprivation wouldn’t allow me to enjoy social outings or family gatherings. I felt safest and most in control when I was alone, but even then, intense cravings threatened to upend my will power. And, the natural reaction to extreme deprivation is over-indulgence. The cycle of restricting and binging is insidious, but it happens so often to dieters that over 80% of dieters gain back more weight than they lost. Even worse, evidence suggests that repeatedly losing and gaining weight is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and altered immune function.
The line between dieting and an eating disorder quickly became blurred for me, as I sought to control my body through any means necessary. The Center for Discovery cites a few reasons for the proliferation of American diets, one of which is unrealistic beauty standards. Over 40% of 1st-3rd grade girls say they want to be thinner and 81% of 10-year-olds say they are afraid of being overweight. Fat-phobia is real, and it hits young. Attitudes and beliefs about health are intrinsically and incorrectly tied to size. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly found the lowest mortality rates are among people with a body mass index that puts them in the “overweight” category according to the standard BMI index.
Research also demonstrates that losing weight doesn’t really improve health indicators such as blood pressure, glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people. Many people are uncomfortable with this idea—that someone can be healthy and live in a larger body, simultaneously. And despite the low success rates of many diets, people are often encouraged to diet by not only their family or friends, but health professionals as well, resulting in the continuation of a damaging, frustrating, and fruitless cycle of losing weight only to gain it again.
I have seen multiple therapists over the past few years—some good, some not so good. My favorite therapist introduced me to the concept of Intuitive Eating, which sounded easier to me that it actually is. She taught me two important lessons:
It is harmful and fruitless to attempt to control your body through dieting, restriction, extreme exercise, et cetera. Your body is an extremely intelligent machine that knows better than you.
Intuitive eating cannot be done wrong. You cannot fail. This was an important stepping stone for someone like me, who is extremely competitive and an outright perfectionist.
Reject the Diet Mentality—know that diets will ultimately harm your mental, physical, and emotional health.
Honor Your Hunger—learn to honor the biological signals for hunger and satiation.
Make Peace with Food—if you believe no food is neither good nor bad, you will not experience intense deprivation nor will your body want to binge.
Challenge the Food Police—if all food is neither good nor bad, then you cannot feel pride nor shame for choosing to eat any particular food item.
Respect Your Fullness—learn how it feels to be comfortably full. Pause as you eat and assess your body’s hunger levels. Doing this often will help you identify real, physical hunger.
Discover Your "Satisfaction Factor"—this means eating what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and allows you to really taste and appreciate your food. You will derive pleasure from this and find it takes less food to decide you’ve had “enough.”
Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food—it’s okay (and perfectly human) to occasionally eat out of anxiety, boredom, or to find comfort or distraction. Learn that food will not fix any of these feelings, and will only lead you to feeling worse.
Respect Your Body—accept your genetic blueprint. All bodies do not and should not look the same. Accepting that it is unrealistic and harmful to try to change the natural shape of your body will help you respect it.
Exercise Differently—take a break from diligent, militant exercise and focus on how it feels to move your body. Most of all, choose an activity that feels good and doesn’t leave you exhausted, bored, or frustrated.
Honor Your Health—Remember that you will not suddenly gain weight or experience a nutrient deficiency from one snack, meal, or day of eating. How you eat and treat your body consistently over time is what really matters.
Food never was and never will be the enemy, primarily because it is essential to our survival. Our attitudes surrounding food, dieting, health, and beauty are inherently harmful and difficult to ignore. I recently did a "social media detox" in which I unfollowed any triggering or diet-friendly pages. There is something very empowering about rejecting attitudes and information that you know are damaging creating space for more healthful and uplifting messaging. If you're interested in learning more about the Health at Every Size (HAES), you can read more and sign the pledge HERE, or find a HAES therapist HERE.