For most of my young adult life, I was an avid dieter. My weight yo-yoed with the seasons. In winter of 2011 I was a size two, and by the next fall I was a twelve. The relationship I had with food was visibly tumultuous.
Most commercialized diets I tried promised both health and happiness. They had ads displaying beautiful, skinny women laughing while holding bowls of ice cream. Slogans hovered above their heads like: choose the meal plan best for you and still eat foods you love; we’ll get you on the right track! I pledged myself to many of these plans, expectantly awaiting life changing results. Weight watchers assured me that I could consume whatever food I wanted (within the point system), Atkins encouraged me to eat food in abundance (but just meat or vegetables), and Nutrisystem promised that I could even have sweets (tiny packaged baked goods). My life was so uninhibited, so limitless!
I hope ya’ll could feel the irony in that last sentence. In reality, I felt extraordinarily constrained by the restrictions laid out for me by the diet programs, and would feel guilty if I ever defied their rules. No matter how ‘good’ I was for the first few weeks of a regimen, I always eventually veered off course. I would eat as an act of rebellion, gaining back the weight I lost plus more, and then hated myself for it. After conducting some research, I found out I wasn’t alone. According to Livestrong’s website, the majority of people who diet actually gain back the weight that they lose, and then some. The New York Post also interviewed some contestants from The Biggest Loser years after their season ended, and found that they too gained back the weight they lost, presumably as a result of the restrictive dieting they underwent on the show.
When I turned nineteen, I bought a book that changed my relationship with food, and consequently transformed my life. It was called: “Women, Food, and God,” by Geneen Roth. In it, Roth proposed a revolutionary idea to readers: stop dieting. She suggested that instead, we should listen to our internal hunger and fullness cues to determine when, what, and how much to eat. This idea, also known as ‘intuitive eating,’ was completely radical to me. Initially it seemed impossible. Without dieting guidelines to follow, I was sure I would eat myself into oblivion.
My fear of the unknown was lessened by the exhaustion I felt after failing so many diet plans. With nothing to lose, I ended up taking a leap of faith and endeavored to follow Roth’s guidelines for intuitive eating. I wish I could tell you it was easy, but nothing worth fighting for ever is. The process was slow and at times testing, but the result was liberating, and eventually set me free from my grueling relationship with food.
Whenever I state that intuitive eating transformed my life, I am usually met with the question: how does one implement it? A lot of us are so used to relying on diets to tell us when and what to eat, that the idea of trusting our own bodies feels foreign or even unnatural to us. To learn intuitive eating, I had to change my attitude toward food. Here are a few concepts I applied that helped me give up diets for good:
First, I stopped projecting labels onto food. After reading Roth’s book, I realized that I spent most of my life classifying food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘fattening’ or ‘light,’ ‘wholesome,’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Because of this, deciding what to eat was an emotional choice for me, and would determine whether I felt shame or happiness around mealtimes. I realize now that there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food. Cupcakes are not evil, and spinach is not holy.
In this process, I also had to rediscover what hunger and fullness actually were. Since I had ignored my body’s natural cues for so long, I had trouble recognizing them. From Roth, I learned that ‘being hungry is like being in love, if you aren’t sure if you are, you’re probably not.’ As someone who used eating as a way to numb painful emotions, this was something I struggled with. Roth’s quote helps me (to this day) determine what nourishment my body needs. During the times I find myself staring dazedly into my fridge at 3am, I ask the question: ‘why am I eating?’ If the answer is anything other than ‘because I’m hungry,’ then I know I am eating to satiate an emotional hunger instead of a physical one. After having that awareness, and identifying the emotion I am trying to suppress (whether it is boredom, sadness, or frustration), then I am able to redirect my energy into addressing the actual problem.
Today, I realize that eating can actually be an enjoyable experience, which is something I never imagined was possible. I have noticed that I feel best when I eat nutritiously dense food, and so find my body often craving fruits, vegetables, and whole grain. However, on the days I wake up craving a piece of cake for breakfast, then I let myself have it. Life is too short to perpetually say no to cake, you know?
Intuitive eating eventually led to me find what Roth calls my ‘natural weight,’ a size that my body is biologically wired to be and so is easy to maintain. I will never be model-thin, and I have let go of that unrealistic expectation for myself. Dieting culture encouraged me to distrust my body and concentrate on a purely aesthetic goals, but intuitive eating placed the focus on health instead of thinness.
If you are in a place like I was, struggling with yo-yo dieting, I hope you decide it’s worth taking a leap of faith to give intuitive eating a try. Your body already has the answers; you just have to listen.
Social media--Maggie Young is an English major currently finishing her undergraduate career at Purdue University. Through candid writing, Maggie’s narratives advocate gender equality, body positivity, and environmental conservancy. Her hope is to empower women to reach their fullest potential by deconstructing unrealistic societal beauty standards fabricated by the media. Maggie hosted the Midwest’s first ‘Healthy is the New Skinny’ body-positivity workshop in January and discussed the importance of media literacy.