I wasn't one of those 10-year-olds on a diet. I was a fat kid and a chubby adolescent, but while I hated my expanding-spill body, I don't remember ever attempting to regulate my food intake as a solution. My internal logic seemed to be that since I was fat, I might as well eat whatever I want. It's not as if I had a figure to maintain.
When I was 18, I spent a few years on the Atkins diet and lost half my body weight, an event that is second probably only to getting sober in its positive effect on my life. For the first time, I felt in control of my eating and by extension, everything else. I got comfortable in my body and grew to love exercise, at one point bursting into joyful tears when a Pilates instructor complimented me on my form. I left my abusive high-school boyfriend. I bought a very short skirt.
I am incredibly grateful to that diet that changed my life. I know that some people consider low-carb diets unhealthy, but my feeling then and now was that the health benefits of going from morbidly obese to average weight outweighed concerns about eating too much meat or whatever. I was also eating vegetables and going to the gym regularly for the first time. Consuming a lot of protein naturally managed my hunger and freed me from the compulsive eating I'd always felt enslaved by. For me, then, dieting was a fulfilling and life-changing choice.
That was then and this is now. While I have maintained the majority of my weight loss since college, for years I have fought a losing battle with the same 20 pounds. At any given point in the last 8 years, I have weighed somewhere between 165 and 185 pounds. During all that time I have been either "on a diet" and severely restricting my calories, or "off my diet," which in effect means I am in full-on binge mode and possibly purging.
Because a diet worked so well for me once, I have considered my compulsive eating the problem and adhering to a diet the solution. Not until now have I been emotionally able to see that my dieting is actually part of the binge cycle. Like this:
My bulimia has always been at subclinical levels -- I tend to purge after eating regular or slightly large meals, not after bingeing, and less frequently than the diagnostic requirement of at least once a week for 3 months. Because of this, it's been easy for me to consider my eating disorder inactive most of the time.
But, if I consider the above diagram, from "Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery," throwing up is not the only bulimic behavior I engage in. My yo-yo dieting is just as much a part of the cycle as sticking my finger down my throat.
I usually start any major life change with research, so over the weekend I bought a lot of books, one of which identifies the four basic rules that "normal" eaters follow: 1. eating when hungry. 2. choosing satisfying foods. 3. eating with awareness and enjoyment and 4. stopping when satisfied. Is that definition as mind-blowing to you as it is to me? Do people actually live this way? Can I?
The first step, according to "When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies," by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter, which is a great resource for de-Dieting your life, is to "legalize" all food. The career dieter's mind is at this point probably a complicated and contradictory web of food rules regarding fat, sugar and carbohydrates, and a large collection of foods that are designated as "bad" and therefore off-limits. When you legalize food, you assign all foods an equal psychological value -- nothing is forbidden, no food has a moral value.
In all the time that we have been together, my fiance and I have never eaten at an Italian restaurant. If asked, my fiance would tell you that I don't like pasta. I have been telling people the same thing for so long that I believed it to be the truth. Guys, I fucking love pasta.
I know because I ordered some, for the first time in a decade, on Saturday night. It was penne with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and pine nuts, and it was delicious. I ate it until I was physically satisfied, a serving that amounted to a fraction of the oversize restaurant portion. I saved the rest, reminding myself that I could eat that same pasta again anytime I wanted to in the future.
And this is how I plan to proceed. I will do my best to wait until I am physiologically hungry to eat. When I am sure I am hungry, I will attempt to find the perfect match between my hunger and what I want to eat. I will eat slowly and mindfully and attempt to stop when I am satisfied.
The next day, I woke up around 6:30 and didn't feel hungry until about 8, when I ate an ice cream sandwich because that's what sounded good to me. My fiance and I took the baby on a 3-mile walk, and around 10:00 am we were both starving. I closed my eyes and checked in with myself and decided that I wanted mozarella cheese. We passed a bakery, where I stopped and bought fresh-baked bread.
At the grocery store, I purchased the cheese (full-fat), along with a tomato and an avocado (also high in fat) which I used to make a FORBIDDEN FOOD sandwich. It tasted fucking incredible. I ate about 3/4 of it, before announcing "I'm full!" to my boyfriend like I'd just discovered something really interesting instead of something a baby understands how to do inherently. (Seriously, babies are inspiring on this matter. Little dude doesn't care how much formula is in the bottle; when he's done, he's done. Of course, formula also kind of sucks.)
What became clear to me immediately is that my eating is completely detached from my hunger, that in fact the hardest part so far is telling when I am, in fact, actually hungry. The second hardest part is figuring out what I want to eat, and the third hardest part is knowing when to stop. So it's all the hardest part. But I expect it will get easier with practice.
There's a lot more to the process of "demand feeding," as Hirschmann and Munter call it. If you're interested in actually trying it, I suggest buying the book.
The most important thing is that the point of all this is NOT to lose weight. In fact, in order for it to work, you have to accept the fact that you may never lose another pound. What should happen as you get better at eating purely to satisfy your hunger is that your weight will settle at its natural point -- which could be smaller, larger, or the same as your current size.
The idea is to learn to eat according to what's going on inside you -- how empty or full you feel -- rather than what's going on outside you -- how thin or fat you look. And then accepting the results. To learn to trust your body instead of fighting it.
So I canceled my Weight Watchers subscription, clicking through several technological roadblocks designed to get me to rethink my decision, and I came to work with a bag full of that crumbly bread, fresh goat cheese, almonds and a Hostess cupcake. I may eat some of it. I may eat all of it. I may eat something else entirely. I'll keep you posted.
@msemilymccombs will be eating whatever she wants on Twitter.