When You Grow Up With Food Insecurity, Dieting as an Adult Becomes Extremely Complicated

When I go on a diet, somewhere in my subconscious I'm convinced that I'm five years old again, that I'm going to actually die if I don't get some substantial food in my body ASAP.
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Elizabeth Waterhouse
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When I go on a diet, somewhere in my subconscious I'm convinced that I'm five years old again, that I'm going to actually die if I don't get some substantial food in my body ASAP.

Like millions of children in the US today, I often went to bed hungry growing up. Sometimes my parents went without dinner so that my brother and I would have enough to eat. We learned not to ask for food when we were out, not because my mother would say no, but because she looked at us with an expression of desperation and shame as she said it. No to a lollipop at checkout, no to having a friend over for dinner, no to packed lunches for school (school lunch was free for us).

My favorite place to go was my great-grandmother's house. While I was there I'd stuff myself with Hoodsie cups and Nesquik. I never felt guilty for eating the last cookie or popsicle, there was an endless supply! We'd watch her soap operas (she called them her stories) and munch on leftovers, fat slices of custard pie and strawberry soda. When I stayed for the weekend, Nana taught me her favorite dessert recipes. On Sunday when my mom came to get me, we'd serve what we'd concocted.

Baking still feels like carefree weekends spent in my footie pajamas, a break from the anxiety-inducing situation at home. Dessert is snuggling on the couch watching Nick at Nite. Sugar is my Nana smiling and nodding as I tossed skittles carelessly into the cart.

I never thought that loving food could be a bad thing, but as I got older so much else got tangled up in food. As a teenager I nervously eyed the snack situation at a friend's house, afraid I'd get hungry and they wouldn't offer me food. I kept heaps of granola bars in my backpack out of fear that I might get stuck somewhere without food. And I gained weight, little by little. One bowl of Cocoa Pebbles for dessert, then two bowls, then three. Feeling full felt safe. Feeling even a little bit hungry felt scary. I ate as if every bite could be my last.

When there was an abundance I ate and ate. When I had extra cash I bought Ben & Jerry's and ate the whole pint gleefully in my room. My parents got better jobs when I was around thirteen, and after that they spent the majority of extra money on extra food. Our house was packed with bags of chips and Oreos and each week my mom called home from the grocery store taking ice cream flavor requests. I know this made her feel like a good mom, and after years of watching helplessly as we shuffled off to bed on a measly meal of ramen, it was a balm to her wounds.

Today I weigh 200 pounds. That feels like a lot for me. It's the most I've ever weighed, I'm only 5'3". I don't want to keep gaining weight, but I have to tread so carefully into the realm of "dieting." And by that I mean, diets do not work for me, and I suspect, anyone who has a history of food insecurity. Just the word diet triggers an ancient anxiety, a pre-verbal fear. This sounds a little dramatic as I write it, but it's absolutely true. When I go on a diet, somewhere in my subconscious I'm convinced that I'm five years old again, that I'm going to actually die if I don't get some substantial food in my body ASAP.

I mean, who could say no to this face?

I mean, who could say no to this face?

I know on a logical level that this isn't true. I am lucky enough to have full cabinets these days. And yet just hearing the word "diet" feels like enough to bring me to my knees. I've stood in front of the ice cream freezer at the grocery store for a full ten minutes trying to sort out the full scale psychological warzone inside of me. I want the ice cream, says five-year-old me; You're fat (and no one loves you), says seventeen-year-old me; Ice cream doesn't make you feel very good, says twenty-six-year-old me. And in the end, like my mother before me, I throw the damn thing in the cart. And if I couldn't decide on one flavor, I get two.

When I eat it is always with a ferocious anxiety tipping me toward the food. I consume and consume as though there will never be another meal. Sure, I mostly eat healthy foods, but I eat lots of them, and I douse them in oils, and I don't stop until I'm stuffed.

It's not just that I use food to comfort myself—I use not saying "no" to myself to comfort myself. When I want to sleep in instead of go to yoga, when I want another helping of cake, I don't say no. It's raw and it's vulnerable to want something and be denied it. Whether it's the tomagatchi all of my friends had when I was ten or a pint of ice cream at twenty-six.

A couple of weeks ago I decided, with a renewed vigor, that I wanted to lose weight. I don't want to buy more clothes, I don't want more purply stretch marks on my belly, I want to lose thirty pounds. And I love myself. And I think I'm valuable, beyond the body I live in—and I want to lose thirty pounds. This time the decision didn't come from "I hate myself" or "I'm ugly." It came from, Dammit I want to lose thirty pounds. I am an adult now, and for the first time I'm beginning to trust myself. But I know myself, and I know how difficult it is to lose weight when you grew up traumatized by hunger. It's scary. And it's painful. And it involves saying no to some of the things I want.

But something feels different this time. I started to pay attention to the sadness itself. When I say no to sugar, I watch the emotion that wells up. When I choose not to eat the chips. It starts in my chest, it moves up to my throat and eyes. It's grief. It's grief for a childhood of hunger. Grief for all the things I never had or got to experience. In that moment I feel like a child again. And when I say no to that child I feel ashamed, desperate—the way my mother felt.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions...

So I started saying to myself, This is sad. This is so very very sad. I'm sad right now. I'm sad when I don't get something I want. And I hold the feeling a little. And I shut my freezer. And then ten minutes later I do it all over again. But it's been working. Not perfectly, but better than any “diet” ever has. I'm trying to sort out love and discipline, food and safety. I think this is what I always meant when I said I believe in lifestyle changes, not diets.

I think this runs along the lines of what some call "intuitive eating." I want to eat what makes me feel good, really genuinely good in my bones, not what I have a compulsion for, or an addiction to. Not the things I run to when I'm feeling down. This isn't about austerity or self hatred, it's about being a guardian to my body, giving it nourishment, and sometimes treats that don't fall into any of those categories (because we're guardians, not dictators).

I believe in self love and self care, whatever that genuinely means. Sometimes it's working hard at losing thirty pounds. Sometimes it's eating a whole entire pie when your great-grandmother dies. We do what we can. But I think I'm getting closer to a feeling of real safety in my own body. I want my body to trust me. I want my heart to trust me. Even when I'm saying no.