It’s not a secret that many women, and many Betches readers and Diet Starts Tomorrow listeners, struggle with the cycle of dieting. That’s why we tapped Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet and a recovering “food addict”, to share her journey with Betches. From yo-yo dieting to intuitive eating, from self-loathing to acceptance, she will be chronicling her decades-long struggle with food and how she overcame it over the course of this four-part series. New installments of F*ck Your Diet will drop on Mondays, so follow along, and follow Caroline at @thefuckitdiet.
Read part 1 of the F*ck Your Diet series here!
Welcome back to F*ck Your Diet, where I am uncovering the dark side of dieting and restriction and giving you permission to F*ck Your Diet, too. This is the second part of my series about my experience with food addiction, dieting, bingeing, and how I got out of the cycle (part one is here, where I talk about my childhood food fixation and bingeing on Easy Bake Oven powder packets that led me to believe I was a food addict… because I acted like one). I’m going to break down the nuances of food addiction, food fixation, and using food to soothe in the next and third installment, so stay tuned for that one too!
My dieting started at 14 when I gained weight for the first time. In a matter of months, I went from totally flat-chested to a size F bra. Not only did I not fit in Limited Too’s pastel-colored bra options, but I didn’t even fit in Victoria’s Secret bras. I was 14 and only fit into old lady bras from a department store. HELP.
At the same time, I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and told flippantly by my doctor not to gain weight and make sure I exercised and watched what I ate. Which, to me, implied that food and weight gain caused my hormonal problem, and that therefore dieting and losing weight could cure it. Challenge accepted. (This is not actually true, because thin people have PCOS too, but somehow I ignored that fact.)
And at the very same time in high school, I was deciding whether or not to try to become a professional musical theater actor. I know that sounds stupid, it seems like every teenage girl acts and sings and thinks they are extremely talented, but I was being cast in professional musicals in Philadelphia while I was still in high school. I had my picture in a skimpy little white dress blown up on the cover of my local newspaper for a feature on me. This is not to brag, only to illustrate the extra pressure on how I looked.
Beyond health, and beyond just the normal discomfort of getting used to an adult body, I was on stage, playing characters named “Philia, the beautiful young virgin” who sang songs about how lovely I was. If performing was my destiny, and I kept being expected to play these tiny pretty little ingenues in musicals, and I really was good enough to be working professionally as a 17-year-old, and everyone in my high school kept saying “DOONER YOU ARE GOING TO BE ON BROADWAY,” then I told myself I really have to start doing a better job on my f*cking diet. I cannot let my food addiction get the best of me. I MUST accept the challenge of my destiny and become skinny. It was all a huge burden, actually. The joy of singing and acting was completely outweighed by the hyper-focus on my looks and weight. It was the nail in the coffin: I was extremely obsessed with food, and dieting, and what I weighed. It felt necessary for my health and hormones, and it felt necessary for my CAREER.
But the more I dieted, the more and more out of control with food I became. I took it extremely seriously. The stakes felt VERY HIGH. And so I would be absolutely perfect on the diet for a few months, and then, inevitably, I would lose it. I would shovel food into my mouth in secret for a few weeks, completely miserable and horrified with myself that I was letting what was clearly a food addiction take control of me. I’d gain all of the weight back that I’d lost in a week flat, and then I’d put myself on another diet.
This cycle started in high school, but it continued through college and into my early twenties. And the more I dieted, the more intense my binges became, and the more obsessed with food I felt. I thought about food nonstop. If I wasn’t diligent about the rules of my diet, I would eat way more than was “acceptable”. I was constantly starving, and I gained weight really easily while I was dieting. It seemed like I could gain almost all the weight I’d lost back in just a few days. I could eat an entire jar of peanut butter in one afternoon when I was on a low-carb diet. I could eat 6 boxes of cookies in one sitting. I could eat 10,000 calories in two hours, and I often did. And then, I was back on another diet, trying to overcorrect for the damage I’d done.
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hi! I’m on vacation but I can’t keep away! If you’re new here, this account (and my book) is all about getting out of the diet cult we all grew up on (or joined later in life). It’s a little like de-programming. I was a chronic dieter for over ten years, and believed I was TRULY a food addict (because I acted like one). Now I write about everything I learned that helped me get out of the cycle- why *diets* were actually the thing making me extremely out of control with food. I also write about how you can get out of that cycle too. Go over to my site and download the beginning of my book for free! thefuckitdiet.com/free (link to links in profile!) #thefuckitdiet #intuitiveeating #diet
I would try doing your basic calorie counting, I would also go on “sensible plans,” I would try to just eat “moderate” amounts of “whole foods,” but I would also dabble in more extreme plans for total health and healing. I become raw vegan for 9 months, and I also became paleo (which is the complete opposite of raw veganism) and I ate like the caveman I was always meant to be. Nothing worked long term, and nothing cured my food addiction and cravings like they promised they would. Sure, for a few weeks (or months) I was on a high, sure that I’d found the perfect plan for me. And it’s easy to stick to too! I love it! I will eat this way forever!!!!!! But soon enough, I was bingeing.
I was always trying to eat less food and less carbs, no matter what plan I was on. This was my lifelong—well, decade long, but what felt like my lifelong—burden: curtailing my food addiction and my weight. It was scary. It was miserable. It was desperate. And honestly, my intentions were pure. I believed this was important, and responsible, and the only way to save me from myself and a horrible fate of health problems. I thought that skinny was healthy, responsible, beautiful and important. And that was mirrored back to me everywhere. Everyone around me, every diet, every magazine, every conversation I overheard: dieting was important and responsible, and I was failing over and over and over.
Until I heard someone on a paleo message board say that going low carb messed with their hormones and fertility, and that they had to eat more carbs, rest, and gain weight to get their hormones working properly again. …I’m sorry… what? Are you telling me that eating low carb is maybe ruining my hormones? That is the opposite of what I’d been trying to do. Then I heard some low carb paleo guru say on his podcast that eating low carb can make you more insulin resistant but “it’s ok, because you aren’t eating carbs anyway.” (Yes, I listened to paleo podcasts 8 years ago. As I said: I was dedicated.) And also: I’m sorry, WHAT?! I’ve been eating low carb for 10 f*cking years because I’m trying to improve my hormones and my insulin sensitivity, and cure myself from the inside out by purifying my body with pure food so I can heal on a cellular level. And you’re telling me I’m making things worse?! And honestly, I was making things worse. My health was not better. I could barely sleep. I barely got my period, but I blamed that on my PCOS, and not on me being on and off a diet for a decade.
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I felt like the spell had been broken. I didn’t know what to do about it and I didn’t have the full picture yet, but I didn’t feel enchanted by diets anymore. Honestly: I felt duped. I’d been doing the same thing over and over again for 10 years, and it had only made me more obsessed with food. Even my occasional attempts to “eat intuitively” were still just attempts to eat less and weigh less. I finally felt, deep in my bones, that all my attempts at curtailing food and carbs were not the answer anymore. In fact, I felt like the way out of this cycle might be … eating food and …gaining weight.
This wasn’t a small, gentle “aha” moment. This was a breakdown and breakthrough born of true misery. This was like leaving a religion. I had worshipped at the altar of thinness and food control and “healthy eating” for so long. I had relied on it to save me. I had hated myself for how out of control I would get with food. I was so disappointed in myself for not being able to get my “addiction” under control, no matter how important it was to me. I had been disordered and obsessed with food and dieting and weight for so many of the formative years of my life. And I had really and truly tried it all, and nothing had worked. I was just as miserable, food obsessed, and as unhealthy as I’d ever been.
So, I started researching. I needed to understand more about the harm that dieting and restricting and controlling your weight can do to your physical health. It was clear enough to me at this point that dieting had been bad for my mental health, but if I could learn more about the harm I was doing to my physical health, that would really help me get out of the cycle.
I probably Googled something like, “are diets harmful?” Then I probably Googled “are you f*cking kidding me with this, why didn’t anyone TELL ME that diets are bad for me and are only going to make me more obsessed with food?!?!?!” and somehow I stumbled across the book Health at Every Size. I don’t know if a blog recommended it, or if it was a comment on a blog, or if it was a search in Amazon for a book about weight and health science, but this book was exactly what I needed to read. It’s written by a scientist and weight researcher, Linda Bacon PhD, who initially went into her field to learn how to effectively lose weight and keep it off, healthily and permanently. And what she learned over her years of studying the human metabolism, was that with intentional weight loss, there is always a metabolic backlash. Your body insists you put weight back on so it feels safe. Your body either slows down metabolically in order to put weight back on, sometimes even when you’re still sticking to the diet. Or it fixates you on food, so food tastes better, you’re hungrier, and has your brain thinking more about food than it otherwise would. Your body is literally pushing you off your diet. On purpose.
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Not only that, but the health improvements from weight loss are also temporary. Intentional weight loss starts off with health improvements, but over an extended period of time, health markers tend to end up worse than where they started. Ugh. Of course. Thanks a lot, Dr. Atkins.
The other fascinating thing I learned was that we all have diverse weight set ranges, the range where our own body feels safest. This is influenced by our genetics, and sometimes even our past attempts to diet. We think that dieting is going to help lower our natural weight set-range, but it can actually make our safe weight higher, because our bodies are like, “f*ck you for starving me, I refuse to die this way!” And so we put on weight, to save our lives.
We think the weight gain is the problem, but it’s actually protective. Our body works really, really hard to keep us in our set range. It will literally adjust our metabolism and our appetite in order to make us gain weight again if we are trying to go below it. Pushing your weight below our natural range is not only hard, and often impossible to stay there, but it’s bad for us, too. And weight cycling (going up and down every time we go on and off a diet) is bad for us too, way worse for us than just staying at one weight and tweaking our health habits.
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Also we can replace “woman” with “person” and it applies fully. No matter what the reason: everyone can fuck right off with faux health concerns and concern trolling. (This image is by @katiemcrenshaw and I found it through @with_this_body ) (also some people’s asshole comments on this post are easily helping me figure out who to block !! “Much love xo xo block! “ )
This isn’t saying that weight loss is always unhealthy—it’s not. But intentional weight loss and restriction often end up doing more harm to us, long-term, than food. We think we are being healthy and responsible, but we are actually putting our bodies, metabolism, and hormones into a cycle that ends up being really bad for us, and really bad for our relationship with food.
This information corroborated everything I had been experiencing. Also: f*cking thanks for nothing, diet gurus. Thanks for missing this important piece of information and continually assuring me that yours was the diet that held the answer to my food cravings. I finally had the assurance I needed that eating and getting out of the diet cycle was the way to heal my fixation on food, my erratic appetite, and allow me to just… live my life. It felt daunting. And I knew I was going to have to face some big fears, let go of some control issues I had, and almost certainly: gain some weight. But I knew I needed to do it.
In my next installment, I’m going to talk about what that was actually like for me to stop dieting. What it looked like to stop dieting, let go of the rules, buy new clothes, change my priorities… and how long it took, too. I’m also going to take a more nuanced look at what food addiction actually is. Stay tuned! More Soon! Until then I’ll be writing, eating, and napping.
Images: thefuckitdiet / Instagram