We’re back! In this installment of F*ck Your Diet, I am going to explain how I actually stopped dieting. But if you’re new here, read the first two installments to get some context. My first installment is about how I’d been binging on food since I was a child, and the second installment is about my experience dieting for 10 years to try and control my “addiction,” which only made my “addiction” to food worse.
When I set out to heal my eating, I had already spent a handful of years (before my final stint on the paleo diet) thinking I was “listening to my body” and “eating intuitively.” But I wasn’t really. What I was actually doing was constantly trying to eat the smallest amount possible. I assumed that the more intuitive I was, and the more precisely I listened to my hunger, the less I would eat. I soaked up the belief that leaving the table slightly hungry was healthier than leaving the table slightly full. I believed, truly, that thinner was always healthier, and that if I could just get my act together and be permanently skinny, that all of my health problems, including my PCOS, would go away. (And all of my other problems too.)
I also spent a good bit of this time thinking I was being balanced and responsible and chic by eating “like a French woman.” Seriously. My eating was straight out of the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, and I thought I had found the answer: Frenchness. This wasn’t a diet! This was culture! This was aspirational food snobbery! I (thought I) was eating whatever I wanted, just in small quantities! I also ate everything really slowly. I felt bad if I ever wanted to eat a whole brownie, because a French person would probably only eat half of a brownie, if they even ate brownies at all. Which, ugh, they probably don’t even eat brownies. I should be having a fruit clafoutis!!!!
Beyond brownie panic, I thought that because I wasn’t formally on a diet, I was healed from my “food addiction”. But I wasn’t. I was still over-worried about amounts of food, my goal was still always thinness, and I still thought about food. A lot.
It took 10 years for me to realize that micromanaging food and carbs, and trying to force myself to lose the 10-15 pounds that I’d lost and just gained back, had been really bad for me. It definitely wasn’t good for me mentally, but it also wasn’t healthy physically. The toughest thing to wrap my head around was that diets were not helpful, because what I had been doing with diets and weight loss was culturally normal and encouraged. Everyone’s doing it! Everyone’s talking about it and complaining about it and trying to lose the same 10-15 pounds I am. It really didn’t seem like I was undereating at all. I was just focused on healthy food and wellness! I mean, honestly, according to the calorie allotments in fitness apps, I was overeating every day. Plus, I binged for God’s sake. PLUS! I didn’t look emaciated, or like I had a problem with food. I actually gained weight really easily. My problem, ever since I was a child, had been eating too much. So, the idea that I had a problem with dieting was a hard pill to swallow.
But here I was, still obsessed with food after 10 years of dieting, and I finally started learning that our bodies are wired to push us off our diets. And instead of fighting back against our bodies, we need to just… stop it. This is something I go into even more in detail in the second installment (so go there and read it!) But, TL;DR: I started learning about the inevitable metabolic backlash with diets—that we are wired to fixate on food, binge, and gain weight when we try and force weight loss, all to save us from ourselves. Apparently, our bodies insist we put weight back on so they feels safe. And to ensure that happens, your body either slows down metabolically, and/or it fixates you on food, so food tastes better, you feel even hungrier, and actually keeps your brain thinking more about food than it otherwise would (source). Our bodies are literally pushing us off our diets. On purpose.
I’d spent ten years fighting this cycle. I would put my body on a diet, then my body would fight back and push me off, and instead of being like, “Ooh, sorry body, I’ll take care of you in a gentle way,” I would put it back on another diet, and the cycle continued. All the while, I started feeling more and more out of control around food, and blamed it on my gluttony, and what had to be a food addiction.
But if forcing your body back onto a diet is part of staying in the diet cycle, then the logical and terrifying answer to get out of the cycle was to…stop. Stop constantly trying to suppress both my eating and my weight. Which, plainly, meant that I had to eat whatever my body needed. And I had to let myself gain whatever weight my body needed to gain.
And let me be clear: I was terrified. But I was so tired of fighting my body and hating myself for not being a tiny little fairy person. I was run-down physically and emotionally by a decade of dieting and hating myself.
So I started eating. A lot. And doing my very best to actually allow it all and work through my panic and guilt. This is the part people are fascinated by: Ok but what did you eat? How much did you eat? How much weight did you gain? How did you actually push through fear of eating certain things or certain amounts? So, I am going to try and remember the specifics as well as I can, even though this was almost eight years ago, and at this point, it’s all a blur of meals. (With the caveat that anyone who embarks on this sort of uncharted intuitive food healing journey will have a different set of experiences, and a different set of specific fears to work through, and I definitely recommend a non-diet dietitian even though I didn’t work with one, because I didn’t really understand that this was a thing.)
I had been coming off of the paleo diet, so I was still afraid of bread and gluten and grains. I was also extremely afraid of “industrial seed-oils.” To be perfectly clear, just in case you think that I’m claiming that McDonald’s is a health food (I’m not): I still don’t think weird oils that come from a cotton seed are health foods, but neither is vodka, and vodka is still allowed on the keto diet, so let’s just put everything in perspective please. Also, having small emotional breakdowns in restaurants, just because they probably (definitely) use less-than-perfect cooking oils, is far, far worse for us than just eating some f*cking corn oil and moving on with our lives. I had no desire to continue my life being afraid of nachos, so I pushed through my fear of strange oils so I could stop lying in bed, ruminating about the worldwide olive oil scam.
At the same time, the paleo diet is generally calorie-positive and encouraging of “healthy fats” (they have their own rules about what healthy fats are). So, when I started my “F*ck It Diet” (which is what I named my new “diet”, and my website, and years later, my book) I wasn’t afraid of calories. But I was afraid of carbs. And some fruit. And grains. I was a little afraid of dairy. And any oil that wasn’t coconut or olive oil. And I was afraid, of course, of gaining weight. But I knew that the way to get over all of those fears was to face them.
So the first thing I did was up my carbs and start to eat a lot of butter and dairy. I started eating lots of potatoes and ice cream. In my head, I was trying to “eat myself” to a place where my body wasn’t starved for carbs and calories, and where my mind wasn’t starved, denied, or petrified of certain foods. I believed (correctly) that if I could get out of that metabolic and mental cycle by actually eating a lot of food, consistently, for a long time, that my appetite would eventually normalize. And it did.
But first, I had to keep eating. I eventually added in bread (I did not die from the gluten! In fact, I felt very normal. Because I do not, in fact, have a gluten sensitivity). I also turned what used to be my late-night binges into deliberate and allowed feasts. I would sit down and bring out everything I wanted to eat, and I would lay it all out on the table and let myself eat whatever I wanted in a relatively calm way. I would often still eat a lot, but because it was allowed, it wasn’t a binge anymore. It was just eating a big snack. And then I went to bed.
And yes, I did gain weight. Which I expected to, and knew had to be part of the process for me. I went up a few clothing sizes. But it wasn’t the exponential weight gain that everyone fears will happen when you stop dieting. The truth is that everyone’s body does something different when they stop dieting, depending on lots of factors. Some people need to gain a lot of weight, some people a little, some people stay the same, and some people lose weight without gaining weight first (I’d say that one is the rarest). Before, I thought that I had to be one of the people who lost weight. But in order to heal, I actually had to gain weight.
It took a good solid six months (and even longer to work through lots of cultural conditioning), but the more I ate and allowed foods, the more normal around food I became. The foods I thought I would never ever be able to “control myself” around stopped having power over me. I could take them or leave them. I stopped fixating on food. I stopped daydreaming about food. I stopped planning my life around meals. Meals happened. I ate what I wanted—and moved on. I stopped losing control while I was eating. I just…ate. I started getting bored of my food mid-meal once I got full. That never used to happen. I used to charge on past fullness and finish that whole bowl and then move onto the bag of chips and the full pantry of snacks.
The longer I proved to my body (and mind) that there would always be whatever food I wanted and needed, and that I would always let myself eat as amply as I wanted, the more normal my relationship to food became. And as my panic fell away, my binging also fell away and also became just…eating. The “food addiction” that I had experienced my entire life was gone. My binging, compulsive eating, and obsession with food, had actually pre-dated my dieting. I thought I had been born that way, but my binging on friend’s snacks was actually the result of feeling restricted, which is pretty eye-opening to how much our mental relationship with food can control our physical appetite.
Not only do restriction and dieting set us up to feel out of control around food, but so does diet culture. Being surrounded by weight loss ads, having constant guilt about what we are eating and what we look like, affects our relationship with food, whether we are fully aware of it or not.
When I talk about this (and I talk about it a lot, and wrote a book on it), it actually really pisses some people off. People either have a revelatory experience about their own relationship with food, dieting, and weight, or they immediately hate me. It turns out, dieting, weight loss, and the concept of “food addiction” is a very polarizing and charged subject! It’s especially charged for people who have felt food-addicted their whole lives, or for people who have always used food to soothe themselves. Hearing me say that food addiction isn’t actually food addiction, or that they don’t actually need to spend their entire lives micromanaging their food and weight, immediately puts people on guard. I know it might feel annoying to hear me say that food addiction isn’t actually food addiction, so I want to take the time to unpack it a little bit more.
The experience of food addiction and compulsion is very real. And, the truth is, humans can develop an emotional dependence on literally anything: gambling, bad relationships, Instagram likes, and even cookies. So, yes, anyone can become “addicted” to food the same way they get addicted to praise or gambling, but it still doesn’t make dieting the cure.
Food is inherently different from other addictions. It’s different from both physical addictions, like a drug addiction, and different from mental addictions, like video games and gambling, because we need food, multiple times a day, to survive. And despite lots of fear mongering over how addictive food is, food and sugar itself is not addictive like cocaine. But, at the same time, we are wired to feel and act addicted to food when there’s any form of food scarcity. This is for our survival. We have evolved this way. Demonizing our enjoyment of food is actually not helpful at all. When there is any food scarcity, a hormone in our body actually wire us to feel hungrier, to make food taste better to us, and to fixate us on food. And food scarcity can take the form of actual food scarcity because of poverty or famine, or self-imposed (or culture-imposed) scarcity, like a diet. Or! Even just the threat of another diet. (“I’ve been so bad today I need to diet tomorrow!”) So, dieting can actually make the experience of food addiction (and emotional eating) worse.
Ok, have I done enough to piss everyone off yet in this article? My next and final installment will be filling in some of the gaps. I’m going to talk more about emotions and emotional eating, I’m going to talk about cultural beliefs and mental resistance that I see popping up for people who try to go on a similar eating journey, I’m going to talk about exercise, and about pervasive cultural weight stigma that keeps people stuck, and perpetuates our dysfunction with food in the first place. And I’m going to talk more about what my eating (and life) is like now, eight years after embarking on this F*ck It Diet journey. But until then, I will be eating cheese, because I am not, in fact, lactose intolerant like I convinced myself I was for 15 years.
Images: thefuckitdiet (3) / Instagram
If you and I met today, you might think I was naturally lean. Born with a high metabolism. Able to eat whatever I want without gaining a pound. Not going to lie, that would be amazing. But the truth is, growing up, I was always the big kid.
By the time I was 13 years old, I weighed over 200 pounds and struggled with losing weight, emotional eating, and diets that didn’t work. While most kids dreamed of becoming movie stars or famous athletes, my early inspirations were the knowledgeable dietitians I met every summer at fat camp. I was never normal. I was never small. The pediatrician’s office constantly told my parents, “She’s obese. She’s over the 100th percentile, she’s not even on the chart!”
At eight years old, I was sent to “fat camp.” Can you imagine how that felt? But the truth is, I loved it. I made lots of friends. I was surrounded by people who didn’t judge me. I lost 30 pounds. It was amazing. Then I came back to school…and gained it all back. This yo-yo-ing went on for years. Every summer, I’d lose 30 pounds. Every school year, I’d gain it all back—and more—until I peaked at 215 pounds (my highest weight) and a size 20, going on size 22—which meant I couldn’t even fit into Gap or Old Navy’s extended sizes, forcing me to shop in plus-size only stores. This was a particularly difficult thing to accept given that my friends were still shopping for single-digit sizes.
I loved myself, but I hated by body, and I had to finally realize that one was not separate from the other. If I was having a good, confident day, but then tried something on, my whole mood would dampen. And if I were having a bad day, my weight would only make me feel worse. I was the “fat,” “chubby” girl for as long as I could remember. I hated doctor visits, because my pediatrician would show me a graph of how much I kept gaining. I hated sleepovers, because my friends would share clothes and talk about the boys that flirt with them, and I couldn’t participate. I hated shopping and getting dressed, because nothing ever fit or looked the way it was supposed to. It was all so hard and such a drag. I was officially worn out from my weight.
I finally had the epiphany: “Ilana, you only have this one body, you might as well make it rock!”
I had to get real. I had to understand that just because some people stay thin ordering pizza and fries didn’t mean I could. These were the same people who could also eat one cookie, be satisfied, and stop, and I didn’t have that in me just yet. One cookie felt like permission to have more, and more, and more. I like to eat a lot, so I had to figure out a way to fill up and lose weight at the same time. I also couldn’t tell myself not to eat any dessert or junk foods, because that would only ever last a few days before I found myself eating them again. I grew up hearing about every diet because my parents tried them all and time and time again, but I knew there was a missing element.
I needed a more positive approach that felt more fun than force. By that time, I had taken over 100 hours of nutrition courses from dietitians at weight loss camp so I knew what to eat, I just needed to connect it to how I would get myself to want to eat it. I brought in forms of accountability that kept me aware and kept me learning what was working and what wasn’t.
At weight loss camp, food was restricted, so you couldn’t eat even if you wanted to. But at home, I had access to whatever I wanted, so I needed to understand how to eat well within a real lifestyle. I realized that I could microwave two frozen blocks of Birdseye broccoli with butter spray and salt and eat it in front of the tv like I used to eat popcorn, and the scale would still drop. I realized that if I made whole eggs in a pan, I would be tempted to soak up the yolk with a slice of bread, but if I made egg whites, I was more in control. I realized fruit wasn’t unlimited, so I had to figure out where fruit fit in. I realized I could actually weave in some desserts, and later, cocktails, and still see that scale drop.
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Through college, I also joined a sorority and had to figure out how to lose weight and keep it off with all the drinking, partying and late-night eating, so I took the challenge and found more creative ways to make the most of it. I would skip the sugary mixers and stick to the straight stuff, and when everyone came back to pizza and bagels, I would raid the salad bar for artichokes and hearts of palm, and dip them in sesame miso dressing (you should try it!). I had to figure out how I could eat at Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Jimmy John’s with my friends, but still fill up and lose weight.I never skimped out on flavor or portion, but I had to get smarter about swaps and better control techniques throughout the day to set myself up for success.
Sure, it would get annoying when I felt like I was putting in more effort than my skinnier friends, but rather than get jealous, I would always choose to be inspired and see what other things they were doing, besides their gene pool, that were helping them out. Any time I’d discover another helpful tool or tip, I’d add it to my system and I’d lose more weight happily. I had discovered the formula that worked for me. It wasn’t a new diet—it was a new mindset. And once I embraced it, I kept on losing weight.
I never fell for any quick-fix suggestions that seemed unsustainable. I suffered with being uncomfortable and morbidly obese for long enough to realize I never wanted to rebound and go back to that place again. So, if it weren’t something I felt like I could live with and enjoy a positive life with, I wouldn’t do it or recommend it to others. For instance, I have still been able to enjoy cocktails, sweets, eating take-out, traveling, socializing, loving food, and living. I never let losing weight interfere with that, as long as I kept my simple and sensible principles in place and at the forefront of my mindset.
Eventually, I got down to 145 pounds. Finally, for the first time ever, I felt strong and confident enough to post a photo like this:
I was so happy at 145 pounds. I was a size 8—the lowest size I’d been since I was literally eight years old. My first summer without “chub rub” (irritation between my thighs) felt like a dream come true! I used to have to use baby powder in between my legs to control the pain and redness, and once I realized I was wearing shorts on a really hot day and my thighs weren’t burning, I felt like I had made it! And the best part was that I was able to maintain that weight, without denying myself or telling myself “no” all the time.
Intrigued, amped, and motivated by the success and maintenance of my results, I began to further develop my own customized weight-loss program and mindset. I took my interest in this to the next level, studying Nutrition and Dietetics in college, and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in the field. My studies quickly turned into my passion, and I became a registered dietitian. Soon after, I earned a Masters of Science degree in Applied Nutrition from Northeastern University (the highest standard in the field of nutrition) to apply evidence-based practices for weight loss into my own personal plan.
Pregnancy for me was wild. For years, I was in such control of my body. Then suddenly it took a whole different shape. But instead of fighting, I let the pregnancy be what it wanted to be. Until the third trimester, it was like a switch flipped in my head. It was time to get back to my weight-loss mindset to lose the baby weight. So, I refocused and thought about the hundreds of clients I’d helped and the principles that had worked not just for them, but for me as well.
After I delivered my beautiful daughter Olivia, I got right to work. I wasn’t just ready, I was excited. I had a new purpose now—my daughter. And I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.
Although I dreaded taking these “before” pics in tight clothes, I had to do it. Because, as I got ready to use all the weight-loss tactics I’d collected over my lifetime, I wanted a detailed record of this journey so I’d know exactly what worked and what didn’t in real time. And the good news is, it worked better than I could have ever imagined. I not only got back to my 145 mark, I kept going. I went from post-baby body all the way down to 120 pounds—and maintained the same weight for over two years and even did it again with my son, Julian.
You know what might be the most amazing part? It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I always felt full and satisfied. I never deprived myself. And I never missed a meal. I just relied on a few simple principles that allowed me to lose weight while still living my life. Because that’s everyone’s ultimate goal, right? To be happy. That’s still my goal as a registered dietitian nutritionist. That’s why I took the principles that worked for me and used them for my hundreds of clients, combining them into a convenient, healthy, and practical approach, which gets rid of all the calorie counting, point tracking, and cutting out whole food groups (because who really has the time these days?!). It just became second nature, and I called it the 2B mindset. I’m proud to say it didn’t only help me lose over 100 pounds and continues to help me maintain my best self, but it has helped THOUSANDS of people!
I’m so grateful that now people can experience positive weight loss with the 2B mindset and the results have been groundbreaking. Thousands of people have lost 10-50 pounds and a handful of people have lost over 100 pounds the same program! But of course, there is always a need for personalization, and I love meeting with clients one-on-one and in group settings to understand their personal story and help them best succeed. I recently launched my Mind & Body Reset Retreats that are truly life-changing. In these private settings with 20 women (hosted at resorts that are pure luxury), I am able to get to the core of the person and create a specific action plan for her. What has been getting in her way? What are her work hours and romantic life like? What medications is she on and what does she have coming up in her calendar?
Every change brings on a new obstacle that we must overcome because life doesn’t get easier, we need to get stronger. You can do this! We all can!
Join Ilana Muhlstein at her next Mind & Body Reset Retreat September 19-22 in Carefree, AZ. Spots are limited.
Ilana Muhlstein M.S., R.D.N. is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Wellness Enthusiast and Educator, and has become one of the most sought-after weight loss experts and influencers around. She’s the author of You Can Drop It!: How I Dropped 100 Pounds Enjoying Carbs, Cocktails & Chocolate – and You Can Too! She leads the Bruin Health Improvement Program at UCLA and also heads up her own private practice in Los Angeles. Ilana is the creator of the popular 2B Mindset™ weight loss program and also sits on the prestigious Executive Leadership Board for the American Heart Association, Go Red for Women campaign. Ilana has consulted for several prominent companies on nutrition, including Beachbody, Whole Foods Market, Curves Gyms, PIMCO, Zevia, BFree, and The Wonderful Company. She is also a renowned public speaker and delivers nutrition seminars, cooking demonstrations and most recently started luxury Mind & Body Reset Retreats which she conducts throughout the year all over the country.
To all my chronic dieters,
To start, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to define what a “chronic dieter” is, because it’s one of those things where if you think that kinda sounds like you…it probably is. And I want you to know that I’ve been there. For most of my life, I have tracked every calorie, lost weight, gained the weight back, and either gone back to counting/measuring/tracking calories or hopped on the new diet trend (I was vegetarian for a year in college, back when going meat-free for weight loss started getting its share of limelight). I was completely miserable, and if you’re one of us chronic dieters, then I want to venture a guess that you are unhappy too.
For most of my teenage/adult life, I forced myself to live within food “rules.” I used to eat ALL JUNK FOOD, just because it had nutrition labels and I could correctly track the calories in it. When you’re on the go, it’s easier to track calories in a Pop-Tart than calories in an apple. It’s easier to track calories in a McDonald’s meal than calories in a meal you cook yourself. (You just cooked, are you really about to start punching in numbers of all the ingredients?) I would bring Lean Cuisines to family dinners, guys. I felt insane and my diet, quite honestly, was sh*t. The only rule I often had was to stay under a certain number of calories a day. If I went over that number, I felt like I failed. I didn’t care about the quality of the calories in the least. I couldn’t really eat out with people, because I’d freak out about not knowing the calories of the dishes. So if I had to eat out, I’d say “f*ck it, it’ll be a cheat day” and go crazy that whole day. And by “crazy”, I mean I’d eat it all. I would eat until I felt sick, just because it was “cheat day.”
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This went on for almost a decade. My relationship with food was always a bottom line. It’s funny, because I went on to become a personal trainer with a master’s degree in kinesiology, and I used to preach everything health related—everything that made a lot of sense, and that is scientifically proven to work for people. But my own situation was so f*cked up. I knew better, but I didn’t know how to do better for myself. I was helping people achieve their dream bodies, but me? I was being controlled by food.
Eventually, I got so tired of it. So I remember setting a challenge for myself. I challenged myself to just stop counting for a week. I told myself to start approaching food as I would if I was suggesting it to a client. Before I ate, I’d ask, “Would I tell my client to eat this?” For such a long time, I was telling my clients the things I wanted to do for myself, but I was too scared to commit.
I’ll be honest. That first week was rough, and my God, I was so tempted to track everything. I felt like Bambi. I was learning to walk, but by “walk,” I mean trust my instincts and trust that I can treat my body better. I avoided temptation to quantify my food, and I began to FEEL (instead of just knowing in my academic mind) that all calories are not equal, and instead I started to look at the quality of food.How my body reacts to fresh, home-cooked food like baked chicken and chickpea pasta is MUCH BETTER than how my body reacts to junk food, no matter the difference in numbers.
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Day by day, I started to see the freedom in trusting my instincts. Despite the initial fear, I soon was able to eat at any restaurant I wanted and cook food for myself without reaching sky-high levels of anxiety. I don’t have to stuff myself to the brim anymore just because it’s a f*cking “cheat day,” because I didn’t need a “cheat day.” I didn’t have to eat yet another fast food meal just because it fit the calorie quota for the day. When all you’re used to is confining yourself to rules, leaving those rules behind is terrifying. That’s probably why I, and you, my dear reader, stayed in that cycle for so long. As long as we stayed within the rules, or under a certain amount of calories, we felt “safe,” like we did something right.
So, if you are a chronic dieter, my challenge to you is this: stop forcing yourself to live within these rules for the next 48 hours. Stop quantifying your food, even if it’s just for a few days. Trust yourself, and trust that you know how to treat yourself beyond the numbers at the end of the day. Stop letting these confines ever make you feel like you’ve failed your body, because nothing and no one should ever give you the power to feel like you’ve failed your own body. I trust you, and so should you. I know that it’s scary, because now your choices are literally endless, but once you re-establish that trust with yourself, it’s like a brand new world. And it’s super worth it.
Images: Toa Heftiba / Unsplash; dietstartstomorrow / Instagram