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
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.
I was one of those kids who went over to friends’ houses with a singular focus on eating as many of their snacks as possible. Screw the almond butter and apple slices at my house. This was my element. I couldn’t wait to finally have the resources to focus on my passion: cool snacks. Sugar and food dye. Powdery sugar. Sugary cereal. Sugar in any form, really. The best households were the ones where the kids had free rein in the kitchen. Their mom was in the other room, doing whatever people did before the internet, and we were allowed to just…get whatever we wanted. This was living. After sitting down and inhaling a pack of fruit Gushers, my friend would be ready to get back to playing some weird game where we pretended to be Simba and Nala. She was somehow satisfied by one little bag of Gushers, and I would pause as if I was thinking really hard and then say, “What if we had another snack first?”
We’d get another snack, and then I would repeat that pattern a few times until I got some form of pushback from my friend (“But… we just had 6 snacks…?”) and I would finally let us go and play our Lion King game. From these interactions alone, it was clear that I was obsessed with snacks, and they were not.
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Dear @ww and @kurbohealth and @oprah – putting kids on diets is doing active harm. Leave the kids alone. Let them eat chips without thinking about tracking or weight. Seriously, if you care about health: LEARN about weight stigma and the harm that this is doing to kids. Angrily/sadly/incredulously, Caroline. (Last slide from the @kurbohealth site by way of @lindatuckercoaching ) #weightstigma #disorderedeating #ww #wakeupweightwatchers #eatingdisorders #mentalhealth
Another friend of mine had an Easy Bake Oven. The luxury! The excitement! I couldn’t believe that just sitting there in her family room were little packets of powder that would make tiny doll-size cakes. I don’t even remember having the patience to wait for them to bake. I just remember ripping open bag after bag and eating the powder. What a life.
But because of all this, I grew up believing that I was a food addict. Actually, to be fair, I don’t think I knew what an “addict” was, especially back then. But it was very clear to me that I was obsessed with food—way more obsessed with food than anyone I knew. It didn’t concern me, it was just a fact. The only thing that concerned me was how to get more cool snacks. But I was actually very lucky, because so many young kids are put on diets and forced to focus on their weight at such a painfully young age (looking at you, Kurbo!). Body size is generally…luck. I ate more than ANYONE I KNEW and was the smallest of them all. I was able to avoid focusing on weight while I was a kid, because I was just a skinny little girl obsessed with pancakes. My humongous appetite and laser focus on sugar all seemed like more of a novelty than a concern to people because of my low weight. I have lots and lots of thoughts on this, how it affected me, and how this double standard affects us in general and as a culture, that I will elaborate on later in this series.
But the most fascinating thing (and the thing that I am eventually going to be elaborating on later in this series), is that my friends whose kitchens were stocked with all of the “junk” we never had in our house, didn’t care about snacks. They ate one, or two, and then wanted to get back to doing other things. They could take it or leave it. And that’s because (and this would take me twenty years to learn) food addiction doesn’t really exist. In fact… feeling food addicted, and addiction-like behaviors (which definitely DO exist, I was exhibit A) have only really been seen when there is “intermittent access” to food or sugar. What that means is restriction, and even perceived restriction, can wire us to fixate on, and act addicted to, food. Much much more on this later.
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Once again in tweet form: @ww and @oprah – get it together. Listen to the legitimate critique of this and pull it. (New to this outrage? @ww just launched a new app for kids as young as 8, promising a healthy relationship with food, but encouraging kids to count and track every bite, and posting before and after weight loss photos or CHILDREN. If our culture had more awareness about the damage this can do, this could and should be considered child abuse. Stop the madness.) #wakeupweightwatchers #eatingdisorders #weightstigma #diet
Because of my childhood skinniness, my early life was mostly just a lighthearted snack-gorging montage until I started gaining weight in puberty. My ability to eat three full-sized Snickers in a row in 20 minutes flat didn’t feel comical to me anymore. It felt more like, omg…oh no oh no… Is this why a food addiction is NOT fun or funny?
All of a sudden, I didn’t feel comfortable. The boobs I had literally prayed about for years (“Please god let me look like a teenager!”) were here, and they were humongous. I didn’t even fit into Victoria’s Secret bras. This was a code red. An adult body happened, and I was NOT having fun anymore. How do I go back!?!?
I have to think that if I hadn’t lived in a culture that encouraged women to look like pre-teens forever, and actually normalized puberty weight gain, it may have been easier, but it’s hard to say.
On top of all of this, after a hormonal test and an ultrasound, my doctor diagnosed me with PCOS, which is a hormonal disorder that is associated with acne, weight gain, infertility, diabetes, and way more. They casually told me I should diet and exercise and to “make sure I didn’t gain weight”. And all I could think was… Oh no. I did this. I caused this with my gorging on cookies. I think I caused this with my eating!?!?!
Based on everything I read online from Dr. Google, it seemed like food and weight were the underlying problem with this condition. So, it made sense to me that because I had been binging on snacks my entire life, that I had caused this problem, instead of understanding that it’s actually genetic, environmental, and very, very exacerbated by stress. But I figured that if I could eat less (or no) carbs, lose weight, and look like a J.Crew catalogue model in her tiny chino shorts, I could be healed. I would simply reverse my condition with a steady diet of steak, cauliflower, and almonds. Easy.
What that means is that I spent the next 10 years trying to be on a diet. And I tried them all. Atkins, South Beach, French Women Don’t Get Fat…all of them. If there was a new trendy, doctor-endorsed diet, I was on it.
I would follow the diet religiously for a few months, and I’d lose a significant amount of weight and feel high on life and praise (“Wow Caroline you look WONDERful!” Omg thank you so much! I pretty much only eat rolled up turkey slices and bell peppers and pickles and Cool Whip Free. I’m finally living my best life, being MY BEST SELF.) But below the surface, I was fighting a constant battle with food. After the zeal and adrenaline high of the first few months (or weeks) of dieting wore off, I would be gravitationally pulled to the kitchen. I started binging on the foods I was allowed to eat on the diet, and then I’d repent the next few days by being even more strict on my South Beach Diet. But soon I’d be gorging on foods that were not allowed at all. This was what solidified my belief that I was a food addict. There was something wrong with me. I couldn’t even stick to an extremely low-carb diet for four months? Was I a monster? All I did was think about food. It was clear to me: I had a problem.
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This is a big reframe: bingeing is actually a GOOD thing. We tend to think bingeing is PROOF that we canNOT be trusted, but did you know that bingeing is actually your body trying to combat and make up for past (or future) restriction? That’s another reason why stepping out of the diet and restriction cycle is so important.
There was one fall in high school when I didn’t go trick or treating, because, first of all, I’m basically an adult. And second of all, I’ve lost my taste for candy, because I am currently a reformed food addict. But you’d better believe the next week I was sneaking into my brother’s room to eat tiny piece of candy after tiny piece of candy. By the end of the day, I’d eaten most of his candy. And by the next week, I had gained back all of the weight I lost, before I put myself on another, better diet.
This happened over and over and over again, for a decade. I would start off following a diet perfectly, losing some weight, but soon I was sitting in a pile of wrappers with chocolate all over my face, furious at myself, wondering what the f*ck was wrong with me. It was actually really scary, because I had so little control. I believed I had a real food addiction, and not only was this addiction making my eating and weight erratic, but it was also apparently the reason I had hormonal problems and cystic acne and a hormonal syndrome that would probably only get worse and worse. I truly believed that if I didn’t get it under control, like any addiction, it would also just get worse and worse for the rest of my life. And my constant dieting was my attempt to get it under control. Impulse control! Will power! This was what I had to do. But no matter how much I tried, no matter how important it was to me, and no matter how well I would follow a diet for the first few months, I kept losing control.
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Diets are the cult/scam that just won’t go away. #diet #thefuckitdiet #IntuitiveEating #weightloss #weightstigma
I am not a food addict anymore, because again, food addiction isn’t real—or at least, it isn’t like other addictions. In fact, I am now one of those people who sometimes even forgets to eat lunch (not that that’s better, it’s just extremely different). I assumed that my relationship with food would be a lifelong battle, but thank the f*cking lord, I was wrong. And the cure wasn’t the perfect diet, it wasn’t detoxing my body of carbs, it wasn’t Adderall or an exercise addiction or a very chic and French cigarette habit, or anything else I used to think would be the thing that could save me from myself. The cure was actually stopping dieting, and stepping out of the scarcity mentality once and for all. You can’t treat food like a drug addiction, because we actually need food, so any sort of scarcity actually makes your body more addicted and fixated.
The cure for my “food addiction” was actually… food.
I’ll be back next week to explain what finally woke me up, and what my healing process looked like. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I’ll be eating.
Caroline is the author of The F*ck It Diet, a book for chronic dieters. She loves TV, her dog, and doing the least amount possible. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Images: thefuckitdiet / Instagram