#RealDietStory is an initiative started by Renee at WillFrolicForFood. I found out about it in an email from a blog friend of mine, Agnes at Cashew Kitchen. She shared a story with her email subscribers about her struggle with food, eating and body image. (You can read it in her blog as well.)
This story really resonated with me, and Renee’s as well. I have written similar pieces in my Swedish blog, but now I’m rewriting my story here.
Growing up, and well into my twenties, my relationship with both my body and my food was carefree. I never stood in front of the mirror scrutinizing my butt, or pondered the calorie count of a home cooked meal. I’ve always been rather thin and healthy and have had no reason to get into dieting.
And yet, dieting still sneaked into my life. In the form of veganism.
I was always picky with meat and animal products growing up, so eating vegetarian food came naturally to me. It was never a statement, but more of an intuitive transition.
When I met a friend online who was a hardcore vegan and animal activist, I made a conscious decision to become vegan.
I never saw veganism as a “diet”. It wasn’t a weight-loss tactic, and I never felt like I was restricting myself by going vegan. This was a lifestyle and a moral standpoint. As a bonus, I felt good, really good, living a vegan life. I took my B12 pills, exercised and cooked most of my meals from scratch.
Veganism ignited my passion for cooking and I started to love being in the kitchen. I also became more and more interested in natural health and nutrition.
The raw food hell
Like so many other health and wellness interested people, I had a raw food phase. This is what transformed my previously relaxed and joyful vegan ways into an obsessive dieting hell.
I don’t remember where I got the idea from, but the theory behind the raw food diet immediately stuck with me. It sounded perfectly logical, the ultimate way of life. I read every book I could find. I invested in a lot of expensive equipment and “superfoods”. I spent hours upon hours peeling, slicing, chopping, soaking, sprouting, dehydrating and mixing.
My whole life started revolving around this “lifestyle”.
For some reason, the thought of living on only fruits, vegetables and nuts, (some of it completely out of season and much of it imported from far away places), all year round in a cold Swedish climate never worried me. I was so deep in love with the idea of a raw food lifestyle. I loved feeling pure and light as air. Vibrant, energized and clear headed.
And I did feel like that sometimes... in-between all the temptations, the abstinence and the obsessive food fantasies. I would lie awake at night, belly growling, trying to conjure up the taste of potato chips or pasta in my mouth. And I would stay in the safety of my apartment during daytime, to avoid the smells and sights of cooked food.
I was living in a prison of my own making. This was no joyful lifestyle. This was agony. Because a life without cooked potatoes is agony. Naturally, I started binge eating potato chips.
Thanks to this “clean, light and vibrantly healthy” diet, I gained 5 pounds and had my first taste of what an eating disorder feels like. (Although I didn’t know it at the time.)
Needless to say, I had to give up on my raw food “lifestyle” and go back to those devilish cooked foods. I had failed.
The low-carb hell
Fast forward a few years.
Somewhere around 2012, I took my first bite of meat after many years as a vegetarian and vegan.
I remember standing by the stove in my kitchen, crying. I had cooked up a few pieces of pork, over-seasoned them with BBQ spices, and put a tiny bite into my mouth. It was a strange sensation, full of conflict. On one hand, I knew I was eating the tortured flesh of a dead animal, and that disgusted me. I felt like a traitor.
On the other hand, the meat tasted familiar, nurturing and safe. I didn’t know which was worse.
Why did I suddenly eat meat after more than 6 years of passionate veganism and animal activism?
Well, I had read a book: “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith. Why I read it, I don’t remember, but you have to give me credit for keeping an open mind. 😉 I wanted to be brave and expose myself to other world views. And perhaps I wanted to challenge my vegan lifestyle a bit.
Every argument in this book was entirely new to me, and to be honest, they were all well made. Lierre Keith used to be vegan herself, which made me trust her. She’s also a great writer, and the facts she presented and the points she made where all very convincing to me at the time.
So, when I left my plant-based way of eating, I did it not because of declining health, laziness or temptation. I did it because I felt convinced by “logic” and arguments. I abandoned intuition for external validation.
In the beginning, this felt like freedom. I had a lot more options for what to eat, and I re-discovered lost tastes.
But I couldn’t just abandon one set of rules without introducing another one, now could I? I was itching for a system to follow. And I found it, in the low-carb movement.
Not without irony: Here was the group of loud mouthed, research report flashing, cheese and whipped cream gorging people I had despised for so long. The people who’s forums and blogs I used to wage my righteous vegan war in. Now I was one of them. Equally obsessed with carb counting, saturated fat and blood ketones.
Since I came to low-carb in hopes of “optimizing” my body and brain, things quickly got out of hand. It became a competition, and an image I had to uphold. While I could rave about my stable blood sugar and how I could stay full for 6 hours on my Bulletproof Coffee with butter and MCT oil, I would also binge eat junk food for three days straight. Every day was a losing fight against carbs and sugar. I developed a severe ice cream addiction, gained 12 pounds and felt uglier than ever.
I didn’t know it this time either, but I had developed a full-blown eating disorder. It didn’t show much on the outside but inside I was deeply disturbed. My mind was consumed by thoughts of food and a perfect body. I competed with myself in how long I could prolong my intermittent fasting routine. I punished myself with exercise and later comforted myself with ice cream and potato chips. I ate and cried and felt sick and hated myself. I even contemplated drugs and plastic surgery. I hit rock bottom.
How to develop an eating disorder in 3 easy steps:
- Look for, (or invent), things about your body to hate. I’m sure you can find something. If not, just thumb through the nearest women’s magazine and you’ll get plenty of inspiration.
- Make the conclusion that eating in a certain way will magically take away all your problems. Pick your diet of choice, preferably one with the most rules around food and eating. One that paints a black and white picture where some foods are the devil and others are mana from heaven. The more extreme the diet, the quicker you will have your eating disorder.
- Now, observe how much of your time is occupied by thoughts of food. Notice your inner monologue dripping with self-hatred as you count those calories and record everything that passes your lips in a food journal. Watch yourself cheat and lie and binge eat and feel miserable. Congratulations, you have developed an eating disorder.
When the picture above was taken, me and my fiancé where on vacation in Thailand. I felt so extremely fat and unattractive, I barely wanted to show myself in a bathing suit. I refused to be in pictures and I especially loathed this one that my fiancé took of me.
I still get sad when I look at it, not because of how I look, (I'm obviously not fat), but because of how I felt at that time. I never want to feel that way ever again.
After about a year in my low-carb yo-yo dieting hell, I gave up.
And I couldn’t help but notice the irony of it: I, who had always been healthy, thin and comfortable in my own skin, had for some silly reason put myself in this situation. The body issues, the struggle to be pure and “perfect”, the thought that I would be happier if just a few pounds lighter. All of it: self-imposed madness.
The most fascinating thing about diets: they are proven time and time again, by science, not to work. This is true for all types of diets and controlled eating. Some of them make you shed a lot of weight in the beginning, but a disappearingly small percentage of people manage to keep that weight off. More often, they actually end up gaining weight.
The one thing we can count on our dieting to give us, is a complicated relationship with food. This, too, is proven by science. Most notably in a study done in the 1940’s on a bunch of healthy men. They were put on a calorie restricted diet, and the scientists soon started observing weird behavior in the men. They got depressed and irritable, started hiding food and binge eating. They lost their sex drive and their sense of humor. Some of them even went psychotic. All from living on around 1500 calories a day.
Scary isn’t it, when we think about how many of us, particularly women, live like this every day and have been since an early age?
Why is it, when we have such overwhelming evidence that diets are futile and destructive, that we still continue to blame ourselves? That we are still hell-bent on trying again and again, hoping for a different result this time.
I realized, after having read a number of books on intuitive/mindful eating, that there was nothing wrong with me. The fault lies in our society. We live in an extreme ideal-promoting, perfection obsessed, eating disordered society. It affects all of us, whether we know it or not.
I always thought I had to starve myself dangerously thin, or throw up after each meal, in order to call myself eating disturbed. But eating disorders come in many forms. They can sneak up on anyone. The can come and go, or lurk in back of our minds. Most importantly: they can be gotten rid of.
How to get rid of an eating disorder in 3 (not so) easy steps
I knew that the only way to free myself from my self-imposed slavery around food was to release all control. And to educate myself.
I read everything I could find on eating psychology, beauty ideals and the impact of diets on our behavior. This was eye opening and deeply comforting.
Then I started eating with my body instead of my brain. I abandoned all rules and systems and just listened to what my body wanted. (Hint: It wanted chocolate.)
The result: I enjoyed a lot of take-away-burgers, microwave pizza and candy. But I enjoyed it in moderate portions and I savored every bite. Because of that, I ate much less compared to what I would have done while on a diet, and I even started forgetting that I had ice cream in the fridge. Since nothing was forbidden anymore, food lost its power over me.
The freedom was almost intoxicating. Waking up each morning, knowing I could have whatever I wanted for breakfast. Leaving my home without a bag full of snacks, not worrying about finding an acceptable lunch on the town. I stopped fearing my hunger and instead started embracing it.
In time, I craved more variation and freshness in my food and naturally started eating a more balanced diet. I was becoming that creature of myth and legend: the one who lives an effortlessly healthy lifestyle without lack or abstinence.
How to get rid of an eating disorder in 3 (not so) easy steps:
- Realize that you were not put on this earth to be pretty and thin, that your worth is not in your appearance, and that all the time and energy you spend on obsessing about food, you could spend on something meaningful and productive.
- Get mad on yourself for putting yourself in this prison. Get sick and tired of wasting your time on obsessing about food when you could spend it on your interests, talents, passions, relationships and values. Decide to stop the madness.
- Care as little about food as you can. Simply eat when you’re hungry, eat whatever your want, eat mindfully and enjoy every bite, and eat until you’re satisfied. Then get on with your day.
A return to plant-based balance
Today, I eat mostly plant-based. Not out of martyrdom, not for weight loss or “purity” reasons, but simply because that’s the food I love most.
I am once again in love with cooking, and I eat freely and with pleasure. Sometimes when I feel like it, I’ll eat some fish or organic butter or a cake baked with eggs. I don’t need to be black and white about it, nor do I need to label myself a vegan. I simply eat what I feel like, and that just happens to be mostly vegan food.
My weight has stabilized to what it has been most of my adult life and I am comfortable with it. I feel more beautiful than I have in a long, long while.
Most of all: I’m so grateful to be done with dieting.
I never count calories or carbs in my food. Instead, I observe and listen to my body.
I never deny myself food that I want. I might avoid candy or white bread sometimes. Not because I’m scared of it or don’t allow myself to have it, but because I don’t like how candy and white bread makes me feel. It’s not worth it. (Well sometimes it is, but what the hell.) 😉
I enjoy a balanced diet, containing green smoothies and kale chips as well as pizza, lasagna and beer.
I never binge eat anymore. I have no reason for it.
I never fast or exercise to lose weight or “get toned”. When I do work out, I do it to feel good.
I am finally free. I love and accept my body. I love food and eating. I love being alive.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Diets and food choices are not set in stone. It’s perfectly fine to experiment and keep an open mind. Listen to your heart and your body, not to the latest weight loss study or your rant-y low-carb neighbor.
- There’s no such thing as “cheating” or “failing” your diet. If anything, that’s your diet failing you. A diet, no matter how ideal and glorious, must be sustainable in real life by actual human beings, or it won’t do any good.
- Eat intuitively, mindfully and joyfully, and no food will ever have power over you. Paradoxically, it is by surrendering control that you gain it back. If eating feels natural and easy, there is nothing to control or resist. Nothing to wage war on.
- Freedom from a disturbed way of eating is possible. I’m not saying that recovering from an eating disorder is easy, for some people it might be extremely hard. But it is possible, if you really want to and are prepared to work with yourself to overcome it. That work is worth it. No “perfect body” or sense of self-control will ever measure up to the feeling of complete freedom, self-love and the basic human pleasure of eating.