Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
I'll keep this into brief, because today's column takes on some of the biggest, scariest questions I've received since starting The Anti-Diet Project. We've got concern trolling, body image, intuitive drinking, and lots more.
A zillion thanks to all of you who sent in queries — and keep them coming! We're in this together, and I never forget that. Your thoughtful comments and personal stories have molded this column as much as my own journey, and I owe you one for that. In the meantime, please accept this column full of entirely unprofessional and highly questionable advice. And, of course, my gratitude.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
I have struggled with my weight since middle school, always wanting to be just a little bit thinner. I have tried exercise regimens and light dieting to varying degrees of success. On the bright side, I have no diagnosed health problems, and I have never really been self-conscious or had a negative body image — until recently. The guy I’ve been seeing for the past few months told me that he only wants to be serious (read: get married) if I "lose [x] number of pounds.” He tells me I’m beautiful all the time but says he wants me to be "healthy." I love him, but his words really hurt my feelings. I can’t decide if I should be offended or not.
I really don’t want to be a judgmental jerk here. Nobody’s relationship is perfect, and sometimes people can be cruel without realizing it. Maybe your boyfriend is actually worried for your health and he’s just not well-informed about the reality of the situation. Or, maybe he’s shaming you into weight-loss under the auspices of concern. Neither of these situations is uncommon, but I’m sorry to say it sounds like the former. Either way, what you’ve got here is a bad case of concern trolling.
We mostly think of concern trolling as an Internet issue. Someone will comment on a skinny actress’ photo saying, “So sad, she needs to get help.” Or, they’ll read about some new plus-size line and comment, “Obesity is a real issue! We need to get this country healthy, not make bigger clothes!” They back up their argument with easy blanket statements and their own uninformed beliefs — which is easy to do when you're talking about weight. We’re surrounded by an industry that pummels us with mixed messages about how we should look and how we should eat. In other words, a concern troll doesn’t want to say “you’re fat” so they say they’re "worried about you."
Should you be offended? I would be. Dangling marriage over your head to get you to lose weight? That's infuriating. The fact that you’ve got insecurity about your weight leads me to believe this guy is using that in his favor. But, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, there’s an easy way to find out for sure what’s going on. You have facts on your side, so the next time he brings up the “health” argument, sit him down for a real discussion. Point out the fact that you have no diagnosed health problems. Have you had your annual physical recently? If not, do so, if only to remind yourself that you’re doing just fine.
You say you never had a negative body image until this guy came into your life. Here, I’ll just remind you that no one can change your self-perception unless you let them. I don’t say that to blame you (I’ve been in your shoes), but just to remind you that you always have the power to change your outlook. You don’t need this guy to like your body. If he doesn’t like it, that really sucks, but it doesn’t mean you can’t. Start by embracing yourself wholeheartedly, and the concern trolls won’t stand a chance.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
What do you do when you have an intense craving for something? I really love the idea of Intuitive Eating, but when my body begs me for Nutella or an entire bag of Doritos, I am unsure as to whether or not I should be listening. Do I replace the food that I am craving with something similar, but healthier, or just go for it?
The most common fear I hear about Intuitive Eating — one that used to plague me, too — is the idea that if you eat what you want when you want it, you will never stop eating. It’s the fear that you will never stop eating, specifically, (insert favorite junk food here). This is an understandable concern. Every diet out there is about restriction and indulgence, even if it’s packaged differently. (You can’t eat bread, but have all the nuts you want! Or, go ahead and eat half the loaf — as long as it’s on your cheat day.)
So, it’s no wonder you think that opening a bag of Doritos means you’ll blow through the whole thing. Your brain sees forbidden fruit and tells you to gobble it all up as fast as you can before you’re busted, punished, and promising yourself you'll never again succumb to those crazy, orange chips. But, what do you think would happen if you didn’t make that promise? Then, there wouldn’t be one to break. If there were no restriction and no diet, there’d be no cheat day to look forward too.
Imagine I came over and filled your swimming pool with Doritos (I'm a very specific kind of pool guy in this scenario). You'd never have to worry about running out of Doritoes, and no one would tell you not to eat them. It’s your pool; they can’t tell you what to do. In that scenario, do you really think you’d eat your way to the bottom? Or, do you think you’d eat a handful or two and stop when you were satisfied, knowing that if you wanted more, there would always be more — right in your backyard? And, after a few trips to the pool, don’t you think you’d get sick of Doritos pretty quickly anyway?
The novelty of forbidden foods wears off when they're no longer forbidden. I had (am still having) to go through this realization with all kinds of things: chips, ice cream, cookies. It took a while to trust the process, but I soon realized that all those years of avoiding these foods or "replacing" them with something else only served to make me crave them more and overeat them when I got the chance. When I let myself have them, restriction-free, it didn't take long for the excitement to fade. I never stop myself from eating chips now. I just don't want them all that much.
Long story short: Fill the swimming pool. If you don't trust the process entirely, just try it with one forbidden food, as an experiment. Allow yourself to experience Doritoes or Nutella as much as you want and as often as you want. When you have a craving, sit down and eat the food mindfully, with no distractions, tasting and enjoying it. High-five yourself for honoring your hunger with this experience. I guarantee you will not eat a whole bag of Doritoes. And, if you do, you probably won't want do it again, after feeling so bloated and overly full. Intuitive Eating is about learning from these experiences with food. But, you have to let yourself have the experience in order to learn from it.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
How does alcohol fit into Intuitive Eating?
Good question, and one with many answers. Just as everyone has their own relationship to food, everyone has their own relationship to alcohol.
Here's the good news: On a chemical level, alcohol does have an impact on your appetite — but not the one you think. Like many dieters, I'd often succumbed to overeating after a few drinks. But, when I started Intuitive Eating, I noticed an odd thing. Drinking actually made me less hungry. I brought this up to Theresa Kinsella, MS, RD, CDN, my eating coach, who alerted me to the fact that alcohol significantly inhibits ghrelin (the hunger hormone). This is is why moderate drinkers are actually less likely to gain weight than non-drinkers. Dr. Howard S. Sesso, ScD, MPH, who conducted a study on this effect, says it's not a reason to start drinking if you don't already. "But, for women who already drink in moderation, this can be seen as encouraging. Alcohol has traditionally been thought of as empty calories, but in this study, light to moderate drinking was associated with less weight gain, not more."
The reason people associate drinking with overeating is because inebriation lowers your inhibition and makes it easier to break your own food rules or snack unconsciously. But, when you learn to eat based on real hunger and real cravings, then booze doesn't give you that same permission — because you already have it.
That doesn't mean I'll go to after-work cocktails and then skip dinner just because I'm not hungry. That's a recipe for a hangover (and that big, greasy hangover breakfast, which I WILL naturally crave in the morning). I just wait until my hunger returns, and then eat dinner. Or, if I have dinner plans with others, I just don't order something huge. This is a case when non-hunger eating is okay. I want to get some food in my system, but that doesn't mean I need to order something for a big appetite.
The not-so-good news is that when start to lose your old food habits, it's very easy to create new alcohol habits. Maybe you used to overeat under stress and now find yourself reaching for a beer instead of a burger. Maybe you were a binge-eater, miss that numbed-out feeling, and try to recapture it with booze. It's usually not a conscious thing, nor does it mean that you've become an alcoholic overnight. But, it's important to take note if you find yourself treating alcohol differently.
Drinking too much tends to scare people, and often they fear talking about it, lest someone stage an intervention. But, my advice is to be open. Keeping secrets can turn non-issues into disasters, but it's only a secret if you make it one. Even if it's just saying to yourself, "Wow, I've really been going for the post-work wine this week," just verbalize it. As an experiment, try not drinking in a scenario where you normally would, and see how it feels. You'll probably get a lot of useful information about yourself.
If you do have a drinking problem, the process of Intuitive Eating will likely bring it to your attention. If you don't have a drinking problem, you may still find yourself leaning on alcohol (or other substances) as your relationship with food changes. Either way, consciously taking notice is a step in the right direction.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Over the last 18 months I’ve lost 30+ pounds, which is scary because I wasn’t all that big in the first place. Over the last six years I’ve gone from 105 (while dancing and being diagnosed with sports-induced anorexia) to 140 (EDNOS/ binge-eating tendencies), to now 108. Sometimes, I feel really good, but more often than not I find myself not wanting to wear anything in my closet because I don’t feel comfortable with myself. Do you have any advice on how to feel good in the skin I’m in?
Yes, but I fear it won't be the solution you're looking for. You've been through the ringer, and ED recovery is a long road. The best advice I can give you — and the greatest gift you can give yourself — is patience. I know. I hate hearing that one, too.
Body image issues can knock us all on our asses, and they can come out of nowhere. When I have those nothing-looks-good days, I just wear something that fits and feels physically comfortable. I take extra care of myself on those days, nurturing my mind and body the best way I know how: eating well, being active, and getting the rest I need. Most of all, I talk about it. Sometimes, I go on Intuitive Eating message boards to see that there are so many others with the same struggle. Sometimes, I don't want to have a conversation, so I just vent to a friend then ask if we can watch a movie and paint our nails. But, I've learned not to sit and stew when I'm in the grip of a body-image attack. You've got to pop the bubble.
Being well doesn't mean you're going to have only good days. I want to wake up every day feeling good, eating well, and taking perfect care of myself. But, that's simply unreasonable. And, when I hold onto the hope that one day I'll be done with the bad days, I set myself up for failure.
Self-acceptance means being okay with yourself when you feel great and when you feel like nothing looks good on you. It means accepting your rotten days and knowing that they don't mean you're not doing great. You are doing great. You're not focused on changing your body, but on accepting it. That is real progress. High five.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
The hardest parts of Intuitive Eating, for me — and I'm guessing for a lot of other people — are: not eating when I'm not hungry, and stopping eating when I'm getting full. Any tricks or tips you could share about how you "stop" yourself in these situations?
Yes, Intuitive Eating emphasizes the importance of hunger-based eating and recognizing fullness. But, that doesn't mean you've broken a rule when you don't cater to those things. I think a lot of people overlook this part of the program because they're so used to diet-based thinking, but Intuitive Eating acknowledges the validity of non-hunger-based eating.
Sometimes, it's situational: You're about to get on a plane or go into a long meeting, so you need to eat something in advance of your hunger, simply because you won't be able to for a long time. Sometimes, you just want the candy in the office candy bowl. In neither of those scenarios have you done something wrong.
Now, that doesn't mean you should eat when you're not hungry and not ask yourself why. A lot of us have developed consistent eating habits over the years (think: your Friday-morning bagel or your 2 p.m. Starbucks run). It's worth taking a moment to ask yourself if you really want that bagel — or if you're just expecting it. If you want it, go for it. If you don't, ask yourself what you really want, or if you're even ready for breakfast yet. But, remember that you can have a bagel anytime. You don't need to wait until Friday. Reminding yourself of these things might feel, at first, like restriction. But, there's a difference between breaking a bagel-Friday habit and telling yourself YOU CAN'T HAVE A BAGEL.
Sometimes, we eat something because it tastes good. This can mean trying your mom's fresh-baked banana bread even though you just had lunch — only because it's so damn delicious right out of the oven. There's nothing wrong with that. Or, maybe you keep eating your dinner just because you really like it and don't want to stop. There's nothing inherently wrong with that either. But, it doesn't hurt to acknowledge what you're doing: "This guacamole is really good, and I'm not done tasting it." You might keep going, and that's fine. You might also find yourself answering, "Yeah, but I'm going to feel stuffed if I don't stop. Why don't I put the rest away and have it later if I want a snack." Either way, it's an opportunity to consciously remind yourself that the guacamole isn't going anywhere.
Then, there's emotional eating. Sometimes, you might find yourself stress-eating Oreos and simultaneously beating yourself up about it. Kind of sucks the fun out of Oreos, huh? In these moments, the thing to do is acknowledge what's happening: "I got screwed at work, and I'm hurt and angry, and all I want is cookies." Whether or not you keep eating them, give yourself props for recognizing what's going on. You might also try some other self-care methods and see if they make you feel better. Some of us are so used to using food for self-soothing that it never occurs to us that something else might be more helpful.
No coping mechanism will solve the actual problem, but it might help you realize there is a problem that needs solving.
The thing to remember is that there is no scenario in which eating is a crime. Punishing yourself is what keeps you stuck and prevents you from really becoming an intuitive eater. So, whenever you think you're breaking a rule, just step back and acknowledge what's happening and why. It's not as simple as sticking to a diet — but since when did those ever work?
The Anti-Diet Project runs on Mondays twice a month. You can also follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject. And, hashtag your Anti-Diet moments to share your own journey with me and the rest of the gang! If you're new to the column, you can check out all the entries here.