The Dieting Habit I Just Couldn't Break

Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Foxen Duke.
Isabel Foxen Duke is one of the most passionate and radical eating coaches I've ever met. She's a longtime supporter of The Anti-Diet Project and a fierce champion for everyone who's ready to quit dieting and stop fighting food, for good. Her own journey out of food insanity is both entirely relatable and wholly inspiring, and I'm so thrilled to share her badass voice in this column. — KM

I was put on my first diet when I was three years old. Apparently, my weight was above average on whatever baby-BMI scale existed at the time, and my pediatrician put me on what my mother only half-jokingly refers to as the "broccoli and skim milk diet." Very low-carb, very low-fat, very low-food. My mother did what she was told (as I'm sure most moms would have done, given that directive, in 1989), and so began nearly two decades of diet-binge cycling and my deeply rooted belief that there was something very wrong with my body — and something very wrong with my food.

I quickly became obsessed with food and an expert at eating it fast, standing up, when no one was looking. When the kitchen was empty, I would run back and forth from my bedroom and sneak spoonfuls of raspberry jam out of the jar, or cut off just the smallest edge of a cake so no one would notice that anything had been taken — until I'd done it so many times that the cake was nearly finished by morning. I was obsessed with Diet Coke or anything that I thought would satisfy my endless hunger while still staying within the "rules." My sister and I still joke that we're two of the best female beer-shot-gunners in the world, due to all our practice with diet sodas growing up.

As I got older and more desperate to become thin, my attempts at restriction became more and more, well, restrictive; on the flip side, my binge-eating spun more out of control. I yo-yoed between following my rigid diet to a T and bingeing until I'd become so full and uncomfortable that I could barely leave my bed. I wound up in (much needed) clinical treatment, working with therapists at eating disorder facilities.

In all the programs (and the subsequent compulsive-eater support groups), I was instructed to stick to very specific meal plans, and every bite I took outside of those meals was either "emotional" or "compulsive" — akin to an alcoholic taking a drink. Suffice it to say, I was never able to stick to my meal plan for very long. Whether it was a "diet" or a "meal plan," the food rules were still strict, and so even after all that treatment, I continued to binge. I felt like a failure, all over again.
Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Foxen Duke.
It wasn't until I found the book Intuitive Eating that my thinking finally, radically changed. Just like so many dieters who read this classic book, I felt relieved and validated that my compulsive behaviors around food were not actually that abnormal, but rather an unfortunate consequence of the diet culture in which we live.

After a lifetime of constant restriction, it felt SO good to eat a cookie, and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had the right to eat it. It felt so good to go out with friends and not worry about what I could eat. I can eat whatever the fuck I want! I thought. I was liberated.

But, a few weeks in, the excitement began to wear off, and something changed. I noticed those old, familiar, diet-like thoughts creeping back. It wasn't the I-should-eat-fewer-carbs kind of thing. It was the sense of self-doubt, self-judgement, and desire for the control of a diet — but within the context of intuitive eating.

For example, intuitive eating emphasizes honoring hunger and fullness. So, I would berate myself for any eating "outside the lines" of hunger and fullness. My head rang with thoughts that sounded eerily similar to those from my dieting days: You aren't hungry! THIS ISN'T ALLOWED! This is making you fat and unlovable! I treated emotional eating like other food "sins" — it was wrong, it was unacceptable, and I was failure, again, for not being able to control it.

I found myself in that all-too-familiar, on-or-off-the-wagon mentality with food. Either I was doing intuitive eating right and staying within precise boundaries of hunger and fullness, or I was doing it all wrong because I, say, ate a cookie when I wasn't that hungry. The cookie wasn't forbidden, of course, but eating it when I didn't want it very much was the crime. I often thought to myself, Well, I've already screwed up eating what my body wants today, so I might as well eat everything that isn't nailed down. I'll start listening to my body again tomorrow.

I even started to feel anxious about making dinner plans again, because who knows if I'd be hungry enough at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night? Or what if my boyfriend surprised me with breakfast in bed when I wasn't hungry? What would I do then?

I had to admit it: Something wasn't quite right.
Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Foxen Duke.
In theory, I wasn't dieting anymore. But, somehow, I knew that true non-dieters didn't think thoughts like: I'm not physically hungry, so even though 40 people just sang happy birthday to me, I'm not sure I can eat the cake. God forbid I have a piece of cake on my birthday when I'm not hungry!

Now, I know I was struggling with something that many new intuitive eaters fall prey to. You might call it the hunger-and-fullness diet, or the don't-eat-emotionally diet, or really any kind of judgmental distortion of intuitive eating wherein "listening to your body" becomes a new form of body control, rather than body nourishment.

I still had rules (although I called them "guidelines"). I was still rebelling against those rules (in the form of binge eating). I still stressed over food choices to control my weight (even if I said it was for "health reasons"). I still felt obsessed and borderline crazy around food.

Most of all, I still believed there was something horribly wrong with me.

After a particularly painful binge-eating episode, it finally hit me — the real message of intuitive eating: As long as I believed there was a "right" or "wrong" way to eat, I would still be on a diet. As long as my self-esteem was dependent upon my eating within rules, I was going to rebel against those rules, eventually. As long as I was on a "wagon" with food, it was only a matter of time before I'd fall off it.

So, in that very moment, I made the decision to be okay with myself not getting it right all the time. In fact, I decided to eliminate the concept of "right" around food altogether.

Now, I know that, just like I'm "allowed" to have a glass of wine for no other reason than the fact that I want one, I'm also "allowed" to eat a cupcake whenever the hell I want to (even when it is a coping mechanism, it's not a death trap). Ultimately, I'm allowed to eat outside of physical hunger for whatever reason is worth it, for me. I'm allowed to eat birthday cake at a party whenever I choose to, and I will (probably) never again turn down breakfast in bed.

On the flip side, if I don't want to have a cupcake, because I don't think it'll feel good in my body, that's cool, too. The truth is, when I'm not constantly living in fear of breaking food rules, I don't necessarily want to eat outside of hunger and fullness. I like feeling good, and I value my physical health; when I don't feel forced into it, I usually make choices accordingly — because I truly want to.

I employ the principles of intuitive eating as tools to understand my body's needs (not a way to dictate and judge every bite that enters my mouth). That's the difference between using intuitive eating to break free from the diet mentality and using it to perpetuate it.

The diet-binge cycle didn't actually end, for me, when I officially gave up traditional dieting. In order to really end it, I had to give up the thinking that comes with those diets. I knew it was over when I let go of trying to "do my food right" — when I stopped judging myself based on my eating behaviors, when I stopped trying to control my body, and when I finally learned to let my food be what it will be.

Isabel Foxen Duke is a certified Health Coach who specializes in emotional eating, binge-eating, and poor body image. To see more of her work, check out her her blog and her new (free!) video series, Stop Fighting Food.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.

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