On a chilly autumn morning in 2013, I quit my last diet. I was running through the woods, in the middle of one of those warrior-style workouts, when it happened. I had spent every day of my conscious life believing that if I could just find the right way to eat then my body would be transformed, and so would everything else in my life. None of the countless diets and nutritionist-prescribed eating plans had actually worked, but that didn’t stop me from believing in them — only in myself. Once I got my shit together, found the right plan and stuck to it, then everything would fall into place. Once my body was fixed, my real life could begin. I would be more social, more relaxed, my love life would blossom, and my career would flourish. The little things too, would be different; I would make my bed and learn to style my hair instead of just throwing it in a ponytail every day. I would do all those things that normal people did, because at last I would be normal, too. It was my deepest, most unshakeable belief. And all at once, that autumn morning, it dawned on me that none of it was true.
So, I quit. At 29, I learned how to eat all over again, with the help of a philosophy called intuitive eating, and a dietitian who specialised in it. I learned how to exercise rationally and consistently for the first time in my life. I began the thorny, beautiful process of accepting my body, as is. At the same time, I began this column, to share what I learned along the way. From the start, it was greeted with enormous support from readers, many of whom had also spent their lives trapped in the cycle of dieting and disordered eating.
But there were questions, too — one, in particular. Some asked outright, while others danced around it. Sometimes I’d get a 1,000-word email from a person, sharing their own troubled history with food and their desperate desire to change — and there that question would sit between the lines, unnamed but clear as day. More than four years later, when I talk about my own story, it is still this question on everybody’s lips: Does quitting dieting actually work?
It is clear what most people mean by this. Did it work? Did you lose all the weight? Has not dieting been the secret to thinness all along??? I get it. For one thing, we’re all programmed to believe that “working” equals weight loss. All of us, of all sizes, are bombarded on a daily basis with the message that thinness is a goal we’re all supposed to be working towards. And — twist! — there is no finish line, because you can never actually be skinny enough. (On top of that are all the individual parts of your body you’re supposed to try to change, whether it’s through glute-shaping classes or waist-training corsets. But it goes without saying that these specifically shaped body parts belong on a thin body.) We are all supposed to be actively, avidly “working” on our bodies, all the time. To say that you are not dieting is one thing, but to say you’re not working on your body is cuh-razy.
The concept of the anti-diet has been around almost as long as dieting itself. And, sadly, there have always been people who’ve repackaged it as a weight-loss technique. Even intuitive eating — which is predicated on the necessity of body acceptance — has been co-opted by those who peddle it as a diet. It’s a crazy message (Lose weight by not trying to lose weight!) but not that much crazier than any of the other eating fads we’ve been through. “Diet” was already a passé word when I first launched The Anti-Diet Project. In the intervening years, I’ve seen it fall even farther out of favour, but the concept of dieting is still alive and well. Today, we eat “clean” rather than “light,” but restriction by any other name is still restriction. So, I know what they mean when people ask me if quitting dieting works. But I’m going to play dumb. Today’s column will be the last instalment of The Anti-Diet Project. So, I want to give a real answer.
All of us, of all sizes, are bombarded on a daily basis with the message that thinness is a goal we’re all supposed to be working towards. And — twist! — there is no finish line, because you can never actually be skinny enough.
Here are a few things that happened after I quit dieting: My career took off. I published my first book, and got a deal to write another. I became a public speaker, I developed this column and wrote many other stories. My friendships deepened and my love life bloomed as the more self-acceptance I achieved the more able I became to accept love and affection from others. The guy I was seeing when I quit dieting became my boyfriend, then my husband. My physical health improved, in part because I was no longer swinging between restriction and binge modes, but also because I was no longer swinging between exercise extremes either. I also became more open with my doctor, who offered to simply stop weighing me for the time being, until I felt comfortable getting on the scale.
My mental well-being improved by leaps and bounds. With the help of my eating coach, I began to lift off the massive mental burden of food and body image obsession. Underneath it, of course, were all my other issues, which I was forced to confront and grapple with. But I did. I am. It’s a pain in the ass, but it feels infinitely better to sit down and deal with those problems than to try and outrun them.
Quitting dieting was like hopping off a hamster wheel. Suddenly, I felt the ground beneath my feet. I could lift my head and look around, instead of just staring straight ahead into the void, focusing only on moving, burning, counting, and killing time. I had believed that one day I would find the diet that would give me the body and the life I wanted. But only when I quit dieting did I get to really live the life I had. And somehow, it is so much better than that fantasy life I’d envisioned back when I was still trying to get thin. It’s harder too, for sure. But it’s real.
As for my size, it’s about the same. Before, I use to swing wildly up and down the scale, but now I’ve landed somewhere in between my highest and lowest weights, and that’s pretty much where I stay. I’m like everyone now, in that my weight fluctuates slightly, in accordance with my life. I don’t track the numbers on the scale (though I do let my doctor blind weigh me now), but I notice when my clothes fit differently. Sometimes, I’ll feel that old flutter of excitement when my pants feel loose — or the familiar pang of anxiety when they’re snug. I wish I didn’t, but it’s understandable. It’s just an old habit. More importantly, it’s no big deal. I’m capable of having feelings about my body without letting those feelings bulldoze over everything else in my life.
That, right there, is the real difference. That’s why everything changed when I quit dieting. My meals, my workouts, my pants — those things are just part of my life now, rather than my life, period. They are not the things which guide my every decision. Do I still sometimes get stressed out over ice cream, or wince at goofy pictures of myself? Totally. But those moments are moments. And when they’re over, I get to move on to the next moment.
In a way, that’s what I’m doing now. I’ll be honest, I’ve spent years wondering if and when this column should come to a close. The issues I’ve written about in it are by no means resolved in the wider world. Body positivity, disordered eating, rational fitness, intuitive eating, and diet culture — these subjects matter, to me and to so many others. I know I will be writing and speaking on these topics for the rest of my life. This will always be one of my beats. But I have so many more things to write about, too. Thanks to the work I’ve done over these last four years, I’m no longer professionally or personally defined as a Woman With Food Issues.
How joyous it is to recognise that — and how sad and scary, too. In concluding The Anti-Diet Project, I am saying goodbye to what has been, without question, the most thrilling and important chapter of my life thus far. If what comes next is even half as fulfilling, then it will be thanks to the decision I made four years ago — two decisions, really: To quit dieting, and to write about it. It will be thanks to the people who supported me in doing so, including my editors, my friends, and every single person who read these words. I felt your presence beside me, every step, and even if I only imagined it, it got me through and here I am. My gratitude is boundless, truly.
Did quitting dieting work for me? Better than I ever thought possible.