Dear friends, I don’t want to hear about your diet

Introductory note:  I wrote this post several years ago, long before I had a blog on which to post it.  The gluten-free craze was peaking and a significant number of my friends and relatives were regularly preaching about the “evils” of wheat.  That’s since died down, but new fads are always popping up.  For instance, one of my college friends is currently busy trying to sell us all some kind of abdominal plastic wrap thing that promises to shave inches off our waists overnight. 

This post was also written before I became a mother.  Over those last few years, my body image has been in flux.  Pregnancy, birth, postpartum recovery, and breastfeeding have changed my relationship with my body in ways that are hard to describe, some good, some bad.  Time alone has lessened some of my triggers, but what I wrote in this old piece remains true.

TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of eating disorders.


I don’t want to hear about your diet.

I could write a whole post about the total lack of legitimate science behind your gluten-free Paleo vegan juice cleanse.  But you would just repeat the talking points you heard on Dr. Phil and point me toward a blog with “nature” in the title, and I’d roll my eyes for your apparent lack of critical thinking skills, and you’d walk away thinking I was being a jerk, probably more secure in the superiority of your diet than before I started.  So this is not that post.

Because even if your favorite new diet works for you—and if it means you’re eating less white bread and fewer candy bars, it probably will, at least for a while—I don’t want to hear about it.

Because I’m much, much better at dieting than you are.

For five years as a teenager, I dieted, and I dieted well.  Much too well, in fact.  I lost the baby fat I’d set out to lose and just kept going.  If the number on the scale didn’t go down, it was a bad day.

For those five years, I thought about food all the time.  I would go to bed at night thinking about the next morning’s breakfast, and then I’d spend all morning at school waiting for lunch, which I wouldn’t let myself eat until the very last moment.  And when I wasn’t thinking about food, I was thinking about exercise.  If I couldn’t run when I’d planned, I became horribly anxious.  My willingness to do chores dramatically increased, because every time I took out the trash I burned a few more calories.

If you knew me, you might not have realized I was such a good dieter.  After all, you saw me eat.  I did eat: I ate because my parents made me and I ate because deep down, I knew that to eat nothing at all was to reach a point where something really was wrong.  If I was eating, I could tell myself that I was just being “healthy.”  That I was just trying to make sure I didn’t gain any weight.

(A side effect of this was that in later years, when I had accepted that this wasn’t OK and was trying to get help, the therapist didn’t believe me when I presented her with my weekly food journal.  She thought I must be lying, that I must have eaten less if I was as bad as I otherwise appeared.  In fairness, I had lied about food—or at least exaggerated the amount I was eating—to my parents over the years.  But I had gone to a therapist of my own free will and had no motivation to lie.  Being told you eat a lot for an anorexic is… off-putting.)

I am better now.  With the help of family, friends, and pharmaceuticals, I went on a different kind of diet to gain back the weight I so desperately needed.  And slowly, gradually, I stopped being on any “diet” at all.  Today, I don’t need to have my meals planned in advance.  I can go out with friends and get an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert.  I can snack on potato chips and not hate myself.

But anorexia is like the traditional conception of alcoholism: you never completely get over it.  And unlike recovering alcoholics, who can resolve to never drink again, recovering anorexics can neither resolve to never eat again nor resolve to eat everything they ever want (since gallons of ice cream every day aren’t healthy either).  One-third of women who have been anorexic will relapse.  I still have days when I’m sure that I’m fat;  I can feed my body and feel its strength, but I do not love it, and I am not sure that I ever will.

So please, friend, stop trying to preach your diet to me.  If you have found something that works for you, if you have lost a few pounds healthily and are feeling great, then I am happy for you.  You don’t need to walk on eggshells about it—just as a recovering alcoholic must learn to deal with other people’s drinking, so I must accept that other people diet in ways that can be OK for them.  But you wouldn’t push drinks on a newly-sober friend or try to tell her the health benefits of alcohol.  So don’t keep telling me about the diet you saw on TV / read about in someone’s book / heard from a friend / found on a blog.

And pause just for a moment before posting the latest fad on social media, because I am not alone.  Roughly 1 in 100 women in the United States will suffer from anorexia during their lifetime.  Several more of those 100 will have bulimia, and even more will face illnesses lumped into the category “eating disorder not otherwise specified.”  Men, too, although at lower rates.  If you have 300 Facebook friends, chances are that 10–20 of them have struggled with serious eating-related illness.  Countless more are doubtless caught, at a harmful but less dangerous level, in our culture’s pressure to be skinny.

Even if you genuinely believe that you’re just applying the principles of healthy eating and that you’ve now achieved some level of superior health, please don’t evangelize.  Human beings are individuals, and what is healthy for you is not always healthy for me.

Thank you, my friends.  Be well.

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9 thoughts on “Dear friends, I don’t want to hear about your diet

  1. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you’re doing better.

    Even for those who don’t have an eating or body disorder, we likely don’t want to hear about your eating unless we’ve asked about it. I eat many meals in a dining hall with coworkers, and there’s some I just won’t eat with anymore. For example, there’s the one that shamed me for having carbs on my plate. Say all you want about paleo giving you more energy (except don’t, because I don’t really care), but not eating carbs literally makes me angry and unhappy. I am a happier person for carbs.

    Maybe this is the same/a similar psych thing as parenting. I’m starting to think this is all rooted in either not trusting other people or not trusting yourself unless you convince other people your position is superior. I was discussing online the other day about sleeping and night weaning. Some woman kept asking me condescending questions about my night weaning (“but what if she was truly hungry?”). Considering night weaning took all of two days with perhaps 5 minutes of crying and rocking each time I had used to feed her, I think I can safely say my kid was nursing out of habit. But the woman kept asking. I finally said “can’t you just trust that I did the right thing for my child?”

    If only we could figure out how to trust ourselves, and each other, to pay attention: to our bodies, to our kids, and to other people. And then perhaps learn to be secure with other people making decisions different from ours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree—I think these things all have the same psychological basis. It seems to particularly show up when someone has chosen something that’s harder (resisting eating carbs, continuing to feed your baby multiple times a night, etc.) than the alternative. I’ve been guilty of it myself: when I first started realizing that academia wasn’t for me, I spent a lot of effort trying to convince people it was bad for everyone.

      You are truly brave to discuss baby sleep and night weaning online. 😛

      Like

      • Oh, I am sometimes guilty of that with academia :-/ whoops. I mastered out of a PhD program. So not my thing, and I’m happier for being a teacher. But I try to limit it to friends or to giving honest advice to students who ask about grad school (ie “it is hard and a lot of work, and just being smart isn’t enough”).

        Um, more like stupid :-p But I learned a lot, and I think it is truly important to be a voice out there that represents what I did. I see so many things where it’s all “I formula fed” or “I nursed” and “either choice is okay.” What if one made both choices? I keep meaning to blog about this, but I both nursed and formula fed; I was not a fan of pumping. I have often made choices in the middle, and I expect that plenty of others do too and just don’t talk about it. I co-slept and used a cosleeper and used a crib at various ages (crib now, most nights *fist pump*). And I’m not a martyr; I’m just a mom who does what works for her and her baby. I talk about sleep training online too. Because I’m crazy.

        I think we’re all guilty of wanting others to make similar choices to us; that’s part of why we give advice to people. It’s hard not too. But it is so important to develop trust in other people and their decisions. So I’m working on that.

        Liked by 1 person

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