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.