When anti-dieting feels dismissive

When I was in my early 20s, just out of college and adjusting to Real Life, I wanted to lose weight, and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening. I watched what I ate (obsessively), I worked out (obsessively), but the scale never budged…so then I binged.

I was so frustrated I decided to return to the very first diet I ever tried — Slimfast shakes. Just two sensible milkshakes in place of breakfast and lunch, then a sensible dinner, and I’d be sensibly slimmer in no time. It worked like a charm when I was 12, and I was counting on it again at 22.

So I headed to the local supermarket, found the right aisle, and reached down for a six-pack of Slimfast shakes…JUST as an older gentleman happened to be passing by.

“You don’t need that stuff,” he said to me.

I froze. My whole face turned red and hot. I’d been caught — and called out — in public for doing something I felt so deeply private about.

I was enraged. Absolutely livid. I sputtered something back at him like: “Actually. I DO.”  I grabbed my Slimfast and marched to the checkout, avoiding eye contact with anyone, feeling simultaneously ashamed and proud of my weight loss efforts.

Was he being kind? Or condescending? I honestly don’t know, even now looking back. But in the moment, all I knew was he had punctured my deeply private world of body struggles, and offered a ridiculous, simplistic alternative to dieting: how about just don’t?

“Excuse me??!?!” I wanted to scream, at him and at everyone who’d listen. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HARD I WORK AT THIS. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW IT CONSUMES MY LIFE. IF I STARTED EATING I WOULD NEVER STOP. YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

Fast forward a decade later, I can hardly believe that I’m the one saying “You don’t need that stuff.”

When you hear it at the right time in your life, the idea of quitting diets can be freeing, thrilling, intoxicating! But when you hear it at the wrong time, it can feel like an insult or a threat to a defining part of your life — a dismissal of a dream and years of hard, focused work. It can even make you double-down on the diet life, just to prove everybody wrong.

Dieting is excruciatingly hard. That’s the worst thing about it, and also kind of the best. It gives us structure and goals, and the pride of accomplishment when things go as we’d hoped. It even gives us a handy scapegoat to blame when things don’t go the way we’d hoped.

Years after that mortifying day at the supermarket, there came a point for me in my life, alone in my shoebox apartment, newly dumped and utterly lost, when I’d had enough with my war with food. Maybe the heartache of my breakup cracked me wide open, because suddenly I could make out a whisper I had never heard before.

“Will I really have to do this for the REST of my life? Will every day be like this, over and over and over again?” That was my moment. And the man in the grocery store couldn’t have been further from my mind; this voice was all mine.

Eating habits are deeply personal, and no one but you can or should say when it’s the right time to try something different.

The most important message I ever want to impart about dieting is simply this: You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Dieting is not a duty or a destiny. It’s just one option made to seem like the only way. And if there comes a time when you want to explore the alternatives but can’t seem to find the exit, know that there IS a way out. Intuitive eating will always be right there when it’s the exact right moment for you.

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