The Diet Legacy: Three Generations of Going Hungry

I sometimes reflect on the path that led me to dieting. I had been a chubby child and a pudgy teen and then finally a somewhat fat young adult. I started my first official diet at age 22. That’s the beginning and end of the story.

Except, really, it isn’t.

Lingering a bit longer on the tale, I look back on my childhood and the way I grew up eating. After my parents broke up, family meal time transitioned from the dining room to the living room (hey, it was the 70s). At the very same time that I ate with alternating anxiety and abandon by myself in front of the TV, my mother experimented with the “egg” diet (I have no idea, but it involved a lot of hard cooked eggs), drank Diet Pepsi and TAB, and ate mostly the scraps left over from my meals stealthily in the kitchen.

Only years later would I put it all together – my mother’s incredibly complicated relationship to food and her body and how it affected her ability to feed me. Stacked like a flip-it book, photos of my mother throughout my childhood would show her body undulating from thin-to-thick over and over again (in one picture, she bears a sad resemblance to an anorexic Karen Carpenter). She had been a naturally slim person most of her young life, yet she doggedly pursued ever elusive holy grails of lower body weights well into her middle years with varying degrees of success. Without fully understanding her experience, I would do the same years later.

Gram with my mom at left. She's probably worried her thighs are too big.
Gram with my mom at left. She’s probably worried her thighs are too big.

Looking even further back, I realize now that my grandmother – Gram – had been just as avid a dieter most of her life. Gram was an old-school glamor gal. She had flashy clothes and loved putting her make-up and high heels on before my Granddad would get home from work. She idolized Hollywood stars and keeping “her figure” was paramount. In glamor shots of her from the 40s, she was gorgeous.

But she was also what they called in those days a little “full-figured” and photos of her over the years show a weight trajectory similar to my mother’s: average sized, thinner, a little heavier, thin again, very thin, fat. I remember that she only picked at meals but ate yogurt like a fiend standing up over the kitchen sink. When she stayed with us for a week every year at Christmas, I never saw her eat a full meal, even though by that time she was very fat. My mother said that for years, Gram always had the latest diet pills in her bathroom cabinet. Her crowded spare bedroom housed all manner of “exercise machines” from the 1950s through the 1970s: a contraption with a massive belt that was supposed to shake the fat from your midsection, an exercise bike, and a hand roller that was supposed to help with push-ups (or so I guessed). She dieted and dieted and only ended up fatter and fatter. Worst of all, she constantly referred disparagingly to herself as a fat old lady, even though my five-year-old self saw only the beautiful, funny, and fabulous creature she was.

Speaking of rollers and contraptions, my mother had a few of her own. Her middle-aged version of exercise was to stand in front of the television while “rolling” her stomach with a rolling pin. Lord knows that thing was never used to actually bake anything. She explained to me that this would rid her stomach of its excess fat. She wore girdles to bed as a “slimming” technique, and in one hilarious moment, devised a “chin strap” to help lift her middle-aged wattle back into a youthful chin (she wore it only once, it was so uncomfortable). I laughed, but I don’t think any of this was particularly fun for her, nor did it seem to make her happier about herself.

A lifetime of dieting left my mother no love of cooking and like many children, I was a picky eater of the meals she made. To supplement what she felt was my in my lack of intake, she allowed me to eat whatever and whenever I wanted. Cookies for breakfast? Sure! A big bowl of ice cream right before dinner? No problem! Mealtimes were unstructured and meal choices were largely up to me (This doesn’t work well for kids. More on this in the future). I know now from comments she made that this was in reaction to how she had suffered on diets and that much of the time she was eating vicariously through me. My mother clearly had no idea how to feed herself or a child, and my body became the reflection of that. I grew outward faster than upward and soon turned into a chubby child with her own complicated relationship to food.

I’ll credit Mom with this: she never, ever put me on a diet. Of the things she might have gotten wrong, this was not one of them. She new that children shouldn’t be put on restrictive food regimens. She became alarmed if I ever mentioned dieting as a teenager and worried that I could become “anorexic” (now I understand why). Despite this warning,  “Do as I say and not as I do” didn’t work for me in the long run and I became a dieter too.

Dieting put down deep roots in my family. I was merely the stem poking above the ground with my measly dieting efforts. I escaped the cycle of restriction and body self-hatred but not without scars. Dieting leaves that kind of legacy wherever it goes.

Me in the middle. I'm clearly very concerned about who is fat and who is not.
Me in the middle with Gram (L) and Mom (R). I’m clearly very concerned about who is fat and who is not.

Committing Nutrition Heresy: Why I Don’t Think What We Eat is All that Important

Hold on to your hats, folks!  I’m about to say some pretty wild stuff (at least for a dietitian): I don’t think what we eat is all that important.

This is not what I thought for a long time. I once thought food was the most important aspect of our health. I thought if I could just eat virtuously enough, organic enough, local enough, free-range-pastured enough, enough vegetables, fruit and fiber and low enough fat…that I could live forever. Or at least I could live long enough that the end would always remain just safely out of view and I would remain disease free and looking like the age of 33 until the ripe old age of 110.

That was incredibly naïve, of course. It eventually became clear to me that all the good nutrition (or exercise) in the world wasn’t going to prevent the osteoarthritis I was developing in both my big toe joints, nor the near-debilitating ache I felt in my back. Good nutrition wasn’t going to fix troubled relationships or mediocre jobs, and it wouldn’t stop me from turning a year older every single year. The truth of it was that food was actually preventing me from living a healthy life because it was all I focused on.

Because what is health? Is it just eating enough fruits and vegetables? Of course not. Health is comprised of many components: genetics, environment, spiritual life, socioeconomic status, education, stress, relationships, access to health care. Nutrition and exercise are a small part of a big picture. What good is a diet filled with wholesome foods but a life filled with chronic stress? What good is all the exercise in the world if it excludes time to build nurturing relationships? What good is a near-perfect diet when you can’t enjoy it without overwhelming guilt when it isn’t perfect?

(There is a time when food is the most important, however, and it’s when you don’t have enough. People struggling with food insecurity will likely find that food–affording, finding, preparing and eating it–is their number one priority.)

So here’s how I think food and nutrition are important: I think we need to enjoy our food. I think it’s important to have a relaxed attitude toward eating. I know that dieting is not working for us. I think that eating fruits and vegetables can help ward off, but are not guaranteed to prevent, some diseases. I think most of this can be achieved with a non-diet lifestyle. And I think it is equally important to feed our souls with good relationships, feed our minds with knowledge, ease our stress by treating ourselves kindly. Food is a part of our lives, but it cannot be the only part.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Maybe you’re a dieter who wants to give up restrictive eating because you just…can’t…do it…anymore. Or maybe you’re someone who has struggled with overeating for some time. Either way, you’re wondering how you can eat healthier while still feeling relaxed around food.

The answer is simple: Intuitive Eating!

Intuitive Eating is a book by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch that teaches the reader how to stop dieting and start looking within for guidance around eating. The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating are:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Respect Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Exercise–Feel the Difference
  10. Honor Your Health

You can read about these principles in more depth on the Intuitive Eating website.

In my opinion, rejecting dieting mentality and honoring your internal hunger and fullness cues are the core elements of Intuitive Eating. Within the this framework, I believe there is a lot of flexibility (it’s intuitive, after all!) to suit anyone’s needs. Long-time restrictive eaters might benefit more from “demand feeding” – eating whenever you feel hungry for food, even if it is not on a schedule. Some may enjoy a more structured approach, such as having regular breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack times, but within that structure, giving yourself food that you really love and eating as much as you want while honoring hunger and fullness signals.

Others might find yet different ways to eat intuitively. The main point is to not get to that overly hungry, starved place before a meal – the feeling I like to call hangry (yeah, you know it, hungry-angry) – which usually results in eating way too much. The other key is finding that magic stopping point, the one where your stomach says to you, in a very rational voice (which I imagine to sound a lot like KITT, the car from Knight Rider), “That was delicious, and even though I’m not stuffed yet, I really think I’ve had enough.” It sounds easy, but if you’ve been dieting a long time, these are skills you may have to re-learn (we know how to do this as babies). Depending on how long you’ve been ignoring these internal cues, it could take a while to become skillful at eating intuitively again, but rest assured it is way easier and a lot more enjoyable than counting calories.

What Intuitive Eating is not: Emotional eating. Eating to self-medicate. Eating to meet someone else’s idea of what you should eat.

What is the result of Intuitive Eating? Well, this is how it has worked for me: I can eat whatever I want without feeling instantly guilty. I eat more vegetables now. I eat salads because I am not afraid of the calories in the dressing. I rarely overeat. I never binge. I can leave food on my plate because I am satisfied. I can savor a meal at a restaurant without first eating the entire bread basket. I enjoy chocolate without hoovering it. I don’t think about food all day long. I can enjoy a meal with friends. I can have just one cookie. I forget about the ice cream in the freezer. In other words, I am free from the hold food had on me. The opposite of this was true when I dieted, and I was not relaxed around food or happy with myself. If you want the same kind of freedom, get the book or find  yourself a HAES/intuitive eating dietitian to help you.

There you have it — HAES® and Intuitive Eating make the basic recipe for a non-diet life! Freedom from diets tastes delicious.

If Not Dieting…Then What? A HAES Primer

So far I’ve talked about not dieting. You might be thinking, well, if diets don’t work, what should I do to be healthy?

While there are many factors that affect health, many of them not entirely within our control, I like to focus on the factors we can influence, namely eating and exercise. The Health at Every Size (HAES®) philosophy helps us to do that. Here are the principles of HAES® from the Association for Size Diversity and Health’s website (sizediversityandhealth.org):

  1. Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
  2. Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
  3. Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
  4. Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
  5. Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.

If you’ve been living with a diet mindset, this can be a lot to digest (pun intended. Dietitian humor is the worst!). As a long-time dieter, my first reaction was “What?! Not eat for weight control? No way.” As it happens, I was pretty hungry the whole time I was learning about this and I think that’s probably what put the nail in the coffin of my dieting mentality. “You’re right!” I thought. “I don’t have to be hungry to be healthy!” I stopped my self-imposed famine then and there and have been feeding my appetite ever since.

The bottom line here is that HAES® takes the focus away from manipulating weight and puts it on behaviors that support health.

I have met some folks who want to know if they can incorporate HAES® into a weight-loss strategy. The answer is a resounding…no. HAES® and intentional weight loss efforts are mutually exclusive. Weight loss may happen as a result of a HAES® approach as your body seeks its way to a more natural weight for you, but making weight loss a focus of health changes will prevent you from finding peace with eating and self-image. In short, you’ll never get to a non-diet life if you keep focusing on your weight.

While HAES® is the overarching non-diet philosophy, I sometimes feel it doesn’t tell you exactly how to get there if you’ve been floundering in Dietland for a long time. This is where Intuitive Eating (also called attuned eating or normalized eating) comes in. I’ll talk about that in my next post!