When was your first diet?
The first diet I recall going on was when I was thirteen. I had gained some weight and felt uncomfortable with my body image (what teen isn’t?), so I decided to go on a diet. I didn’t know one thing about dieting. I’m not even sure how I knew I could go on a diet. My “diet” was basically just very calorie-restricted, though I never counted calories. I ate a snack bar for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and probably something like chicken with rice for dinner. (I just now typed these into Fitday.com and came up with less than 1,000 calories per day. Yikes.) I lost about 1/2 pound every day. Nowadays I would think that’s a huge amount of weight loss, but of course back then I was impatient and didn’t think I could lose the weight fast enough. And unfortunately, for the next several years I just assumed you were supposed to lose 1/2 lb every day or you were simply eating too much. Nice sense of logic, huh?
What No One Ever Told Me About Dieting
I didn’t know a lot about health when I was a teenager. I knew hydrogenated oil was bad, but that was about it. And no one ever told me that a teenage girl is supposed to gain a few pounds, because for goodness sake you’re still growing when you’re that age. In fact, your body is doing some really important stuff like building bone mass. And bone mass is heavy. I never even considered that muscle and organs and bone could register on the bathroom scale. I thought weight equaled fat: less weight means less fat, more weight means more fat. Boy, was I ever wrong.
The Diet Loop Continues
I tried going on several diets after my first, but generally I couldn’t stick to them for more than a few days. I always thought I just had a really poor sense of willpower. I didn’t know my body was craving nourishment. My next “successful” diet was a few years later and lasted several weeks. It mirrored my first almost exactly and I still managed to lose 1/2 every single day. I was thinner than ever and felt great. But I stalled out at 128 lbs and kept wondering why it was getting so hard to stay on my diet!
Then I got married, moved hundreds of miles away from my family, and discovered baking. I definitely put on some of those delightful newlywed pounds. I tried cutting back on food again but only managed for a couple weeks. I was at my heaviest when I became pregnant with my daughter. I vowed to never hit that weight again.
I gained another 40 lbs during pregnancy and of course I went on the typical post-pregnancy diet to lose the baby weight (plus the weight I’d gained before). I just tried to eat less, though not as strictly as before. I did manage to lose the weight, except for five pesky pounds that wouldn’t budge even after six months. Of course, no one told me women continue to build bone and muscle mass throughout their late teens and twenties. Looking back, I don't even think those five pounds were fat.
Then along came our son, and I really wanted to watch my weight now. I tried to be pretty strict with my diet during my second pregnancy, but I ended up binging on ice cream most nights (boy, was my body crying out for something!). I was following the Bradley method during both of my pregnancies and had still never heard of low-fat dieting, so I was eating plenty of protein and fat during this time (thank goodness!), though maybe not the most healthful kind.
When Dieting Becomes an Obsession
I don’t know what came over me after the birth of my son, but that’s when I became obsessed with losing weight and being thin. I looked at weight charts for my height, and saw that it was “healthy” for me to be as low as 115 lbs. And darned if I wasn’t going to get there. That’s when I found out fat was the villain, the evil thing that made me gain weight. And that’s when I discovered the magic of calorie-counting. That you could conveniently calculate your weight loss based on the nifty calories-in/calories-out method. You almost don’t even need a scale this method was so flawless! (Sense the sarcasm here?) But of course I did have a scale and I stepped on it religiously twice a day. And I was losing weight, and could fit in a pant size smaller than ever. But let me say: those days of losing 1/2 lb each day were long gone. Weight loss was much slower now.
I look back on myself and shake my head. I was nursing my son on a low-calorie, low-fat diet. And I wondered why he was so fussy and needed to nurse almost constantly. Now I’m really certain my diet had a lot to do with that. If only I could go back and tell myself to eat more eggs and butter... it would have done us both good.
I never reached that coveted 115-lb mark, but I got close... then I started gaining weight again, all the way back up to my peak weight. We were planning a big move and building a house, and with two little ones running around I was pretty stressed and exhausted (I’m sure over exercising wasn’t helping me!). I didn’t feel like dieting. I figured I would lose the weight after we moved.
Here’s where I really shake my head. After moving, the next two years of my life were spent perpetually dieting, exercising and binging on ice cream (followed by 90 minutes on the elliptical of course). I was hungry and tired so I started drinking coffee. I had never liked coffee at all and suddenly I loved it.
I was still able to lose weight at this point, and again nearly reached that wonderful 115 on the scale. And yes, this was when I became a sleep-deprived, emotional roller coaster. It just got worse and worse. Then, wouldn’t you know I started to gain weight again? Slowly, because I was still trying to force myself to diet and over exercise, but my body was fighting me hard this time. And I felt absolutely 100% miserable.
That’s when my priorities began to change, and I slowly began to honor my health over my weight. I started to realize I didn’t want to be a crazy skinny woman. I’d rather be a healthy, balanced woman of average weight. But at the time average weight seemed more like fat to me so it was not an easy choice to make.
When I switched over to eating plenty of real food in balanced proportions, I did gain weight. Right back up to the same weight I’ve been bouncing back and forth from since I was thirteen. Not overweight, but not skinny by a long shot. And that's not an easy place to be when you have a crappy body image. But, strangely, when I started eating better and getting healthier, my sense of confidence and balance started to return, too.
I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had continued to diet and over exercise, pushing and pushing myself to achieve an unrealistic goal. I know my mental and physical health would have continued to go downhill. I imagine I would have developed some digestive issues (signs of which were already appearing), and probably several other health problems as well (for instance, I'd become allergic to cashews during this time, which I had tolerated just fine before). And I wouldn't doubt if, in the end, I would have ended up heavier than ever--and all the more miserable.
The Last Diet - Ever
I harbored this hope that the extra weight would magically fall off me once I’d been eating real food for a while. My health continued to improve, but the number on the scale stayed the same (granted, now I knew I was gaining lean body mass and not just fat). Last fall I started criticizing my body again, unhappy that my old size 4 jeans didn’t even button up. I was really diving into real food research and kept seeing stories about low-carbing. The idea of cutting carbs did not sit well with me. I was averaging about 150 g/day of carbohydrates, and was very familiar with Dr. Schwarzbein’s warnings about going too low on carbs--basically that low insulin is as bad as high insulin, and low-carbing stresses the adrenals by requiring the release of cortisol to turn protein and fat into glucose just so your brain will work. (Read more about Schwarzbein's work here). But the lure of a bikini body took me in, and I cut those carbs with a vengeance, getting less than 50 g/day.
It didn’t really work. I lost a pound or two, and barely an inch or so around my waist in two months of low-carb dieting. I added in intermittent fasting to speed things up. That also didn’t work, so I decided to amp up my workouts and started heavy weight lifting three times per week (I was already exercising regularly, I just went for more intensity).
I felt fine at first (aside from those first few days of “induction flu” or whatever you want to call it), but after a few weeks I started drooling at the sight of a Starbuck’s. I wanted coffee, lots of it, even though I hadn’t drank a cup in months. Then suddenly I wanted donuts and Hot Pockets and all kinds of weird, nasty processed foods I hadn’t had an inkling of desire for since I began eating real, nourishing foods. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I noticed my emotional health was beginning to deteriorate. Mood swings and sudden spikes in anger had me pretty alarmed. Hadn't I left all this behind me?
I couldn’t put my finger on what was causing all this, until it dawned on me it was the carbs. So I raised my carb intake back up to previous, moderate levels and within days I felt completely normal again--no coffee cravings, no short temper, all gone.
Then and there I decided that my dieting loop had come to an end. No, I’m not a swimsuit model and probably never will be. I’m going to learn to be happy with that. Yes, I’m a little curvy and won’t be wearing skinny jeans, well, ever. I’m going to learn to be happy with that. My goal now is to learn to totally accept myself for who I am and the way my body is shaped. I’m going to feed my body the real food that it needs without counting calories and running mathematical equations in my head to see if something will “make me fat.” I’m going to enjoy life, for goodness sake! And I don’t need my size 4 jeans to do that.
Of course, this is just my story and my experience. And I’d love to hear yours. When did you go on your first diet? How did it affect you in the long run? Do you have a history of dieting, and do you think your body image suffers because of it?
This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop this week.