From the time I was old enough to know I had a body, I recognized it as a problem to be solved. It was the wrong shape, it was awkward - but above all, it was too big. Thankfully, the solution was clear: I would need to diet the problem away. As a child, I started with the usual mainstream diet plans, and later I saw various professionals and tried a few personally prescribed "nutrition" programs. Meanwhile, I calculated the calories I burned not just at the gym, but with every step; exercise wasn't a way to feel good, but merely a tool to erase myself, one miserable jumping jack at a time.
Dieting was my whole world, the structure within which I lived every day. I had rules about what I was supposed to eat and how much and "bad" foods (such as potato chips) that I tried to avoid. These rules took up a lot of my time and emotional energy. I might lose a few pounds, but every attempt ultimately ended in failure - and a fervent commitment to the next plan, which would surely, definitely work. Without realizing it, I committed two decades - my childhood, my adolescence and much of my 20s - to trying to fix my body. Then one day three years ago, while I was running through the woods to torch calories, it suddenly struck me: None of this was working. It wasn't just that I'd never gotten thin; I'd never gotten to be any of the things I'd assumed I'd become once I'd dropped the weight: happy, healthy, successful, social or loved. None of these things had anything to do with my size, but I was sure they did. I hadn't allowed myself to engage fully with life because I'd been too ashamed about my weight, too busy staring at the scale. Dieting hadn't fixed me: It had broken me.
I saw I had to start eating like, well, a normal person, and I decided to try intuitive eating, a concept I'd heard about over the years. This approach to food is not a diet plan, but essentially diet deprogramming. I began working with a coach (also a registered dietitian) who guided me back to my basic instincts around giving my body what it needed, with which I'd lost touch after years of calculating net carbs. I replaced my rules with principles like "permission to eat" and "honoring hunger and fullness."
Simple, yes, but it wasn't easy for a lifelong dieter like me to eat without rules. All of a sudden potatoes weren't carbs or points - did I eat them? And potato chips? I spent a full hour with my coach doing mindfulness exercises to become comfortable eating a bag of chips, that greasy forbidden fruit. Eventually, I got it: They weren't a reward or a crime, just a snack I could take or leave. I also had to relearn exercise: I now pay attention to my body, not the calorie counter on the StairMaster display (which I throw a towel over).
I know how these stories usually end: brand-new body, brand-new perfect life! Well, I'm still not thin, and I'm probably not designed to be. Giving up dieting meant giving up the idea of perfection, too. What I am is healthier, happier and more successful. My friendships have deepened, my boyfriend and I have gotten closer and my career as a writer has cracked wide open.
When I was a dieter, my "good days" were when I lost weight and my "bad days" were when I didn't - there wasn't room for much else. Today, my life is made of good, bad, strange, exciting and unpredictable days. It's not perfect, but it's real, and it's mine. I'll take it.
This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Good Housekeeping.
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