If you've been here before, you've heard this story before. I went on my first diet when I was around 15 or 16. I was probably under 120lbs at the time, hardly anywhere near needing to lose weight but, because I had no self-worth, I, like most, got sucked into the notion that skinnier is better.
It was low carb, this was back in the Atkins days and somewhere I got my hands on his book. He made carbs sound so evil and removing them from life so easy and necessary that I was convinced.
Within about an hour I started, for the first time in my life, being obsessed with thoughts of food – specifically the ones I wasn't allowed to have anymore.
Within a couple hours I caved, ate carbs, hated myself, overate carbs the rest of the day and vowed to "start fresh" the next morning.
I didn't end up losing weight like Atkins promised, in fact, I ended up gaining even more weight and the food rules and restrictions that I was taught by his awful book started a 2 decades long war with my weight, food and myself that at its worst saw me hospitalized with bulimia so severe I often felt like I was going to eat myself to death.
And the whole time, I blamed myself for being a stupid, weak, pathetic, pig.
But that wasn't even a little bit true and my issues with food and my weight had nothing to do with food or my weight.
And my story is not unique. For almost a decade I've been listening to women from all over the world tell me stories -- their stories -- all very similar and starting in basically the same ways.
It always starts innocently enough. Wanting to lose weight or "eat healthier" -- usually in their teens, sometimes later -- starting a diet of some sort that told them what they "should" and "shouldn't be" eating ...and then decades of disordered eating patterns and self-loathing follow.
One out of four dieters will develop some type of eating disorder. That's a number that's doubled in the last 20 years. And the majority of the rest develop very disordered eating patterns.
My recovery didn't start until I realized a few basic truths.
First, dieting, food rules, fear of weight gain and self-hatred caused it all.
Second, I was never going to recover or find my way out until I walked away from diet culture and gave up the obsession with having a perfect body or being a perfect weight. I had to recognize those things for what they were – they were making matters worse and were distractions that kept me from dealing with the issues that were causing the problem.
So, I had to start putting all my energy into fixing the cause. That meant learning to love and value myself and how to heal my relationship with myself.
Five major shifts that changed everything:
Permission: I gave myself permission to binge and make crappy choices for myself. This sounds like the opposite of helpful but I realized that hating and judging myself for terrible choices wasn't helping, it was actually a big part of the problem because it was making me feel even worse about myself. My goal became to avoid making myself feel any worse about myself than I already did so I had to just start letting all my stupid/self-destructive choices be okay while I worked on healing. It was all okay because I was doing the best I could with what I knew at the time. I knew that as I recovered and started valuing myself more, I'd start make more loving choices for myself.
Acceptance: It sucked pretty bad to live that way and I felt sorry for myself for a long time but I finally realized that it was just the journey I was meant to be on. For whatever reason, whatever I was supposed to learn from it, I was in that place for a reason and when I got through it, I'd make sure I made it have a greater purpose.
Compassion: I realized that anyone who is willingly punishing themselves with food (either bingeing or restricting) as much as I was, is someone who's suffering pretty bad. How would I speak to a friend, client or even stranger that was suffering? That's how I started trying to speak to myself. I was suffering badly enough already, I didn't need to keep kicking myself when I was already down.
Kindness: Further to the above, anyone suffering that much, really just needs to be extended some basic kindness. Compassion allowed me the space to make room for kindness so the worse I felt, the kinder I was to myself.
Curiosity: I couldn't just blindly give myself permission to binge forever without actively getting curious about why I was doing it. So, every time it would happen, I'd spend a lot of time asking myself why. How was I feeling? What feelings was I trying to keep myself from feeling? Why was I feeling that way? Why did I hate myself so bad that I felt like I deserved to be punished? Was there a better way I could manage all those feelings?
It didn't happen overnight but one day I realized that I couldn't remember the last time I engaged in compensatory behaviors. Then I realized that binges were getting fewer and farther between. And then finally, I realized I couldn't remember the last time I binged or even overate, and I couldn't even imagine ever doing it again.
Recovery and freedom is a blessing that I don't take for granted for even a second and I'm still grateful for every minute of the day.
But eating disorder recovery is tough and many aren't so lucky.
What I Wish Parents Understood About Prevention
Most advice regarding eating disorders always refers to those already suffering but I want to speak about prevention because living with an eating disorder, and even just the disordered eating that dieting creates, is hell.
Recovery was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life – and I've not had an easy life so that says a lot.
Prevention at an early age needs to be our highest priority.
Often, parents are a big part of the cause – not purposely of course. We all, always have our kid's best interests in mind. We want our kids to be the healthiest, most confident versions of themselves and we're doing the best we can.
We want them to maintain healthy bodies and eat nutritious foods. Nobody doubts that we all want the best for our children.
But the way we're approaching it is almost guaranteeing that our kids are going to struggle with food issues, eating disorders or a lifetime of failed diet attempts and weight gain.
Research has shown that the younger girls are when they go on their first diet, the more likely they are for engaging in extreme weight control behaviors like vomiting and laxatives (that's an eating disorder), abusing drugs and alcohol and becoming overweight by the time they reach their 30's.
All the things we typically do to try to help encourage health (restricting certain foods, teaching them that some are "good" and some are "bad", encouraging them to lose weight, or even acknowledging their weight) are among the worst things we can do for the health of our children. They almost guarantee kids will struggle and be at a higher risk for developing eating disorders.
It's difficult to overstate the damage that weight and food shame does to adults, and that damage is ten times worse in children.
We also have to remember that they learn from us. If your kids watch you struggle with food and your weight, if they see you tie your mood and your self worth to your scale, they are going to be at a significantly higher risk for developing an eating disorder or living with those same struggles themselves.
So, this is what I want parents everywhere to know: encouraging weight loss, labeling foods (good vs bad, allowed vs not allowed, etc), discussing weight, restricting foods and dieting yourself – all of those things that millions of us are doing every single day that diet culture has taught us is expected or accepted, they're all putting our children at risk for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are widely recognized to have the highest mortality rate of all mental illness while also being among the most underdiagnosed and under/poorly treated.
How To Encourage Healthy Choices Without The Risk: DON'Ts
Don't discuss weight, size or bodies – not yours, not theirs, not anyone else's
Don't let other people discuss their weight in front of them - not their doctor, not relatives, no one
Don't label foods – no good, no bad, no healthy, no unhealthy... no food labels. At all. Food labels and shame create self-punishing behaviors & destroy our relationship with food
Don't tell them they are what they eat – our food choices don't determine our worth
Don't restrict foods – let them eat whatever they want. Restriction leads to guilt, shame, overeating or bingeing
Don't force exercise or "burning off calories" – encouraging exercise as a means of weight loss is setting them up for trouble
Do encourage them to consider how their food choices make their body feel and why they're eating. Are they physically hungry? No? Are they emotionally hungry? Teach them the difference and help them learn to express the emotions they're trying to feed and how to better manage those emotions. How does that big mac and fries make their body feel when they're done eating?
Do they want to feel that way? How does skipping that meal make their body feel? Do they really want to ignore their body's most basic human needs with restriction? Why?
Do teach them the value of understanding the why behind the choices they're making and how their choices are often a result of their relationship with themselves.
Do teach them that the relationship they have with themselves is the most important relationship they'll ever have in their lives and to protect and nurture it.
Do lift them up, teach them to value themselves exactly as they are, for who they are, not what they look like. Teach them to value and respect others, no matter what size they are.
Do teach them about self-acceptance, kindness, authenticity, self-compassion and the power of mindful living.
Do teach them to appreciate the wonder and magic of their bodies, no matter what size they are. Teach them how to stay connected to their bodies, listen to and trust their own bodies. Do teach them humans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors - and that no one shape, size or color is any better than another.
Teach them that they are enough, exactly as they are and that neither their bodies nor their food choices define their worth. That'll be way easier if you learn it for yourself, first. ;)