I used to think that the secret to understanding my body was controlling it. If I could only figure out the precise set of food rules, guidelines, and restrictions that would shrink me, then I would finally know how to live in harmony with my thighs and stomach and stretch marks—all the things that made me less in my mind. Less worthy, less successful, less beautiful. So, throughout my early teens and 20s, I tested out all the diets, the cleanses, the 30-day programs. I would quietly portion different types of food into color-coded containers or download extreme diet plan PDFs from Pinterest. At the time, I thought I was learning how to have a good relationship with my body. In reality, I was learning how to warp my brain’s perception of food and eating altogether.
It’s all this restriction—the diets, the “good versus bad” food—that eventually led to disordered eating, compulsive binge eating, and a deep shame and anxiety around food. It took years and a lot of inner work to unlearn it all. But the single biggest thing that helped me was getting rid of all the food rules altogether. No restrictions on what I could eat or when I could eat. No cheat meals. No cleanses. No giving up entire food groups for months. Just figuring out how to know what my body wanted and needed to consume every day. To say this process wasn’t easy is putting it lately, but ultimately the work left me with a healthier relationship with food and my body than I ever thought was possible. None of it would have been possible if I didn’t give up all of the below food rules (and more), though.
That Calories Need to be Counted and Canceled Out
Like so many, my warped relationship with food began with a calorie counting app on my phone. I can vividly remember being 15 years-old and adding up in the calories for one cheese stick or a couple pieces of sliced turkey. I remember the elation I felt when I realized certain things were zero calories. I also remember spending hours on the elliptical at the YMCA trying to burn enough calories to cancel what I had eaten that day. At the time, it probably felt like control, but ultimately t it led to me having a deep anxiety about eating at restaurants (how could I know what oil they cooked the food in? Or if they accidentally put the dressing on the salad instead of the side?) or around other people.
My obsession with calorie counting gradually morphed into other diets and habits, but the impulse to re-download the app and start counting again always remained as a way to regain control. The truth is that, ultimately, calorie counting is unsustainable. It will only leave you feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Once I gave it up, I felt free.
That Dairy Was a Disaster for My Skin or Digestion
There are a lot of people who have actual diagnosed digestive issues with dairy. But this is also true of almost every type of food. For a long time, I clung to the myth that dairy was terrible for my skin as an easy excuse not to eat cheese, ice cream, or butter. “I just feel better this way,” I would say to people, as if I had really had any serious digestive or skin issues before quitting dairy (I hadn’t). The truth is that I felt better because I wasn’t eating an entire food group, and that made me feel in control. One less thing to worry about. One less calorie to consume.
Now, I eat a reasonable amount of dairy, my digestion is fine, and my skin looks better than ever. And the best part: I don’t fear ice cream, cheese, or butter at all.
That I Could Only Eat During Certain Hours
I’m not even quite sure when this particular food rule cemented itself in my brain, but once it did, it was almost impossible to get it out. I read somewhere that to lose weight, you had to consume food within three or four hours of waking up, in order to quick-start your metabolism. If not, your body would go into starvation mode and hold onto fat.
And while intermittent fasting is a thing, it became ingrained into everything I did. I became obsessed with eating first thing in the morning (and never past 8 p.m.) and if I didn’t, I felt like I had failed. It never mattered whether or not I was hungry when I woke up, but that was a recurring theme with all of these rules: My own hunger didn’t matter at all. Hunger was never the point of eating at all. It was control.
That Dessert Was For People With No Self-Discipline
I didn’t grow up with desserts. Sure, we would bake cookies once in a blue moon and have treats on birthdays, but generally speaking dinner was our last meal of the day. Desserts were not a thing, no matter how much I wanted the cookies or ice cream that other kids had in their house. As I grew up, this stuck with me—that desserts weren’t for me, but for other types of people. People with fast metabolisms. Or, alternatively, people with zero self-control. No in between.
Now, I eat dessert if I want it. Often, I don’t. The difference is I let myself make that choice now, instead of assuming that wanting something sweet after dinner is some sort of failure.
That Black Coffee Was The Only Acceptable Coffee
After one trendy diet in my early 20s, I became obsessed with drinking black coffee. So, I got used to drinking it. I found I didn’t even really hate it, and this felt like a win. Not because I had discovered something I enjoyed, but because I viewed it as cutting out thousands of calories from my diet for the rest of my life instantly. Success.
I still enjoy black coffee, but sometimes I want something different. Sweeter. Creamier. Almond milk. Oat milk. A latte. Pumpkin spice. Hazelnut. Sugar. I let myself figure out what I’m craving now and I go with that, instead of holding myself to some ridiculous “health” standard in order to save 15 calories. Health matters, but so does happiness.
That Bread Was The Enemy
Growing up, my dad would go on a strict diet every five years or so. I can recall one particular time period when he stopped eating bread, chips, etc. and then declared he was “carb free since 2003” for a couple years. We regularly went to restaurants and declined the bread basket. When we didn’t, I would feel guilty for eating it in front of him, sure to never eat more than two pieces. Looking back, I’m sure this was the beginning of my fear of carbs. My utter terror at the thought of regularly eating bagels.
But over the years, I developed my own obsession with not eating bread, thanks to various diet plans that touted giving up carbs as success. This particular food rule (or fear) is one that has been particularly difficult to unravel. Part of this is because of society’s fascination with hating them, too. Going to a dinner with women and hearing at least one person talk about giving up carbs or the bread basket or pizza is a universal experience for most people. But the only way I am able to tune all of that now and eat bread if I want to (or choose something else if I want something else) without fear or future restriction is because I told myself I could. Bread isn’t bad or good, it’s just food that sometimes your body will crave. Sometimes it won’t. Either impulse is OK.
That “Cheat Meals” Were a Good Idea
When I first got very into dieting, I became gradually obsessed with the idea of cheat meals. At first it was dinners out with friends or late night pizza, and then it became different. When I started my first job, I eventually began attempting to not eat all day only to go home to my studio apartment and reward myself with an entire bag of Doritos or enough Chinese food for three people. At the time, I interpreted all of these things as “cheat days” or “rewards” for restriction. Now, I know I was bingeing. And the binging was a direct result of restriction.
Cheat meals, at their core, created the same nasty cycle in my brain that all of the above rules built. They all made me believe, in my core, that giving up food would make me successful. That ignoring my hunger would make me thin. When I first decided to stop restriction and give up all the food rules (every single solitary one of them), I felt out of control. Boundless. I desperately feared gaining weight (and I did), but eventually things evened out. I didn’t binge. I craved greens as much as I craved carbs. I enjoyed butter and ice cream regularly, and I also enjoyed having enough energy to exercise regularly and not going to sleep hungry. My anxiety around food and eating disappeared. In its place, I found joy. And eventually, I started to view that as success.