Ah, January. The time of the year when the thrill of the holidays is over, the temperature is at an all-time low (at least in New England), and around the world, millions of people have put their New Year’s resolutions into motion. A simple google search confirms that by far the most popular resolution is losing weight, which is unsurprising considering how most societies prioritize thinness.
As someone who’s recovering from an eating disorder, navigating this focus—this obsession—on healthy eating and weight loss is challenging. Whether it’s a resolution in January to wanting a “beach body” in July to a new craze or trend sporadically popping up and taking over the world, diet mentality is literally everywhere all the time.
Diet mentality is defined as the constant awareness of food and the perceived impact it has on our bodies. This dangerous mindset decides your food choices for you without taking hunger, fullness, cravings, fluctuations, or personal preferences into account. Oftentimes, it includes attaching words to certain foods like “good” or “bad” and “safe” or “unsafe.”
When I was very ill, I kept—in my mind—a small list of “safe” foods and actively avoided any foods that my disorder-driven thoughts deemed unhealthy. For almost a year, I didn’t let myself eat desserts, cheese, and anything else that wasn’t low-fat, low-cal, low-carb—you name it. It’s important to note that my eating disorder actually started with me going on an innocent diet that, of course, quickly spiraled into restriction, compulsion, and ultimately starvation.
While I’m in a much better place now, I still have a hard time listening to others talk about food, calories, weight, or their bodies in a negative way. The fact of the matter is that we all must find balance, both in our lives and our diets. There’s a reason why most fad diets don’t work, and that’s because they aren’t sustainable or long-term. Eating in moderation with the right amounts of starches, proteins, vegetables, fruits, dairies, and fats, on the other hand, does.
It’s difficult to reason with someone who’s stuck in a diet mentality. Instead of trying to change other people, I’ve learned to focus on my improving relationship with food and lead by example by eating healthy but still allowing myself to have fun on occasion. I feel good about how I eat, I’m fueling my body with the nutrients it needs to thrive, and I’m becoming more comfortable in my skin. These are all milestones that, just a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine reaching. I’m in a place where I can recognize how miserable I was when I was in the throes of my disorder and feel motivated to do what I can to not go back there. While I’m still more sensitive than most to comments about food and diet, this perspective helps me overcome those challenging moments and actively stay in recovery.
My advice to anyone who’s going on a diet is to be cognizant of how you talk about food. You never know who will be listening and the impact your words could have. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthier. Where trouble arises is how we approach and obtain that want. Instead of cutting out all fats, strive to eat a balance of the right kinds. Instead of depriving your body, learn how to listen to it. Instead of adopting a diet mentality, reject the myth that there are “good” and “bad” foods and embrace intuitive eating: an approach that’s all about making food choices without guilt, honoring hunger, respecting fullness, and enjoying the pleasure of eating. It’s not an easy feat—years of battling anorexia have taught me that much—but it’s worth the effort for securing a relationship with food that’s kinder, healthier, and permanent.