I believe it’s no coincidence that the word “diet” is largely composed of the word “die.”
In my earlier dieting days, I was regularly sentencing myself to death, as in, “I’m on a diet and I just ate an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos— thus, I should die.” Or: “I’m on a diet and I just ate three bowls of Cap’n Crunch— thus, I should die.” Or, “I wasn’t supposed to eat anything but celery today and I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and six potato chips— thus, I should die.”
Understand, I’m using the word “die” lightly . I did not want to end my life so much as sentence myself to the ultimate punishment. I had broken the rules of whatever plan I had dubbed The True and Right Diet That Would Finally Give Me The Body I Wanted—and I was a failure. The Diet was right. I was wrong. Simple as that.
Also understand: I wasn’t extreme. I didn’t diet all the time— only half the time. And I didn’t have a clinical eating disorder, though in my craziest moments, I envied anorexics for their self control … and because they were, of course, skinny. I believed that I ought to be thinner and that deprivation was the key to that. In other words, I was your run of the mill, body dysmorphic, young American woman.
I’m happy to report that by the time I was in my mid-20s, I had both surrendered the hope of being thin and realized that I could live with that fact. Which is to say I stopped dieting and started eating like a sane person.
After a while, I got to a point where I mostly liked what I saw in the mirror. What I liked even more was not thinking about eating all the time— or rather, not thinking about not eating all the time. And what I liked most was not being mad at myself all the time.
Who knew that could be so enjoyable?
And so slimming.
Yes, it’s true: once I stopped dieting—which is to say stopped failing at dieting— I ate a lot of healthy food and a little junk food, exercised moderately and settled into a healthy weight. From age 25 to 35, I was A-OK.
When I got pregnant, I gained about 30 pounds, a normal amount of weight, and lost all but 10 pretty quickly. No worries. I knew I was going to have another baby soon after and it didn’t make sense to try to lose weight before baby No. 2.
Baby No. 2 came. Same thing: I lost all the weight but 10 pounds. I might not have minded had the pounds been distributed—a little on the legs and arms, a little on the hips and arse— but all 10 collected at my midsection, as if they couldn’t bear to be apart from each other.
Still, no worries. I knew if I lived the way I had pre-baby— eat a lot of healthy food, indulge in a few treats, exercise— I would lose the weight. Problem was, I didn’t. One year after my son was born, the 10 pounds still clung to the life raft that was my stomach. I had to step it up.
As fate would have it, when I signed up for a personal trainer at Johns Hopkins University recreation center (the cheapest, nicest workout facility in Baltimore if you’re affiliated with Hopkins, and if you like eavesdropping on coeds), I was assigned to a young fellow I’ll call Nate.
Immediately I realized Nate was two things I wasn’t: young and cut. Over time, I realized he was one more thing I wasn’t. He was possessed of the view that his body was his own personal science project. While I suffered through planks and kettleball sets, he regaled me with his latest extreme adventures. He’d eat only egg whites and frozen spinach for six days straight. Then he’d scarf up an entire large pizza and
gallon of ice cream. It was, he said, “blah blah blah ketosis”— some chemical thing I didn’t understand. What I did understand was that Nate delighted in dieting. It wasn’t about shame; it was about competition.
It was an extreme sport and he was its star athlete.
Hearing about it was fascinating and disgusting, like visiting a freak show. But such madness I wanted no part of.
Alas, after eight months of working out with Nick a few times each week, progress had not been made.
“I’m exercising and eating healthily and I’m not losing weight,” I complained one day.
Nate turned to me and, in that voice he’d used when confiding to me about his girlfriend troubles and fraternity high jinks, he said: “You’re not going to lose weight through exercise only.”
“You’re a personal trainer. Are you allowed to say that?”
“I’m not saying it as a personal trainer. I’m saying it as a friend. You aren’t going to lose weight unless you restrict your calories.”
“I have a healthy attitude toward food.”
“You need to restrict calories.”
“You mean… diet?”
That night, when I told my husband, Mike, “I need to go on a diet,” he didn’t make a big production out of trying to persuade me not to or tell me I was already perfect. Instead he said, “There’s a diet called Slow Carb that seems really smart. I’ll go on it with you.”
I was familiar with low carb diets—I had watched from the sidelines as they’d come in and out of vogue, always feeling smug and self-satisfied. But Slow Carb? Turns out it was the brainchild of Timothy Ferriss, a perpetually self-experimenting, self-improving, guru of technology, business and health. Mike handed me his Kindle stocked with Ferris’ best-selling books “The 4-Hour Work Week” and “The 4-Hour Body.”
That night, I lay in bed and read the five simple rules Ferriss promised would result in a 20-pound weight loss in one month. No. 1: Avoid white carbs, which is to say bread, rice, cereal, pasta. “Don’t eat white stuff unless you want to get fatter,” Ferriss says memorably. No. 2: Eat the same thing again and again: protein, legumes and vegetables at every meal. If you get bored, tough. Says Ferriss: “Just remember: this diet is, first and foremost, intended to be effective, not fun.” No. 3. Don’t drink milk, soft drinks or juice, white wine or beer—and no more than two glasses of red wine per night. No. 4: No fruit. And, finally, Rule No. 5, the doozy: Take one day off per week and binge. Doing so, Ferriss writes, “increases fat-loss by ensuring that your metabolic rate … doesn’t downshift from extended caloric reduction.”
Mike and I started on a Monday. Breakfast was a couple of eggs over spinach topped with salsa. Lunch was leftover chicken over greens with black beans and avocado. Dinner was salmon and asparagus. At night, we toasted ourselves with a glass of red wine.
Next day, same thing.
On my third morning on the diet, I opened the refrigerator door and stood there for a long time. I put my hand on the yogurt container and let it linger. Then I pulled the container out and put in on the counter, next to the strawberries I’d gotten out for the kids. I had a powerful feeling at that moment: It was the feeling of wanting yogurt and strawberries, yes, but it was something larger. It was the feeling of wanting to decide for my own damn self what I was going to eat for breakfast.
I was about to scoop some yogurt into my bowl when Mike came in the kitchen. Shit, I thought. I’ll eat the f*cking eggs and spinach. (You may have seen this coming, but it was only at this point that I realized I was on the same diet Nate had been on. When I told him that during our next session, he nodded in approval. By then, however, he was on a new and more extreme diet.)
For the next two days I fussed and flailed then finally sat down to consume the world’s most boring meals. If I got hungry between meals, I ate a small handful of raw almonds and dreamed of Saturday, which was to be our binge day.
Saturday morning, we went to the farmers market. I started with a biscuit from Blacksauce Kitchen. Then a Thai ice tea. Then a couple of Jamaican patties. At lunch I ate a crabcake sandwich from Eddie’s Market and a bag of chips and a cream soda. Then pizza and ice cream at night.
Ferriss had said binge day would be like Utopia. For me, it was hell. There was too much pressure: I felt everything I put into my mouth had to be The Best Ever. At the same time, every delicious bite was flavored with loss: the knowledge that it would be six more days until I could eat like this again.
Also, I had spent years developing a healthy attitude toward food. To be encouraged to binge just felt weird and wrong, like being told to smoke opium. And part of me feared this diet would hurl me back into all the body hate I’d had in my earlier days.
Sunday morning, I was back at it with the eggs and spinach, the chicken and asparagus and the beans, beans, beans. Mike was enjoying the diet; he had no problems being ordered what to eat (he’d been in the military) and he didn’t mind eating the same meals again and again (military, again). I, on the other hand, was angry at Ferriss for telling me what to do.
(Remember the “die” in “diet”? Well, I wanted him to.) I was angry that eating right and exercising wasn’t enough to lose weight. I was angry that diets even have a right to exist, and that they cause so many good people to suffer. I was angry that in my youth I’d used diets as a weapon of control and when that didn’t work, I used them as a weapon of self-torture.
I no longer wanted to control my food and I no longer wanted to torture myself.
But I also didn’t want a pouch.
So I stayed on the diet and I stayed angry. Which, as it turns out, was a lot more successful a dieting emotion for me than shame. (I’m never going to get to delight, like Nate.)
That first week, I lost 3 pounds. The next week, 2. And the week after, two more. I cheated a few times: I ate the frites with my steak at a restaurant in Kansas City one night. I ate a breadstick at an Italian restaurant (but resisted the pasta). I ate a bagel one morning. But I followed the rules mostly. And by the sixth week, I had lost the 10 pounds of baby weight.
At that point, I said to myself, “Self, all in all, it’s probably wise to avoid white carbs. But the rest of these rules are crazy and you’ll abide by them no longer.”
A year later, I don’t eat cereal and I rarely eat sandwiches and I avoid pasta like the plague unless it’s homemade. I eat yogurt and drink milk and eat cheese (in moderation). I am most certainly not only eating the same few meals again and again. I eat a lot of vegetables and protein. And I don’t binge on Saturdays, or ever.
I’m grateful to be rid of those 10 stubborn pounds (though I still think Ferriss is an asshole). But just the same, I’m saying this loud and clear: This old bag of bones is never going on a diet again.