To eat or not to eat? Why is that a question?
Trigger Warning: dieting, disordered eating, body dysmorphia and mental illness
It’s three in the morning.
I’ve been lying in bed, awake, for hours now, trying to fall asleep.
I’m tired. My limbs are limp, my eyelids are heavy, and my brain feels slow, almost like it’s lagging. I’ve been on the go the whole day and I’m exhausted now. I just want to sleep.
But I can’t stop thinking about when the sun will come out and I’ll get to eat. I can’t stop thinking about the food in my fridge, all the food I didn’t let myself have.
Is time moving slower than usual? Why can’t it just be tomorrow already?
I just want to sleep.
I just want to eat.
Up until a few months ago, this exact scene would play out every single night.
In my head, eating ‘healthy’ was the equivalent of eating ‘as little as possible’. I had a whole stockpile of terminology that included, but was not limited to, ‘clean eating’, ‘discipline’ and ‘calorie deficit’. I fed myself these words instead of the nourishment my body needed. This was good and that was bad and if I had the good thing, I was good and if I had the bad thing, I was bad.
Diet culture had succeeded in inserting its ugly self in the folds of my brain. The seed had been planted sometime during my final year in school, when I looked at myself in the mirror and decided that I needed to get in ‘shape’. No one told me that there is no one ‘shape’ and good health looked different on everyone. The idea stuck to me like glue and began to spread like a nasty web, consuming all other thoughts.
I needed to lose weight. I needed to get smaller, thinner, take up lesser and lesser space.
I wasn’t always like this. So, what happened?
The toxic power of social media
The explosive spread of diet culture on social media has been one of the most contributing factors towards the perpetuation of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Research from 2017 has shown that people who used Instagram more frequently displayed increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa, which is described as an obsession with clean eating. The creation of an atmosphere that assigns morality to the natural process of fluctuation in body shape is bound to severely distort our perception of how we view these changes.
All one needs to do is log onto Instagram and you’ll find scores of posts and pages telling you about the next big fad, the next miracle diet, the next life-changing juice cleanse that will help you shrink.
The impression that such an environment has on the minds of not just adolescents, but fully-grown men and women is incredibly dangerous. When you are thrust into an all-encompassing conditioning system where food is the enemy and calories are worse than the devil itself, seeing otherwise is very difficult.
The science of it all
So, what happens to our bodies when we diet?
Bethany Motley, a registered dietician and nutritionist based in Minnesota, USA, explained to me in our chat that the human body’s natural response to receiving less food is the slowing down of the metabolism and increased levels of hunger as a means of making up for the restriction.
“Our bodies don’t know that we’re on a diet. They don’t know the difference between that and just being in a famine or having less food accessible.”
Dieting also completely changes the way our minds respond to food.
“Our thoughts get more focused on food. We can get obsessive about food and eating, even after we’ve gone off the diet. Our bodies kind of go into overdrive,” said Bethany, explaining the connection between the mind and the body.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a clinical study performed at the University of Minnesota between 1944 and 1945 concluded that prolonged dietary restriction leads to a decrease in the basal metabolic rate, body temperature and heart rate, which explains why a person on an extreme diet feels weak or cold.
The results also showed an increase in depression, hysteria and emotional distress. The behaviours exhibited by the men who were subjected to the experiment included preoccupation with food, social withdrawal and reduced concentration and judgement.
The inherent flaw of all diets
Diets make rules.
Rules like what foods you should and shouldn’t have, how much or how little, or when in the day you should consume them.
“Diets focus on external cues that don’t pay any attention to what your internal cues are telling you,” said Bethany, explaining how they mess up our ability to listen to our own instincts.
Intuitive eating: Getting back in touch with your body
Evelyn Tribole, the original master at the practice of intuitive eating, describes it as a ‘self-care eating framework’ that combines not just the rationale of nutrition but also factors in your emotions and intuition around food.
A practice that Bethany swears by revolves around ten basic principles, like a step-by-step process. And it all begins with rejecting diet mentality.
“We can’t really override our biology because diets don’t work for the long term.”
A major part of intuitive eating is respecting your body and its natural shape and size, and listening to it. Also, challenging the negative thoughts in your head or the ‘food police’.
“Honouring your hunger and fullness, learning how to listen to those hunger cues and realising that all foods can be a part of your eating,” said Bethany, detailing the other principles.
“Incorporating movement or exercise and then at the very end, you can begin to focus on some nutritional components once you’ve done all those other steps.”
Repairing your relationship with food
Bethany’s general checklist of the top five things you can do to start building a positive relationship with food and eating is:
- Stop listening to diet advice: This includes following diet pages, buying diet books and consuming diet media in general.
- Stop making foods ‘off-limits’: All foods are allowed, with the exception of allergies, intolerances or any such medical needs.
- Give yourself permission: Allowing yourself to eat when you’re hungry and letting your body know that it’ll be fed.
- Educate yourself: Learn what you can about non-dieting and intuitive eating by reading books, articles and research studies. You can even listen to podcasts or watch videos, whatever works for you.
- Seek help: Depending on what your relationship with nutrition is like, you may have to visit a professional, such as a dietician, a counsellor, a therapist ,or even a doctor for support. Remember, there’s no shame in that.
You are not alone
As isolating as this experience can feel, a hugely important thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone. There are people around you who might be facing a similar struggle, some silently, some vocally.
I’m still in the process of undoing and unlearning everything I picked up from diet culture and quite frankly, it can still get hard sometimes. The voice in my head can still scare me, send me into panic or a frenzy of negativity. What I’ve learnt is that the best thing to do is to take it one day at a time, celebrate the small victories and be wholly honest with yourself.
Every day will be a little easier than the last.