*Content Warning: This piece contains a reference to an eating disorder, which may be triggering to some.*
When I was younger, the word “diet” represented both my enemy of and my savior for a myriad of problems. It meant hunger, restriction and failure. It also meant perfection, beauty and popularity.
As a result, I cycled through restriction and bingeing for over a decade, implementing strategies such as weight-loss drinks and supplements, fad diets (I can still remember the frailty I felt on Atkin’s), and counting every single calorie, fat and carbohydrate… all of which resulted in the pendulum swinging over to secretive bingeing as seemingly my only outlet for stress and my only way to refill the physical and emotional emptiness.
I knew I didn’t feel good, but truthfully, I was completely unaware that there was another way. Looking back, I feel so much grief for my younger self, knowing that she fully thought the only way out was to reach a certain body type and weight. My thinking was so dysfunctional, and yet it was completely reinforced by the larger culture and normalized to the point that, even now looking back, I can see how I didn’t know I could question those norms.
Not only did I see these problematic messages in media, but I became more and more aware of how constant the self-shaming food talk was in social circles — the comparing, the blaming, the self-defeating jokes. Food was the disease, dieting was the antidote.
The shifts I have made since then did not happen overnight. They were small changes, both mental and behavioral, over many years. One significant aspect that helped me was when I started seeing an acupuncturist regularly. I responded strongly to the methods and mentality of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where the person is not a bunch of parts put together, but rather, a complete system; when the system is out of balance, there is no blame or fear, there is simply a curiosity in identifying how to help the body get back into balance.
As my practitioner reminded me, “We don’t need to talk about the ‘mind–body connection,’ because the mind and body are simply all one thing.” This helped me begin to connect to myself differently, to respect and value all parts of me as one whole being. This practice allowed me to become more attuned to what my body was telling me. I began listening to what I needed, and allowing myself the freedom to fill those needs.
This is really what I think our relationship with food ideally comes down to — feeling empowered to know ourselves and what we need to nourish ourselves in a non-judgmental way. Now, if I eat a particular thing, and that thing or the amount makes me feel unwell, I am more able to simply take note and to trust that I can continue to feed myself in more ways that feel good than those that don’t.
It is no longer about weight, it is about how I feel within myself. This shift has helped me, over time, pay less attention to calories on the nutrition label and more attention to the particular ingredients and how they may impact my body’s needs and overall wellness.
The other major factor that allowed me to make these changes was moving toward plant-based eating. Now, I am not here to say that plant-based or vegan eating is the answer to all dysfunctional eating thoughts and behaviors. But I can speak from my own experience that as I reduced the amount of animal products I consumed, the more able I was to notice how I felt when eating different things.
Eating became less related to how I looked and more about how I felt the most nourished, in body and soul. And now, as a vegan, I have experienced more food freedom than I ever thought possible. Despite the worry that others may express that plant-based eating is restrictive, I have never felt freer.
Let me be clear, though — this is a lifelong process. Do I still catch myself in the bathroom mirror turning to the side to do a “tummy check?” Yes. When I feel bloated and less comfortable in my body, do I occasionally notice my thoughts becoming more judgmental? You bet. Do I sometimes get a spike in anxiety when I eat more of something than I intended? Yup.
But I also know that I’m now able to measure in years how long it’s been since I’ve really wanted to restrict my food intake or felt myself spiral into a secretive binge, and I am always trying to pay attention to my body and mind as the whole of me that deserves respect and nourishment.
When I made a career change and became a holistic nutritionist, I knew I wanted to help others experience this same freedom. I know first-hand how trapped so many of us have felt in the grips of Diet Culture, and I know that it can be difficult to believe that there is an alternative.
But I can tell you this: if you want to release yourself from “the D word” and experience how to have a positive and nourishing relationship with food without a restrictive diet, it is possible. It begins with knowing that you — the whole you — are worthy of respect, empowerment, freedom. And remember — you are not alone. We’re in it together!
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you do not have to do the work alone. Please reach out to a therapist who can help you on this difficult path. You can also contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.