health

'I'm a fat woman, and at nearly 40, I've decided to stop trying to lose weight.'

Five weeks ago, I embarked upon a food freedom journey. For 12 weeks, I’m working with a registered dietician who specialises in intuitive eating rather than intentional weight loss.

I came to this place of fully wanting food freedom — over intentional weight loss — only after I realised that every diet and “lifestyle change” left me more anxious and obsessed about food. That my preoccupation with food and eating never led to lasting weight loss. Instead, with every single lifestyle change, I reached a level of burnout where I just couldn’t do it anymore.

These experiences didn’t just leave me fatter and feeling more like a failure. They reinforced my dysfunctional relationship with food and my body.

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So, after a good deal of consideration, I finally decided to stop trying to lose weight. I’ve tried virtually every diet on the planet. I figured I might as well give intuitive eating a go.

***

Food freedom is just what it sounds like — the permission to eat food with freedom rather than guilt or shame. The permission to eat what you like as opposed to whatever you’ve been told you “should” be eating.

Embracing food freedom means no longer counting on your adherence to arbitrary food rules to tell you if you’ve been “good” or “bad” each day. With food freedom, you recognise that food and eating are not moral issues.

In theory, it all sounds quite simple. You trust your body to tell you when it’s hungry, what to eat, how much to eat, and when you are full. This is what most people do naturally, at least when they’re young and haven’t yet been bombarded by diet culture.

For folks like me, it’s a helluva lot more complicated. I’ve been told my whole life that I eat too much and move too little. Many of my health issues like lipedema, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and endometriosis have been overlooked or ignored as doctors told me to “just lose weight.”

As a result, I’m nearly 40, and I don’t know how to eat. I haven’t trusted my body for a very long time, and the process of learning how to trust myself now is surprisingly hard. These days, I find myself sitting with a lot of uncomfortable feelings. Picking them up and examining what’s really going on instead of planning out a binge, or eating emotionally just because that feels good in the moment.

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Lately, I have to stop and think much more about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I also have to manage my expectations and deal with recurring fears like, what if I just get fatter and fatter?

At the same time, I get to look at the small wins. Every day I go without a binge is a win. Or every day I choose to honour my hunger and fullness. It’s tough work because I wind up second-guessing myself a lot. But the dietician I’m working with says that’s normal. That the process takes time, and it helps to go over the different ways dieting has harmed me in the past.

None of this is easy, but that’s completely “normal,” and although I wish I could tell you that food freedom is a magic bullet, it’s not.

Sometimes, it’s really damn exhausting.

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People have been curious about what I’m doing, though, and I think it’s fair to say there are folks out there who want to see if this “works” for me. It’s hard to not look at food freedom as its own sort of diet, I suppose, but it’s much more fitting to call it diet rehab.

Naturally, other people want to know if I’ll “stick with the program this time,” or if I’ll end up back in a binge-restrict cycle. Some folks are still curious if I’ll ever choose gastric bypass.

I don’t think so.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about surgery. But I know myself. I need to deal with my issues instead of going on a surgically enforced diet.

I don’t blame people for being curious or asking me a lot of questions. People who weigh as much as I do are often seen on reality TV. Not everyone knows someone who’s officially classified as “morbidly obese” or “super fat,” and given our culture’s current fat bias I think it’s only unsurprising that people are curious about a body they don’t understand. Besides, if something can “work” for somebody as fat as me, some folks are bound to think about doing it themselves.

But I’m in the middle of my journey — the messy part. I’m not like Adele who’s making headlines for dropping a bunch of weight on a Sirtfood diet after reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. Frankly, I’m not eating 1,000 calories a day on some toddler’s diet because I’ve been there, done that. Taken the before and after pictures. Gushed about how happy my new lifestyle has made me.

And yet?

I never lost all the weight I wanted to lose. And I always wound up regaining much more.

I used to feel like such a failure for constantly falling back into the binge-restrict cycles. Now, my dietitian says those cycles are side effects of intentional weight loss. That lots of people battle the same problem. As it turns out, we’re not stupid or lazy. We’re just human.

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And probably a little burnt out.

***

Other burnt-out people still have questions, like how much weight have I lost on food freedom? I don’t know. I ditched my scale. Do my clothes feel loose? Not really. I’m trying not to think about that and I’m just working on trusting my body first to quit the restrict-binge and binge-restrict cycles.

It takes time to regulate a wigged out system.

What am I eating? It depends. My mood plays a role, along with this whole mission to figure out what I like to eat. I gravitate toward flexitarian and pescatarian food. I still like fish and I’ve got a thing for tuna. 

I try to keep my foods very simple. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A small snack if I feel hungry. Usually, some protein, some carbohydrates, and some colour from fruits or veggies. No hard or fast rules. No stress.

Yesterday, I had stuffed salmon for breakfast. And some banana bread. For lunch, I had a veggie soup, Greek yogurt, and banana bread. It was a big banana bread day. For dinner, I shared a vegan meal with my daughter. I asked myself if I was still hungry, or if I needed a little more, but I realised I was satisfied.

I went to bed feeling good. Not for sticking to a certain amount of calories. Not for cutting out entire food groups. And certainly not for “being good.” After all, food is not morality.

I felt good because I went through my day without obsessing over food. I felt good because I honoured my hunger and got one day closer to understanding my fullness cues.

And then, I woke up feeling great. Hungry, yeah. But not so ravenous that I couldn’t wait to eat. I took my daughter to school, came home and ate a salmon patty and banana bread, and later enjoyed a soup bowl for lunch. I might order green pepper pizza tonight for dinner. Or maybe, I’ll prepare dinner myself — something like roasted carrots, toast, and fish. I might have some dessert.

Whatever I do, I’m confident that it’s not going to derail my weekend or turn into a binge episode. I know I’ll be able to stop that compulsion to binge because I’m dealing with the emotions that make me feel so out of control around food.

And these days, I don’t feel out of control with food. I feel like I’m in a good place because I’m finally learning how to listen to my body.

One thing I’m learning as I tackle intuitive eating is that overeating and binge eating are not one and the same. It’s natural for everyone to overeat sometimes — and it’s especially common for those of us who are finally learning how to trust our bodies.

Before I began to pursue food freedom, I saw overeating and binge eating at synonymous things I did because I was “bad” and lacked willpower with food. Any time it registered to me that I’d eaten even a bite too much, I let that episode turn into a full-blown binge.

The guilt and shame, of course, cycled into more binge eating, and then the shame and guilt began a whole new cycle. On and on it went. Trigger, binge, shame.

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Now that I’m working with a food freedom dietician, I’m feeling much more empowered to stop the cycle as soon as I feel triggered. Instead of eating my feelings, I explore my emotions and try to deal with the root. Usually, there’s some sort of diet culture hangup involved.

I was raised to view myself as a failure if I wasn’t a slave to the scale and certain food rules. Food freedom is changing the way I see myself and the way I interact with food.

I’ve been writing about my food and body issues for a few years and it always seems like such a radical concept to suggest that someone as fat as me can enjoy food without shame. Virtually every diet book I’ve ever read has furthered the message that if you did the crime (put on weight), you’ve got to do the time (restrict your food intake).

It’s still strange to hear that I’m allowed to enjoy my food, and it feels strange to even say it. Body trust is frankly, counterintuitive. The notion that I deserve to be treated well without any judgment, censure, or the mere mention of my weight isn’t a revolutionary thing. But it feels revolutionary, you know?

Subversive, even.

Maybe that’s what really fascinates me about food freedom. In our culture, where dieting and wellness is a multimillion-dollar industry, intuitive eating can be shocking. It’s surprising to hear that all problems a fat person faces are not linked to their body size. Subversive to admit that dieting actually causes many of the problems we traditionally blame on obesity.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about food freedom is that the experts promoting it typically have expertise in working with eating disorders as well. I don’t know about you, but considering how I’ve battled an eating disorder for most of my life, I’m a lot less interested in the “experts” who want to show me how to lose weight through even more restriction than the eating disorder experts who want to show me how to heal my relationship with food.

It speaks volumes to me that eating disorder experts tend to use food freedom and very basic food groups as opposed to whatever diets have been trending for the past several years.

Anybody can tell you, “Eat this, not that.” Anyone can say they know the “right” way to eat. That white foods are “poison” and people don’t really need carbohydrates. Etc. But nobody can be an expert on the foods that make you feel your best… except you. A large part of food freedom is simply giving yourself space to figure that out.

So, people want to know what I’m eating as I embrace food freedom because, from a dieter’s perspective, food lists are important.

But my food lists are pretty simple. And no, they’re not exactly food police approved.

If I’m making a grocery list, I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four boxes.

The upper left box is for protein. Some of my favourites include fish, cheese, eggs, and Greek yogurt. I’m stocked up on (quality) canned fish and frozen cuts — sometimes, I go for the breaded stuff because it’s delicious. No shame.

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The upper right box is for carbohydrates. I have a kindergartener, so, popular picks include crackers, bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, and potatoes. We use both white and brown rice. I know that carbs are often seen as a trigger food, but I’ve found they’re much easier to manage when I let myself eat the carbs I really want, and then check in with myself and my hunger or fullness cues periodically as I eat.

The bottom left portion of my grocery list is for fruits and vegetables. I’ve learned the hard way that whenever I want a salad, I’m better off just having one made for me instead of making it myself to avoid waste. My daughter and I really like roasted rainbow carrots, so I stock up on those whenever they go on sale. I buy shelf-stable fruit cups and applesauce, plus frozen veggies to help get through slumps without a lot of fresh stuff. I also swear by the soups and bowls. They make it easy to get in a good serving of veggies without much fuss. And I tend to buy pre-cut watermelon whenever it’s half-price.

We also go through plenty of different tomato sauces for pasta or Indian-style meals. Cucumbers typically make the weekly rotation, and capsicums at least once a month.

The last section of my grocery list is for the fun foods — something every eating disorder specialist or food freedom dietician has recommended. Fun foods are treats like ice cream and banana bread. Maybe potato chips or that other snack you said you just can’t quit eating.

The fun foods aren’t just fun. They’re educational and they nourish your body and spirit. They help you see that you don’t have to go on a bender just because they’re somewhere in your kitchen.

Those are the basics on my grocery list these days as I work on food freedom. I still do “TV dinners” occasionally . And order the occasional pizza. We still don’t go dining out since the virus, but takeaway has sure become much easier since I don’t feel compelled to binge.

There are no hard and fast rules. Everything is just information or observations I make along this journey. It’s daunting sometimes, just because it’s so counterintuitive in terms of diet culture. For most of my life, I’ve been told that enjoying food is not a valid choice for large bodies. And that diets, or, conflicting “lifestyle” changes are the answer to my problem body. Food rules were the equation(s) designed to help get my body under control.

It’s strange to say it, but my body was never the problem. Food rules and equations were. Along with the belief that I have to suffer just to be treated with dignity.

Challenge those food rules, and ironically, the urge to binge eat dissipates. No protein powder, pill, or trendy diet is required.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Shannon Ashley, you can find her here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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