It’s strange that we think not eating enough is the right thing to do. We don’t even think of it as not eating enough – we call it healthy choices, but ‘healthy choices’ actually means something different than ‘eating less’. We think it’s the disciplined thing to do, it’s morally superior, it’s good for us, we think indulgence is a sign of weakness, not of care. And to eat plentifully – we think that means we’re undisciplined, lazy, decadent, corrupt; that we pander to the demands of a body we do not respect, we do not appreciate or love. We think that because we want to be thinner, we don’t have the right to eat what we want, when we want it. We think being fat means there’s no such thing as ‘not eating enough’.
And so we try to hide food from ourselves. If we want to lose weight, we’re loathe to sit down to table, to have a meal – the guilt’s too much. Because we don’t deserve to eat – we’re too fat – we have to restrict. So what do we do? Eat on the run, snack here and there, get food in however we can, without having to admit to ourselves that we are, in fact, eating. Without having to admit that we do actually deserve to eat what we want, when we want, in amounts that satisfy us. Without allowing us the freedom to enjoy our food.
If you want any chance at ‘normalising’ your eating patterns, you must acknowledge that even if you don’t look the way you want, you have the right to eat. You deserve food. Any food, whenever you want it. How else are you going to overcome the guilt of eating? By only eating pre-approved foods? Dark chocolate is okay (these days), but milk is not? People seldom ask - you’re not eating enough, how can you be healthy? Are we supposed to choose malnourishment over obesity? Those are our two options?
I knew my problem was not with food when I realised the only foods I didn’t feel guilty about eating were vegetables and nuts. Everything else – meat, fruit, grains, processed foods; ‘excessive’ sugar, fat or protein – there’s someone, somewhere who thinks that one or all of these things are going to kill you. I came to the conclusion it’s not possible for me to be healthy and vibrant on vegetables and nuts alone.
I’m not sure what shifted to make me realise if I was going to be healthy, I needed to be eating something that someone thinks is going to be the death of me. So I started by trying to strip away the guilt, not by changing my eating practices all that much. I let them change naturally, intuitively. It’s a big-ass process, but an important and satisfying one.
It helped me to get strong. It helped my athletic progression. It helped correct a testosterone deficiency, and after an initial period of instability, it helped me regulate my blood-sugar levels more easily.
But we’re becoming more and more used to this Biggest Loser mentality – your desires are the enemy. Food is the enemy. Food gets in the way of progress, it should be minimised and thought of only as fuel. Enjoying food is forbidden. The way to happiness is through punishment and deprivation, not intuitive exploration. Exercise isn’t fun, you train to neutralise yourself and the food you eat, you train because you’re not good enough.
Screw that. I train because I am good enough. I eat because I deserve to eat. I eat what I like to eat, and I train to feel good, not to feel bad. And I don’t mean ‘feel good’ in a purging-my-sins kind of way. I mean it literally. More on that later.
In order to disempower junk food, I used to cultivate a kind of resentment towards it. I saw it as a product that would exploit my desires only to do me harm. It worked to an extent – in that this resentment was powerful enough to undermine my desire for junk food, but this frame of mind gave rise to a sense of moral righteousness that was ultimately unpleasant and shortsighted. It’s easy for this elitist contempt for fast food to turn into a kind of self-loathing, or a judgment of others, because it’s only a small leap of faith from resenting the food itself to judging and resenting your own desires, and although I didn’t experience that directly (I saw my desires as exploitable, but not necessarily as weaknesses and certainly not as moral deficiencies), it certainly is a slippery slope.
The thing is, food doesn’t have a moral position. Marketing may be exploitative, and it may be contemptible depending on your point of view, but food itself is not. All food contains nutrition, and there’s a reason we crave it. None of this happens in a vacuum. There’s a context for all of it – and it is right that you get hungry. Your hunger and desires aren’t wrong, but exploiting them for profit is.
The reason we crave calorie-dense foods are because calories are good for us. We need energy in order to function. When we’re low on energy, we crave energy-rich foods. This is normal. Fat people need calories too. We think fat stores are just calories waiting to be released, but that’s not how it works. It’s a process. You can’t just tap into your fat stores instead of eating a cheese-burger, but that’s what the diet companies want us to believe. Oh, I’m hungry, so I must be burning fat! That’s not how it works. It’s not being hungry now that makes you thin, that burns fat. Your body composition is about genes and hormone function, it’s a systemic thing, it’s more complicated than ‘not eating when you’re hungry’. It also has to do with sleep and recovery and stress, things that diets have no power to control. And when you diet too much, when you regain the weight again, that’s not your body ‘being wrong’, that’s not a malfunction, it’s a physiological response to deprivation. Weight gain after dieting is your body’s way of telling you you’re not eating enough food! But we think - because we are fatter than we want to be - we still think we should eat less. You might have heard of the starvation response, or your body going into starvation mode – it’s compensation for when food is scarce. It’s a survival response. Think you can outwit a survival response with more restriction? Maybe I should just diet harder! The only way to climb out of starvation mode is by eating more. You want to ‘correct’ a ‘damaged’ metabolism? Eat more.
It reminds me a bit of The Labyrinth, when Sarah says “you have no power over me” to the Goblin King, and his empire collapses. Of course, David Bowie does have power over me, he has the power to make me dance, but I’m fine with that. What I want is for food to not be the issue that it is. Without some degree of planning, anxiety about where your next meal is coming from makes sense, and in some ways food will always be an issue because we will always need to eat again in the future, but ‘good nutrition’ shouldn’t make you feel shitty, depleted and powerless all the damn time. It should make you feel good.
I don’t believe food should be neutral or desire-less in some kind of nutrient-focused way. I don’t believe we should view food as fuel in a disconnected, elitist, none-of-it-matters-to-me-because-I’m-above-food way, I think it should be pleasurable, food should be enjoyed, and I like that food is associated with celebration, union, freedom and holiday-funtimes. Nor do I believe in the food-as-medicine approach. Food isn’t medicine, it’s food. Recognising the effect it has on your body is important, but it’s not a miracle cure. It changes you slowly. Its effects are subtle and powerful, but you don’t need a prescription for food, you don’t need to see a doctor to be able to work out what to eat, and – quite unlike actual medicine – food isn’t something you’re not going to need any more when you’re finally healthy.
Treating food as medicine denies the fact that eating is pleasurable, and I believe that’s really important. When food is pleasurable, that’s not a problem. Feeling the need to pleasure yourself, to indulge, comfort, reward or celebrate all the time because you have a poor sense of self-worth, that’s a problem. Exercise should be pleasurable, but feeling the need to punish yourself by training, that’s a problem too.
Many people motivate themselves to train in this way. Exercise is not really a punishment, because the experience is enjoyed – it’s cathartic, but being masochistic doesn’t lead you to a lifelong fulfilling exercise habit. What happens if one day you decide what you really need is care? What happens to your training then? How do you truly start to care for yourself when you’ve gotten used to punishing yourself in a way that you enjoy? When you rely on something slightly dysfunctional to ‘keep you healthy’, what happens when you actually become healthy? Do you stop training? Do you stop ‘eating right’? I don’t know. How do you make that shift? For me, when I started training seriously as a teenager it was in martial arts and gymnastics, and the whole point of the training was performance and function, not changing the way I looked. Of course, deep down, I wanted to lose weight, and when I finally admitted that to myself, my training changed to more conventional gym-going methods. This was actually a low point of sorts, and I spent a couple of years making no real progress in either my appearance or athleticism.
But in the last few years I’ve come to enjoy training with weights for the real experience that it is, and I’ve reached new levels of athleticism that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to. It’s awesome. And it’s so much more satisfying, having shifted the focus away from weight loss or gain and back on to enjoyment, satisfaction and athletic progression. This is what works for me. It’s a process, and I’m happy with where I’m at.
When you’re training for – I don’t want to say ‘the wrong reasons’, but – the wrong reasons, you come to resent your training. I spent many years practicing qigong and meditation techniques, hoping to improve my health and lessen the severity of my diabetes. There certainly was some progress, but not so much as I had hoped, and so in some ways I missed the benefits of that sort of training altogether, and I ceased to practice. Recently I’ve started again, with a more clear perspective and it’s been enjoyable in a much more simple and uncomplicated way, with less expectation, and less pressure to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Instead, I can simply see what feels right, and discover where my practice takes me.
Is the way to stop eating sugar to have less sugar, or to let yourself have as much as you want? What will happen when you remove all restriction? In time, I believe you’ll become less disordered, but things might get worse before they get better. Nobody changes themselves without going through a process – it may be conscious or not, but we know that change doesn’t happen overnight. The way out is through. It’s not this workout that will make you thin, but consistent training over time will make you healthier – if you’re working with your body, within your own personal parameters, and not against them. If you’re playing with joy and freedom. If you can let go of the feeling that you need to be something other than who you are.
You don’t deserve food when you’ve been good, you deserve it all the time. You deserve to have what you want, all the time. Does that mean you’ll eat cookies every day? Maybe at first. But once you realise they’ll never be off-limits again, you no longer need to devour them like it’s the last supper. You remove the desperation behind bingeing. You remove the need for a late night feed the day before your new diet.
Because you’ll never diet again. You know it, and you trust yourself, so you remove the need to stockpile food for the shortage that’s coming. It’s not some oversimplified, condescending ‘you want what you can’t have’ amateur psychology – it is a natural response, and does not represent immaturity. You don’t need to ‘grow up’. We’re not trying to get to the point where we’re somehow magically mature and don’t need to eat. What I, personally, have been shooting for – and it’s working – is to be free to eat what I want, and for that ‘what I want’ to also be what’s good for me. If we can trust ourselves, we can trust our desires. They’ll lead us to what we need.
Skipping a meal doesn’t make you thin, it makes you crave more the next time. Eating cheesecake doesn’t mean you don’t get to have dinner, because everyone always deserves dinner, and there’s nothing you can do to make yourself undeserving of dinner. There is no food you can eat that makes you undeserving of more food. There is no size you can be that makes you undeserving of food. There is no size you can be that impinges your character, that calls your morality into question. Being over or underweight is not a disease, and even if it was, that clearly does not warrant hostility or prejudice, because sick people do not deserve hatred simply because they’re sick.
Your body will always win in the end. And that’s a good thing. It’s not bad; it doesn’t mean you’ve lost because you’re at war with your body – it means you’ve won, because you are your body. As long as you’re alive, you and your body are not separate things. And if you know how to survive, if you know how to stay alive, your body (you) will win out over diets, malnourishment and abuse. It’s amazing how resilient we are, how much we can withstand and recover from. Don’t fight your body, it’s your friend, it’s you. Love your body, as it is, learn how to treat yourself with love and respect. Learn how to trust yourself.
People don’t fail at diets – diets fail at people. People win over diets. We dominate diets. We will not be subdued by dieting. Our will to eat, to survive, to be joyful and vital will win out in the end.