I started my first diet the summer after 8th grade.
It was the first in a series of diets that would take me through high school, the college years, marriage, and finally battling the weight that came with having 4 back-to-back pregnancies.
Over the years, I’ve read countless weight-loss books–each one bringing the hope that this one was going to really work. THIS ONE was finally going to help me create the healthy lifestyle that I could effortlessly lead for the rest of my life.
I won’t crave sugar cookies and Chinese take-out anymore. Instead, I’ll just want raw almonds and kale by the pound!
Each book, program, or friend evangelizing about what they were doing to lose weight carried the hope that the future me I imagined (thin and effortlessly fit) would become a reality at the end of this new “lifestyle change”.
Because these weren’t diets.
In my mind, diets were drinking Slim Fast or counting points. Diets were Jenny Craig, popping pills, or heating up a Healthy Choice frozen dinner. What I was doing was a lifestyle change. Did my lifestyle change come with rules for how I was to eat?
Sure! But it wasn’t a diet.
(Spoiler alert: rules and restrictions about what you eat is the definition of a diet)
And two years ago, desperate to lose weight after the birth of my 4th baby, I began intermittent fasting while breastfeeding.
And lo-and-behold, I actually started to lose weight.
In fact, I lost more than I had ever before (of course I was at my heaviest ever after 4 back-to-back pregnancies) while breastfeeding.
From where I stood, it was a complete miracle. Excited to share my experience and help other moms, I shared my experience in a couple of posts–posts that bring breastfeeding moms, desperate to lose weight, to my site daily.
But my thoughts about intermittent fasting have changed. Lots of research coupled with over 20 years of my own personal experiences have taken me on a different path. And since I’ve shared my experience with IF, I feel obligated to share where I am now, 2 years later.
Long story short: I stopped intermittent fasting.
While I recognize that it was an important step on my health journey, my experiences while intermittent fasting are ultimately why I’ve decided to stop. In this post, I’m going to explain exactly why I’ve stopped intermittent fasting. And what I’m doing now to finally deal with my fraught relationship with food.
HOW THE LESSONS LEARNED FROM INTERMITTENT FASTING LED ME TO ABANDON IT
Throughout my many efforts at weight loss over the years, I usually found myself doing 2 things:
- restricting calories
- cutting out certain foods
Those are pretty much the golden rules of weight loss and acquiring culturally-acceptable bodies. While I had done both over the years, in my 30s I became less and less successful using those methods.
While I’d always blame my lack of willpower (as we unsuccessful dieters do), I’d later learn that it was a purely natural biological response.
(But more on that in a bit.)
Knowing these methods weren’t helping, I came to a couple realizations.
1. Calorie counting doesn’t work for me. I’d either be beyond starved or forcing myself to eat so as not to waste “allowed calories.” It ultimately always led to overeating/bingeing
2. Restricting food meant obsessing over food and bingeing. The minute I’d restrict a food—even if it’s not a food I like all that much–it’s pretty much all I could think about. Like my many efforts to cut out carbs and sugar just led me to binge on carbs and sugar.
Which was why intermittent fasting appealed to me. Because I didn’t need to restrict calories or what kinds of foods I ate. I’d simply restrict when I ate.
That sounded like something I could handle.
BEGINNING TO HEAL MY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
After a few months of intermittent fasting, I found that NOT restricting calories or specific foods led me to naturally make healthier food choices. Which ultimately helped me start the process of healing my relationship with food.
And after more than 2 decades of dieting and chasing the “thin ideal,” my relationship with food needed some serious work.
I realized that in allowing all foods–instead of bingeing on all the previously “forbidden foods”–I naturally started to tune into what foods made me feel my best.
It naturally led me to healthier food choices and gradually changing habits about food. And I started to tune into my true hunger signals—something dieting encourages you to actively ignore.
THE PROBLEMS WITH INTERMITTENT FASTING
But while I started to tune in more to my body and develop a more healthful relationship with food, I started to find the restriction in intermittent fasting more and more problematic.
And I realized that is was not the answer to developing a healthy relationship with food.
After almost 2 years of intermittent fasting, I found myself in a particularly emotional and stressful period of life. And I started bingeing.
While I knew that stress can cause overeating, it felt like something more. I’d been stressed over the previous year and not done this. What was going on?
In fact, I started to feel like I was spinning out of control. Why was it so hard to stop eating?
With my pants suddenly getting tighter, despite my religious daily 16 hour fasts, I decided that I obviously needed further restriction to counter act my obvious lack of willpower.
So instead of a 16:8 fast, I would do a 18:6. Or a 20:4. Yep, 20 hours of fasting.
But unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with restriction and hunger research, the more restriction I placed on myself, the more I overate.
It was horrifying. The restriction imposed by intermittent fasting had finally caught up with me.
WHY DID INTERMITTENT FASTING STOP WORKING?
So why did I start overeating?
In short, it’s something called the binge-restrict cycle.
When intermittent fasting, we have to ignore our body’s hunger signals when they fall within our fasting window. Ignoring hunger signals—or rather, starving ourselves (let’s call it what it is)— naturally leads to bingeing and obsessing over food. (Please see The Minnesota Starvation Experiment)
That’s right: bingeing and obsessing over food. It’s the eventual outcome of every attempt I’ve made at restriction over the last 20 years.
(For more on my diet history, check out Finding Intuitive Eating After a Lifetime of Diets.
Oh, and It also slows your metabolism. Which is why when you restrict calories, you find that the amount of calories that helped you lose weight a year ago, is suddenly causing you to gain weight.
Which, naturally, leads to freak-out and further restricting. Followed by obsessing over food, and eventually bingeing and accompanying shame. And then you start over the cycle with freak-out and further restriction.
This, my friends, is the binge-restrict cycle. A hamster wheel I know intimately.
Unless you’re miraculously free from diet culture, you probably also have some experience.
But I didn’t know about this and whole lot of other research I would shortly dive into like Scrooge McDuck into his money.
(did I just age myself? Here’s a link for you young’uns).
WHY DIETS FAIL
But I eventually did find the research. And I realized that intermittent fasting is just another diet.
While I found it personally less insidious than others out there (e.g. severely restricting carbohydrates, something your brain and body need to function properly), it’s still a diet wrapped up in a package of “health and wellness”
And diets don’t work.
Roughly 95% of diets (or attempts to lose weight) end in gaining back all weight lost within 1 to 5 years. And a significant number end up a heavier weight than they were BEFORE the diet.
In fact, this cycle (dieting, gaining back more weight, dieting more and gaining even more weight, repeat for decades) is what some researchers feel is actually at the root of the “obesity epidemic” and rising BMIs.
Research suggests that dieting and restriction lead to higher BMIs vs people who don’t diet. And when health interventions focus on weight (like why I started IF), it ultimately leads to weight gain and more health problems.
And those 95% (or more) of people who gain the weight back? Who do they blame for the weight gain?
The diet? Nope. Themselves.
Which is madness. If you were prescribed a blood pressure medication, but was told that you had a 95% chance that it would stop working in a few months and that you’d probably actually have worse blood pressure than you do now, would you take it?
You’d be wondering how that medication ever got approved in the first place. But that’s exactly what dieting is. With a 95% failure rate. And when it doesn’t work, we just blame ourselves.
DIET & RESTRICTION LEAD TO WEIGHT GAIN
So why do the vast majority of us gain the weight back?
This is because when we restrict and diet, our body goes into famine mode. Our body doesn’t know we’re surrounded by food and purposely starving ourselves.
While we initially lose weight, ultimately our biology and survival instincts take over.
Our body has evolved to protect us, and when we diet and restrict, it goes into overdrive trying to protect us and keep us alive.
And if a body wants to survive a famine, what’s the biologically smart thing for a body to do? It’s to hang on to weight by slowing the metabolism. And to create food obsessions and powerful cravings so that you eat as much as you possibly can when you do finally get access to food (hello bingeing!).
If you’re in a famine, your body doesn’t know when the next proper meal could be. So your body will naturally want to consume as much as possible to guard against future starvation.
And so that’s what our body does as we start dieting.
But what do the 95% of us who end up gaining the weight back think? Do we blame the diet? Do we consider that this model just might be broken and completely ineffective?
Nope. We blame ourselves and our lack of willpower.
So we forge on, looking for another diet to save us from ourselves. Another golden ticket to health and the body we want.
But this usually leads to a cycle of binge-restrict that just leads to rising BMIs and a further belief that we have no willpower and we can’t trust our bodies.
But it’s not willpower! It’s biology. It’s our body protecting us.
Intermittent fasting means ignoring hunger signals. And what does that signal to the body? Limited access to food. And the more I’d try to restrict and shrink my eating window? The more primal hunger took over and caused me to overeat.
INTERMITTENT FASTING AND EATING DISORDERS
A quick note about intermittent fasting and eating disorders: While the restriction took some time to catch up with me, intermittent fasting can be immediately catastrophic for people with a history of disordered eating.
If someone is coming into intermittent fasting with a past of anorexic behaviors, it can simply be a tool to further restriction and entrenching further into dangerously disordered eating.
But all under the guide of health and wellness. Because IF is just so healthy, right!?!
For more on IF and disordered eating, check out The Dark side of Intermittent fasting and How Intermittent Fasting is Like a Normalized Eating Disorder.
WHERE I’M AT NOW
I’ve realized that dieting and restriction is clearly not the answer for me. So what’s the path to true health?
The answer I’ve found is all wrapped up in the principles of Intuitive Eating which help us restore the relationship to food that we were born with.
Basically, we were all born intuitive eaters.
As babies and young children, we ate when hungry and stopped when full. We ate foods we liked and didn’t have “cheat meals”. We didn’t declare to our friends at the playground that we were “good” today because we skipped the donut at breakfast.
We didn’t think that eating white bread had the power to destroy our lives. And we certainly didn’t play extra long at the park to atone for that second piece of pizza we ate at lunch.
We just ate. Some days a lot and other days just a little bit.
But somewhere along the way, a lot of us lost that ability. Some lost it through conditioning (I don’t care if you’re full. Clean your plate!) or by our desire to conform to societies standards of beauty and thinness.
Intuitive eating is relearning those skills, trusting our bodies, and being attuned to its’ energy needs.
Sometimes that might mean eating a salad and other times a bagel. It may mean leaving food on your plate or it might mean grabbing seconds. And it’s about not judging your body or food choices.
It’s not about losing weight. It’s about going through a process to learn how to meet your body’s needs and eat without judgement. Instead of being obsessive and restrictive, it’s giving your body gentle nutrition. It’s about valuing mental and physical health.
When I first dove into the research behind intuitive eating, I was immediately converted.
Because I had over 2 decades of personal experience supporting everything I read. The pressure to live a healthy lifestyle, vilify certain foods, and eat “clean” often leads us to that binge-restrict cycle I mentioned earlier.
I’m at the beginning of this intuitive eating journey and, admittedly, I have a long way to go. But I feel like I’m being set free after 20 years in a prison I didn’t recognize I was in. I’m starting to make peace with food and stop the judgement.
In this process, I’ve been diving into research and reading books like Intuitive Eating, listening to amazing podcasts like Food Psych, and am working my way through the fantastic Intuitive Eating Workbook.
And I’m feeling like I’m on my way to truly making peace with food, rejecting diet culture, honoring my hunger, and creating a foundation of real health.
For more on the exact steps I’m taking check out The 6 Things I’m Doing to Become an Intuitive Eater.
FINALLY HEALING MY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
Intermittent fasting is really just another diet. And diets don’t work. Diets and restriction (like intermittent fasting) lead to slower metabolisms (due to famine response), the binge-restrict cycle, weight gain, higher BMIs, and worse health outcomes overall.
Instead of intermittent fasting, I’m learning to trust my body and heal my relationship with food through intuitive eating.
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