My eating disorder started out as an effort to be healthy. At the same time, I wanted to be skinny, or at least skinnier. Restricting my diet helped me lose weight (at least initially) under a socially acceptable guise of health. I was eating “clean” because it would help me run faster. Or something. [PSA: it did not actually help me do this. Instead, it drained my energy and sent my anxiety skyrocketing, which actually hindered my athletic performance instead of helping it. But, I digress…]
Many of the women I work with have similar experiences. Most diets, even diets conducted in the name of health, have at least some roots in weight loss. It’s not uncommon for a patient to mention a diet they’ve started in the name of health (i.e. to manage digestive issues, etc.) and disappointedly note that they’d hoped it might have helped them shed a few pounds. But losing weight doesn’t equal health improvements, and health improvements don’t always result in weight loss. Most patients know this, and yet they still desire weight loss.
Again, there’s no shame in wanting weight loss, taking steps towards weight loss, or actually achieving weight loss. The problem isn’t the dieters, it’s our sideways culture that makes us believe we need to be dieting. It’s the weight loss industry, marketing diets to us as a solution to long-term happiness. This is all very ironic, considering that any other sort of health-related claim is illegal to make without substantial evidence demonstrating its validity and safety. But the weight loss industry? We don’t have the luxury of those checks and balances. And not only is long-term weight loss essentially unachievable except for an exclusive 5%, but dieting for its sake is harmful in most cases…which means it doesn’t deliver on health or happiness.
That’s right—dieting won’t make you healthier or happier. And it also won’t help you to cultivate a more fulfilling life.
Today, as a non-dieter, I can truly say that I am happy, and I feel fulfilled in my life. If I’d said those things when I was struggling with disordered eating, I’d have been lying. During that (long) season, my life was completely void of all the things that give me meaning, purpose, and joy today. Here are just a few examples:
- Meaningful relationships: The number one thing that I value in my life today is my relationships. I am blessed to be married to my best friend and life partner, and every day of my life has been better and better since I met him. But beyond my husband, I’m so grateful for my close girlfriends and everyone else in my family. When I was stuck in my diet rut, my mind was preoccupied with food and my body. If I was out to dinner or having a day at the beach, all I’d be able to think about was the number of calories in my meal and how I was going to burn it off, or what my body looked like in the bikini I was (or wasn’t) wearing. When you can’t be fully present with the people around you, you aren’t really there with them at all.
- Hanger: It doesn’t even stop here. Hanxiety is a thing too. So is the feeling of I’m-so-hungry-I-can’t-even-think-straight and I-have-low-blood-sugar-and-am-so-woozy-I-feel-drunk. These hunger-related emotions and physical sensations have a way of interfering with productivity, creativity, the ability to connect with others, and the experience of positive emotions in general. Feeling hangry and feeling joyful are mutually exclusive states of being.
- Identity: My whole sense of identity and self used to be wrapped up in what I looked like. Or rather, in what I didn’t look like. I fully believed that I could not be beautiful, smart, lovable, capable, or anything else I desired to be unless my body looked how I wanted it to look. Which it didn’t, which was the whole reason I was dieting, anyway. Nothing else I accomplished seemed to matter to me as much as being thin mattered, and I couldn’t feel satisfied with myself on any given day unless I happened to be having good body image (which was rare.) Today, I find my identity primarily in Christ, which fulfills me more than anything I could ever dream of accomplishing. I can say this truthfully because I have pretty much done everything ‘on my list’ so far in my life. I am proud of my education, I love my job, I live in a city I enjoy with a wonderful partner by my side, and we have plenty of time to invest in both hobbies and friendships. I’m privileged to say that I’m not in want of anything. But while those are all gratifying experiences, they don’t give me a sense of purpose or meaning. While I’m grateful for the titles I have—wife, doctor, Chicagoan, writer, cook, aunt, dog mom, etc.—at the end of the day, I need my soul to be rooted in something deeper. For a long time, I thought a certain number on the scale would do it for me. But it didn’t. My fulfillment comes from Christ alone, and honestly that is a relief because all those other titles could be taken away in a moment’s notice.
- Purpose: I saw on Pinterest (Instagram? Twitter?) once a quote that really stuck with me. It’s simple, but it caught my attention. It goes like this: “You are not alive just to pay bills and lose weight.” I mean, seriously. So I need to have a 9-5 so I can pay my bills, but that’s not my purpose in life. And really? Weight loss? Is the whole reason I’m on this earth just to count the calories I’m eating and burning off? Thank goodness, no. But that’s what it felt like when I was dieting. It was just a hamster wheel of numbers flying in and out of my brain throughout the day. Our purpose in life really ties back into our identity, and I think it’s pretty much impossible to find meaning in our lives outside of the truth that we are loved by God. That is where we begin and where we end, and there’s so much freedom in that.
Weight loss doesn’t lead to lasting happiness. It can’t, first and foremost because most weight loss is temporary. But even beyond that (let’s give it the benefit of the doubt here, for a minute) it only goes skin deep. Ask any dieter…the thrill doesn’t last, and it usually is just replaced by fear of gaining the weight back again.
[If you’re struggling in your relationship with food, you’re not alone. I’ve worked with so many women who have stories similar to my own, and I promise you that it’s possible to both find healing and cultivate a life that is rooted in something deeper than the number on the scale. I dive into these topics more deeply in my book, Fulfilled, which outlines practical steps for making peace with food, exercise, and your body. I encourage you to check it out if you haven’t already!]