Stop Dieting, Start Living

Stop Dieting, Start Living

From Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul

Stop Dieting, Start Living

Argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours.

Richard Bach

I was overweight by the time I was five—chubby, with red hair and freckles. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, just a series of circumstances that set me on a roller coaster.

As a child, I learned not to waste food. There were “starving children in Africa,” so I dutifully cleaned my plate. I had a skinny, athletic brother who ate anything that wasn’t nailed down, and I rushed to get my share first. From my grandmothers, who were both wonderful cooks, I learned that food was love.

At nine, my parents divorced, and I discovered security and comfort in eating. As a teenager, I dealt with boredom by baking—and eating—chocolate chip cookies and hanging out at fast-food joints with my friends. Over time, my faithful friendship with food became a love/hate relationship. I was caught in a free fall of eating to meet my emotional needs.

I first became aware that I was fat at six, when my dad teased me about swallowing a watermelon seed. By eleven, embarrassing shopping trips to find clothes confirmed that I needed to lose weight. My mother was slender and I never saw her eat a baked potato like the rest of us. I always knew that eventually, I wouldn’t get to have them anymore either. For the next twenty years, I rode that roller coaster of overeating and dieting.

It was never-ending: guilt when I ate what I wanted, deprivation when I ate what I was allowed to. I tried to be “good,” but it didn’t last. I used exercise to earn extra calories and pay penance when I was “bad.” As a result, whenever I quit dieting, I quit exercising too. I was ashamed of my body, my eating and my cheating. Dieting caused steeper climbs and deeper drops. I felt like I was careening out of control.

Despite my lack of success with dieting, I did well in college and medical school. During my residency, I delivered tiny babies in the middle of the night, resuscitated dying people in the emergency room and assisted in long operations with cranky attending surgeons. The only saving grace was the free food in the cafeteria. I deserved it.

At any time of the day or night, I found company in the doctors’ lounge and comfort in the special-of-the-day. It didn’t take me long to discover the double-dipped malted milk balls in the bulk bin. A wax paper sackful slipped into my white coat pocket would last me all night. Each little chocolate sphere was a consolation prize that gave me the confidence, energy, reward and pleasure I desperately needed. I gained a lot that first year—a whole new resilience and spirit—and at least ten pounds in malted milk balls.

When it was over, I started another round of self-denial. The clackety-clack up the hill felt good. “I’m finally back in control,” my little voice said. I weighed myself and calculated how long it would take to reach my goal. I cleaned out my refrigerator, kitchen cabinets and desk drawer. I threw away (or finished off) all the “bad” stuff, started eating celery sticks for snacks and drank my eight glasses of water every day. I read labels so I’d know what I could eat and stopped going out to dinner. I bought new walking shoes and got up early every morning. “You can do it this time!” my little voice said.

The weight started to come off. I lost four pounds that first week. Never mind that part of it was water or even muscle. I already felt thinner—and a little smug. I was near the top of the hill, watching everyone below scarfing down junk food.

Then one day I weighed in and I hadn’t lost as much as I thought. I vowed to try harder, and I did, for awhile.My little voice whispered, “This isn’t worth it.” I saw someone eating ice cream and I heard, “It’s not fair.” I woke up early for my walk, but it said, “This is too hard.” I went back to sleep.

Time stood still as I crested the hill. I bought a bag of Hershey’s Kisses and had it open before I left the parking lot. I was picking up speed. The little voice said, “You can walk extra tomorrow. Have another one.” I ate one more, then another, and before I knew it, half the bag was gone. My little voice repeated the familiar phrase, “You already blew it. You might as well eat the rest so you won’t be tempted when you go back on your diet tomorrow.” Besides, how was I going to explain half a bag of candy?

The exhilaration didn’t last long. By that evening,my little voice was taunting me, “You’re a loser!” I vowed to be good, but I knew I was just one piece of chocolate away from losing control again. It seemed I’d bought a lifetime ticket.

What was wrong with me? How could I practice medicine and raise a family, but fail at dieting? I knew most of my patients weren’t having much long-term success either. Maybe it wasn’t me.

My husband and children never dieted and never struggled with their weight. In fact, they ate whatever they wanted, but they rarely ate more than they needed.

Did they just have better metabolisms than I did? That was probably part of it. I knew mine was a mess after years of overeating and dieting. Did they have more willpower? No. I doubted they could stay on a diet for very long either. But there was something fundamentally different about the way they thought about food. In fact, they didn’t really think about food at all—unless they were hungry.

Could the answer really be that obvious? Could I use hunger again to guide my eating, instinctively? My only other choice was to strap myself in for another ride. My little voice screamed, “I want off!”

So I jumped. No more rules, no more deprivation, no more sneak eating.

It wasn’t easy at first. Years of ignoring hunger and fullness while I ate to meet my emotional needs or follow the latest diet rules made it hard to trust my body and my instincts. But I slowly discovered that when I took the time to tell the difference between body hunger and head hunger, I was able to better meet both my physical and emotional needs.

I gave my little voice a new mantra: “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re satisfied.” Even now, it reminds me, “When you eat food your body didn’t ask for, it will store it,” and, “There will always be enough food, so there’s no reason to eat it all now.”

Instead of drastic ups and downs, I try to balance eating for health with eating for enjoyment. I use balance, variety and moderation to guide my eating instead of harsh, complicated rules. Now I can enjoy cooking, dining out and eating with friends. I feel my best when I’m nourishing my body and my soul.

I also love to hike and do yoga several times a week, not to control my weight but for the stamina, strength, flexibility and calm they give me. I’ve found peace, health and wholeness. I’ve also discovered a purpose for my life and a passion for helping others get off their roller coaster, too.

I knew my long ride was finally over when my husband gave me a sack of double-dipped malted milk balls and it took me a week to eat them. Even though I still love chocolate, it’s not my best friend anymore.

Michelle May, M.D.

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