4 Things I Want the Diet Industry to Know as Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery


It was a sunny Friday San Francisco afternoon. I was enjoying conversing with a new colleague over some hummus and pita. But suddenly, the conversation — and my mood — took an abrupt turn. He asked me if I had heard of, let’s call it “The Non-Diet Diet.”

“Is it a diet?” I asked.

“No!” He said cheerfully. “It’s more of an eating plan. You don’t eat sugar and other things. I don’t know much about it… It’s healthy.”

“It sounds like a diet.”

“No! It’s not a diet!” He insisted.

At this point, I had had enough. I stood up, pushed in my chair and said, “I don’t follow diets, so I am really not the right person to ask.”

The reality is that I have had an eating disorder for most of post-pubescent life. Today, I am in recovery and doing well. Yet like everyone else — particularly young 20-something women — I am bombarded with chatter from friends, loved ones and co-workers about diets, non-diet diets, eating plans, fitness challenges, exercise plans, etc.

Until that Friday, I had always ignored the chatter. At this point in my recovery, my healthy voice sounds the alarm that this is not a conversation I want to listen to, nor is it a topic I want to debate. So I put on my headphones or just run away.

But the evening after this conversation, I couldn’t sleep. I woke up at 2 a.m. and I had this strange urge to check out the Non-Diet Diet’s website. The self-care alarms were sounding. They screamed, What would your therapist think? What if you find something triggering? You are happier and healthier than ever. Why risk it?!

Armed with knowledge, I waded forward cautiously. And what I saw infuriated me. I have never been this pissed off at 2 a.m.

As a result, I am not hiding anymore. I engaging for the first time with this letter to the diet industry.

Dear Diet Industry,

1. As you have promised, diets have changed my life…. but, for the worse.

Here’s how. You have told me what to eat. Day by day, my performance on the diet shapes my mood. It may work for a week, 10 days, a month. But eventually, something happens, or my perception of things shifts and suddenly, I have failed. I’ve created a massive, internal mess. And while my life may be objectively great, my mind and mood are in the trenches. They can only be rescued by success on another diet.

And suddenly my life — the life of a well-educated, smart, beautiful young woman — can only be rescued by the arbitrary rules I saw on some website.

2. You have no right to label my food with words like “junk,” “good,” “bad” and “terrible.”

My food is my business. How I describe my food is only my business. Similarly, I have no right to judge someone else’s food choices. The same goes for you, Diet Industry.

3. You have no right to label me “unmotivated” and “weak.”

You do not know me. You have no right to tell me I should be able to stick to your diet because it is “not that hard.” You have absolutely no right to tell me I am “flawed” and “unmotivated” because I cannot stick to your rules.

I have done many things in my life that prove otherwise. I moved across the country, and back again. I have confessed my love to many men and have been rejected. I moved to cities where I knew no one — thrice. I have introduced myself to strangers. Gone to social engagements I didn’t want to go to, and had a blast. Spoken publicly. Written poetry. Hiked out of the Grand Canyon — twice. Gone swimming with sharks. Been in love. And made major strides in my eating disorder recovery.

You cannot tell me I am flawed. I know I am not perfect, but I am not supposed to be — after all, I am human.

You, Diet Industry, are the one with the issues.

4. I know you are just people too.

Behind every company — including the diet industry — is just a bunch of people trying to make a living and maybe even get famous with a top-selling cookbook. I am not against this. We all gotta make a living.

However, no industry is better at taking control of wonderfully imperfect humans and diagnosing them with the wrong problem — a “too much junk food” problem, a “fat” problem, etc. — when the food is probably a symptom of something much deeper, as it was for me.

The path you advertise is so restrictive — of food, of fun, of life — that I don’t see how possibly, if I could make it through your diet, that I would want that version of health supposedly waiting for me on the other side.

Lastly, I have a few words about my least-favorite adjective: “healthy.”

There seems to be one word in English that defines a person in good health, or a food that promotes health, and it is “healthy.” However, from what I have observed, healthiness is extremely subjective. For some people, multigrain bread is healthier than white bread, and therefore healthy. I have been called “healthy” because I brought carrot cake to work instead of chocolate cake. Yet most diets would shun these foods.

So if opinions vary on what is “healthy,” what is it supposed to mean?

I have responded by putting a moratorium on using the word “healthy” in my life. Instead, I’ve called upon one the Russian language’s words (yes, according to my translator, there are 9) жизнеспособный ( zhiz-ne-spa-sob-nee), which literally means “capable of supporting life.” I love this word. Life is messy and you need food, just as you need a solid support system, to get you through the bad times and be with you in the good.

That’s the philosophy I have come to love. I only hope you, Diet Industry, can learn something from it too.

Warmly,
Erica

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via Maltiase.

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