How to Actually Stop Dieting

If you haven’t seen the light yet, this post is not for you. If you still do not know or fully believe that:

  1. Sustained, significant weight loss is outright unachievable by the vast (like, 90%) majority of people who attempt it
  2. Yo-yo dieting and restrictive diets can potentially harm your body more than simply being “overweight”, and can actually cause you to gain even more weight afterward
  3. It’s just mentally taxing, unpleasant, and interferes with your social life to be thinking about food and exercise science and weight loss all the time and not everyone enjoys that as a hobby
  4. Everyone deserves dignity and respect no matter their size (and no matter their health for that matter!!! lol ableism!!)

I am not even bothering to include any links or research here because this post just isn’t for people who are not already on the same page. I’m not here to argue about these baseline facts. Go somewhere else; I do recommend the Maintenance Phase podcast which breaks down in detail a lot of these points in their obesity & BMI episodes.

Now that we’ve weeded out the riff-raff, I’d like to address another problem completely that arises after you’ve Seen The Light (which is a painful, years-long process that involves unlearning a lot of harmful social messages, and perhaps even years after that before you really, fully internalize everything in your mind and heart). That problem is that often, you come out on the other side feeling very alone.

If I Google “how to stop dieting”, I usually get a lot of results with headlines like “HOW TO STOP DIETING AND STILL LOSE WEIGHT!!” which is exactly not what I am looking for. Now that I have better acceptance of myself and my body, there are obviously still treacherous ups and downs and whole hours of the day lost to being triggered by my scale (its time to break up with her forreal, but I can’t bring myself to do it just yet).

It’s striking how hard this is, psychologically. It means accepting that you will never fit in clothing from popular high-end brands, or that you will never look like people on glossy magazines and littered across certain websites. The bodies on these magazines and websites are changing, but at a glacial pace (and possibly, probably, won’t be fixed before all the glaciers are gone). Because you’re still here, reading this, I know I don’t have to tell you how this is all tied up in race and gender politics and intersectionality, how it’s pervasive in every facet of American society in particular, and how it has been disseminated across the globe via American cultural hegemony. (Many people of East Asian and African cultures used to point out that “you’re getting fat” or “he is plump” was often a simple statement, a visual fact just like “you’re getting tall” that was never an indictment of your character the way it is in the US, but that’s becoming less and less true.)

I remember, in the depths of a near eating disorder while I was in college, what I felt most was actually resentment. Resentment of people with bodies who didn’t have to be as obsessive as I was to maintain their weight. I fear now that, precisely due to those extreme practices, my body’s weight regulation is permanently damaged, a pattern seen among people with eating disorders and atypical anorexia. At a certain point when I was maybe halfway through that process of enlightenment about weight and body image and health, I realized that what I actually wanted was to be freed from thinking about it all the time. I didn’t want to have a nervous breakdown when I stepped on my scale and didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t want to feel like I was forced into having fitness or health as a hobby — unlike other people who simply enjoy it, simply choose it for themselves. I knew (still know) plenty of skinny nerds who never exercised or watched what they ate (and because you’re here reading this, I know you know that there are many markers for your health besides your weight, and that skinny nerds are not necessarily healthier than some of the larger nerds.) Close to the end of this journey, when I actually grew to like and enjoy my body most of the time, I realized that what I wanted was to be freed from others’ expectations of what I should be or how I should look. I didn’t want to have to meet their idea of what a healthy or a beautiful body should look like, because I am pretty happy and healthy in my own.

This is the body I so resented, and sometimes still resent:

I am aware that body size privilege is on a spectrum, and I am aware that I’m still far from those most discriminated against. But I also believe that making the journey to accepting your own body is the first step toward changing the greater culture and fighting for justice for people who have gone through horrible, dehumanizing experiences simply because of their size. I use “acceptance” somewhat loosely here— it’s not so much you have to love your body every single day, you just have to be on board with what’s at the top of this post and believe that yes, even you, deserve dignity and respect and remain intelligent, interesting, and capable no matter your size. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Even I have yet to give away my scale, out of the fear of what might happen if I unknowingly gain weight (of course if I really didn’t realize until I stepped on the scale, then why does it actually matter in real life? Things I still struggle to truly internalize.)

But on to the how — how to actually stop dieting, after going through everything I’ve verbosely outlined above.

I can’t find a good answer on the internet, but maybe that’s actually a blessing, because this feels like its going to be a very personal journey, just like the journey before it was intensely personal. There are some practical things I will have to do, like getting rid of the scale that I’ve finally realized is a truly unhelpful trigger that also doesn’t tell me much about my health. I’ve started small, by just putting it in the closet instead of on my bathroom floor.

For me, it is about finding balance. I still want to have healthy habits and a healthy lifestyle, decoupled from weight. I am still defining what that looks like, especially in such a crazy time like now. 2019 was when I felt my best and healthiest mentally and physically, and it’s no surprise that a lot of the habits I had at the time (going to a sweaty hot yoga studio or fully packed fitness classes) changed because of the pandemic. It’s no surprise that I also gained weight because of the pandemic (after yet another episode of restrictive dieting, even though I thought I had moved past that). I have to still remind myself that it is okay that it has taken me some years to figure out how I want to live now, after such an extreme change for the whole world.

It’s about reminding myself what I simply enjoy or don’t, decoupled from weight loss. I really liked yoga regardless of what it did for my physical health or my size, and although I mostly stopped, I’ll still do a few rounds of sun salutations and the poses I remember in my room from time to time. I did not enjoy some of the YouTube HIIT workouts I did with my roommates at the beginning of the pandemic — although the doing something together part was still fun. Pick-up soccer was fun from time to time, even though I’m pretty bad and the field at Tufts where I used to play with a friend was all boys. I love hiking; I grew up hiking and camping in Colorado and I still go on (disappointingly flat) trail walks around New England and have just enough camping gear for a summer trip. I love walking around Boston and can easily do so for hours on sunny days.

I love sweet summer fruits and I love seasoned, cooked greens. My favorite vegetable is baby bok choy and I love east Asian mushroom varieties, like oyster, shiitake, wood-ear, and enoki. I like kombucha or a good green juice from time to time. I like fermented or pickled, salty things, like kimchi, olives, pickles. I like konjac, but not really as a health food — just with fish balls in some dashi as a homemade oden. I also like the occasional bag of potato chips or Cheetos, or a bowl of rich ice cream, dark chocolate, honey, and buttered toast. I could eat buttered toast for three meals a day and I nearly did that at least weekly in college. I like a good lager and a good glass of red wine, and grapefruit juice, and I drink enough sparkling water to consider getting one of those appliances to make it at home.

And I started some new hobbies, like sewing. Recently I’ve been joking to my friends that my recent highlights are just the machines I’ve acquired — my sewing machine and my espresso machine (alongside my burr grinder). I love having a clean home, and I once logged over 20,000 steps on a Saturday entirely inside my apartment, just from doing a January deep clean. I’ve been thinking lately how bizarre it is that in modern life exercise is thought of as a separate activity, when of course, for most of human history movement has just been treated as a part of living. Frankly, I don’t have much of an interest in being super strong or meeting some kind of personal athletic goal — that’s just not what my hobbies are, although I did really enjoy some aerial silks classes I was taking before the pandemic. It was fun to climb high in the air and make poses, and the strength you needed to do that was really more of an afterthought.

My real goal is just for all of this to take up less space in my head. I want to feel good and happy and be healthy without feeling like that needs to be my second job, without all the negative spirals I have had before. There are bound to be other challenging transitions, maybe graduate school or pregnancy or who knows what, that could affect my weight. I want to be robust enough, mentally and psychologically, to deal with those. I want to make this mindset shift more permanent.

I have a long life ahead of me, and I want to leave this chapter firmly in the past.

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Selam G.

Selam G.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.