Monday, May 13, 2013

Food Addiction Relapse and No Diet Day Alienation

Before you read this, I should mention that this essay is not a condemnation of the fat pride/anti-fatphobia movement and I hope it won't be perceived as such.   My critique of the movement has to do with the way my own issues have been characterized within the movement.

Also, there's a content warning. Normally I put likely triggering content at the end of the document, but it doesn't make sense in this case, so instead I've placed an endpoint so you can scroll past it if you need to for emotional health reasons.

Eating-disorder related content begins here

I had an ironic binge eating relapse beginning around two weeks ago.  I've gained enough weight for it to interfere with my mobility in some (but not most) daily activities, and that's getting me down lately.  It was triggered by the fact that I expected my bloodwork to be really bad (I hadn't been eating very well) and it turned out perfect.  So I "celebrated" by eating some really bad food, only to fall into the same destructive eating pattern I default on when I'm not restricting what I eat.  It comes in stages, although I don't always get through all of them:
  1. The initial consumption of a trigger food.
    "Well, I'll just have one."  Or...
    "I've been feeling so healthy lately I'll go to a buffet and eat whatever I want!"  Or...
    Something along those lines.
    This is worsened by the fact that most of the time when other people see me eat a trigger food they make backhandedly derisive comments like "I'm so glad you're eating real food again!"
  2. Delusions that I should be able to practice an always-in-moderation diet.This is the stage where I start having bizarre Weight-Watchers-type fantasies.  I think about where my measuring cups and scale are and am really motivated into thinking things like
    "Yeah! I can totally do this!"  Or...
    "I'm going to start eating whole grain bread!" Or...
    Something along those lines.
  3. Attempts at a moderation diet ending in a nightly binge.
    I dutifully eat a moderate breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a moderate dinner.  I'm feeling really good about myself.  Then something snaps at the end of the day and I maul every packaged food I own.  Also every packaged food my dad owns.  Sometimes if I have the ability and don't have the food I'll drive to the store and go on a really-bad-food shopping spree, but usually it's just a case of eating the same damn thing I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  So, for example, eating a couple waffles for breakfast results in eating a box of waffles later.
  4. Long-term binge.This is what I'm (hopefully) coming off of right now.  It's anywhere from a couple days to a month of uninhibited eating.  My eating habits wind up going something like this:
    • Very little consumption of meat of any kind (including processed).
    • Very little consumption of unprocessed plant foods.
    • Consumption of soda and fruit juice, which I don't normally drink.
    • Eating until my stomach distends uncomfortably, but still eating more.
    I should mention that serious weight gain doesn't always happen when I get to this point. Usually it's typical for me to gain 5-10 pounds.  This time I gained 25, which is the worst I've ever had happen.  The weight gain is only secondary in importance, though.  Many of the foods I eat during binges make me physically ill, either by virtue of being those foods (whole wheat gives me cramps, refined wheat gives me headaches) or consequences of being overfull (painful stomach distension, tight clothing, sluggishness, etc.).
  5. Very slow recovery.There's a period of "Just one more day..." or "Just one more doughnut..." or "Just until the pantry's clean..." that lasts what feels like forever.  Finally I get back on the wagon.
Normally it doesn't get that far.  When I am on a strict diet that avoids trigger foods to the best of my ability I tend to eat a normal amount of whatever I want within those parameters without needing to count calories or weigh food or things like that.  Although I haven't gotten into what most people would call a "normal" or "healthy" body weight in well over a decade, on a no-trigger diet my weight tends to stabilize along with my blood pressure and cholesterol.

Major Triggers End Here

I tell this last story because this binge also coincided with No Diet Day.  Reading the things my friends wrote and posted on that day was actually really distressing for me.  Not because I disagree with the underlying principles of body acceptance, but because body acceptance culture has this tendency to ignore that eating disorders and body acceptance aren't a one-way street.

What I mean is when I tell people I have an eating disorder they assume that I'm referring to strict eating. What they forget is that compulsively overeating and eating without control are also eating disorders.  The ability to shun diets is a privilege for those who do not have one of these types of eating disorders.  In other words, the focus placed on restrictive-eating-based eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, etc.) in the body positive community too often lumps all restrictive eating into that category.  The message is boiled down to "don't diet."

Derailing the media and medical obsession with fat as though it's the only litmus test for health is a constructive message.  Creating acceptance of the diversity of all body types including both thin and fat people is a constructive message.  Being critical of the ableism inherent in fatphobic shaming is a constructive message.  These are constructive because they don't make assumptions about peoples' personal motives for doing what they do.  Being critical of the food supply, including packaged fad diet crap, is a constructive message.  "Don't diet" is not a constructive message.  It's not constructive because "diet" is a subjective term and people don't all diet for the same reasons.

The most interesting part is that what I'm saying isn't actually at odds with what most advocates mean when they say "don't diet."  Michelle of the Fat Nutritionist wrote a very popular post entitled "Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want."  This is an excellent, positive message... if you are able to actually do that without harming yourself.  She does add a little asterisk that kind of implies that people like me don't count, and some of her comments shed more light on the situation, but there's still the overall implication that we can learn to eat intuitively and still eat things like Cheetos and candy bars.  The Twinkie example she uses makes a clear assumption that the reader is the kind of person who wouldn't dive into a vat of Twinkies and eat all of them.  Some of my most famous binges have been buying multiple boxes of Hostess or Little Debbie products and eating all of them in one sitting.

I don't believe Michelle's message is intentionally antagonistic towards food addicts and binge eaters.  Eating what your body wants is an excellent message for people who are at the point where they can do that.  But it only works for me when within the context of dietary restrictions... if I eat a Little Debbie snack cake it's going to fuck up the whole system.  I can't just decide "Hmmm. I think today I'll have a Little Debbie snack cake and then I'll eat a wholesome healthy dinner"  I won't eat a reasonable number of Little Debbie snack cakes. I'll eat until they're either gone or I literally can't fit any more into my stomach.  This has been the case ever since I was a child; and no, my parents never coerced me to eat.  In fact, I distinctly remember overhearing my mother talking about me to a friend who was trying the (perfectly reasonable, by the way) child-rearing method of not forcing her child to clean her plate every meal and allowing her choose for herself how much she needed to eat.  My mother responded by explaining that upon taking me to a buffet I literally would not stop eating until I was unable to bend over.  If you give me a snack cake, I will not stop eating them.

No, I really won't.  Wait, you don't believe me?  Huh.  That's interesting and hypocritical.

Because here's where the issue becomes insulting and alienating.  This whole system of eating what you want when you want it runs on the (in my opinion, true) assumption that unsolicited dietary advice is bad.  Unsolicited dietary advice is bad because you have absolutely no fucking clue whether it's good for that person or not, whether that person needs the advice you have to give, and it flat out states that that person is not competent enough to understand what's good for them.  Telling somebody they just need to exercise more and they'll lose weight, that they should go on the vegan/paleo/grapefruit/cabbage soup/whatever diet, or that "it's all about the calories" when they haven't actually consulted you is unsolicited dietary advice.  Telling somebody not to diet is also unsolicited dietary advice.

This isn't about Michelle really, though.  Michelle of the Fat Nutritionist has never personally shamed me, after all.  I do not consider a blog "unsolicited advice," because bloggers have target audiences who are looking for that information.

What bothers me is that people have used her work and other works like it to shame me when I try to find a diet that best alleviates the problems I encounter through my eating disorder.  What bothers me is that people make the assumption that my eating disorder is not real, that if I just learned to love my body or "give myself permission to eat things I like" that it'll all go away and I can be a happy fat person who eats normally.  What bothers me is that people don't understand how many of the weight-related issues are due to physical discomfort and gender dysphoria rather than mere social stigma.  In short, the insistence that I not diet is an extreme denial of my lived experience and the things I know about my eating habits.

I should mention, of course, that this as well goes both ways.  I do not--cannot--judge what you eat or choose not to eat for the same reason.  It would be easy for me to try explaining that sugar and wheat will cause you to binge-eat because they have that effect on me.  It's very clear, though, that this isn't the case for everyone.  So I am by no means suggesting that we replace one system of unsolicited dietary advice with another.  I'm suggesting we drop the whole diet rhetoric altogether.