by Stacey N., PhD, FAED
TRIGGER WARNING: There is calorie and diet talk in the following post that may be upsetting or potentially triggering.
Background: My career in eating disorders began during my childhood in Chicago. Growing up chubby and being raised by a chronic dieter sensitized me at a very young age to be concerned about what I ate and what I looked like. I worked for Dr. Craig Johnson and his team during my graduate training at Northwestern. The team would have a weekly breakfast research meeting at a local diner. Still hanging onto the illusion that I could one day achieve and maintain an unrealistically thin weight, my breakfast often included the overuse of margarine and Sweet n’ Low. Several months into these meetings my colleagues challenged me to stop dieting, use real sugar and butter, and introduced me to Geneen Roth’s work (i.e. Breaking Free From Emotional Eating, Feeding the Hungry Heart, etc.). I have since become a passionate advocate of Intuitive Eating (Tribole & Resch) and the Health At Every Size® approach. My life’s mission is teaching my patients (and frankly, anyone else who will listen to me) about the virtues of intuitive eating, positive body image, holistic health and the joys of movement, leading me to call myself the No Diet Doctor. I wrote this post a few years ago after spending a few days with the people who led me to this career in the first place. I have chosen, however, to not include my full name, in order to protect them.
“Do you know this brownie has 850 calories in it?”
I turn and look at my sister. We are checking out of the cafeteria at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where my father has just had a kidney, a rib, part of his bladder and a malignant tumor removed.
“There is nothing even very special about it,” she continues, “just an ordinary brownie”.
I glance at the cashier. “She shouldn’t have even looked at that,” she says with a wink and knowing smile on her face. Just a couple of women here, bemoaning the plight of the dieter.
I, meanwhile, have said nothing.
After all, I have other, more important things on my mind.
Approximately seven weeks ago, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. After two infections postponed the removal of this aggressive and frequently recurrent cancer, he finally had his surgery. I returned to my hometown of Chicago to be with my family for a long weekend. I spent long days hanging out in the hospital, eagerly awaiting news from the surgeon about my father’s condition, or keeping him company while he was recovering. I ate many meals in the hospital cafeteria, along with my mother, uncle, cousin and sister. I have always had a strained relationship with my sister, and my father’s illness forced us to come together for these three days. We are very different, and don’t tend to see things eye to eye. Especially, (but not limited to) to food, eating and weight.
My sister, you see, is a Weight Watcher lecturer.
I, on the other hand, am the No Diet Doctor.
We were both raised by the same weight and diet obsessed mother. At 81 years old, God love her, my mother Elaine is still dieting, weighing herself daily, and cutting out one food or another.
We were both brought to Weight Watchers at tender ages, and suffered many years of yo-yo dieting. In fact, we used to be quite openly competitive with each other about our weight, calling each other while I was at college and comparing tips, tricks and numbers on the scale.
In more recent years, my sister joined Weight Watchers again, lost a significant amount of weight, and kept most of it off for long enough that she was promoted from paying dieter to paid lecturer. I’m not sure what my sister’s qualifications are for this job, other than she is a really experienced dieter, and probably has memorized every version of the Weight Watcher handbook, but there you have it. She relinquished her career as a nursery school teacher and although she has gained back a fair amount of this initial weight loss, she now receives her paychecks from Weight Watchers International.
I, on the other hand, took a different route out of the dieting hell I was raised with. Maybe it was my high school friend’s anorexia nervosa that led me to graduate school and a career as a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders. Or maybe it was my own personal experience with food deprivation followed by weeks of emotional eating. I have a photograph of myself from my wedding day, being fed a forkful of wedding cake by my adoring new husband. My eyes are so wide with anticipation after months of dieting; it’s hard not to taste that cake with me. Whatever it was, though, I ultimately learned that dieting was a risk factor for eating disorders. So I now spend a good part of my professional life teaching people how to stop dieting, tune back in to their natural hunger and fullness and lead healthy active lives. And I spend a good part of my personal life trying to ignore the weight-obsessed culture that we live in.
But that was hard to accomplish last weekend. All my sister talked about the entire time was food. She examined every item of food she looked at, and she often read the labels aloud. This was true for things that she ate, as well as things she had no intention of eating, like the brownie.
I would see her out of the corner of my eye, scoping the hospital cafeteria’s various buffet lines for her meal. She picked up the salad dressing packet to examine the label, and put it back down. She squinted over the nutritional contents posted by the hot soups, and then walked away. Finally settling on salad, she enviously ogled the pizza her husband had chosen, and snubbed the roast chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables my naturally thin cousin had selected. Elaine’s daughters would never even consider a hot lunch as an option.
The next day my sister brought lunch for herself, my mom and me. This was actually a very kind gesture. Knowing that I have an allergy to wheat, she bought us all an “Unwich” from Jimmy John’s, a sub sandwich wrapped in lettuce, rather than bread. A welcome break from the cafeteria, I devoured it. She also brought carrot sticks, Weight Watchers crackers and hummus.
“Do you like hummus?” she asked.
My mom and I both nodded our assent.
“Well this one has only xx amount of calories (honestly I don’t remember how many since I had stopped listening as soon as I realized what she was telling me) and zero fat grams!” she exclaimed proudly, as if she had just told us that she bought a new designer handbag for $3.
Skeptically, I tasted it, still being hungry after the Unwich. I dipped a carrot stick into the gelatinous spread. Not bad, I had to admit. Another dip. Fairly tasty, I thought. One more dip, and, uh oh, I detected a slight aftertaste. That’s it, I thought, I was done with the hummus and found myself wishing I had some potato chips.
My sister proceeded to eat the whole container…
In retrospect, I’m not sure what she saved herself. Hummus, a naturally healthy and low-fat food anyway, is dipping, not devouring food. I need only a few dips of my favorite brand and feel satisfied. Though I don’t know how many calories Tribe of Two Sheiks’ lemon hummus is per serving, I’m pretty sure it’s less than what my sister consumed in 15 minutes. More proof, as if I needed it, that dieting doesn’t work.
Plus, if you compare our appearance, I think it’s a toss up. Neither of us being skinny, we still both have comparably curvy bodies. We both work out regularly, love clothes, and undoubtedly wear them in double-digit sizes. While she eats diet salad dressing, no-fat hummus, low calorie yogurt made with artificial sweetener and Weight Watchers snack bars, I eat salads with real salad dressing, cheeseburgers with no bun (remember the wheat allergy), fruit and nut bars, organic yogurt and Kettle Chips natural potato chips. I never deprive myself, I haven’t emotionally eaten in over 20 years, and I can wear the same clothes I wore last year, and the year before that, and so on (though that doesn’t stop me from buying new clothes, of course).
So, which one of us do you think is better off?
Dr. N earned her doctorate degree at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and completed a two-year internship at Cornell Medical Center/New York Hospital. She is a Founding Fellow with the Academy for Eating Disorders and serves on the editorial board for Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment and Prevention (Taylor and Francis, Publishers). She has written numerous professional and non-professional articles, and has spoken at many professional and community lectures. Dr. N has specialized in the field of eating disorders, body image, women’s issues, depression and anxiety for over 20 years. She treats adults and adolescents using individual and group psychotherapy. She maintains a private practice in Mequon, WI.