I Took a Course to Heal My Relationship with Food and Discovered More Than I Imagined
For starters, I painfully discovered that my parents were at the root of my struggles with weight and confidence.
There are people who care about maintaining a healthy weight, and there are people who obsess about their weight. For the longest time, I was the latter.
I remember counting every calorie, consumed with a particular number on the scale. I would get extremely disappointed when I was even a pound over that number, and I was always on a diet (or "clean eating plan", depending on the decade). Not feeling thin would be enough to make me spiral. (Related: How to Tell When Binge Eating Gets Out of Control)
When my obsession with the scale started to weaken, I swapped that for a binge-and-restrict cycle. Any meal that I deemed indulgent would have to be rectified through a cleanse or super strict eating days in response.
So, when my old nutritionist Khushbu Thadani introduced me to a new program called Thrive that promised to help heal my clearly unhealthy relationship with food, I jumped at the chance: Not only did Thrive claim to remove the obstacles that kept me from truly enjoying food, but Thadani said the program would also encourage some deeper work that would reveal why my self-worth was so tied to food in the first place. (Related: I Spent a Week at a Retreat for Women Who Struggle with Weight and Food)
Thadani told me that it was through her work as a nutritionist that she saw a clear gap between people wanting to be healthy, and then actually being able to do what's necessary to get there. This struggle is what she says inspired her to create Thrive. "We tend to look at our diet in isolation, but it's just one part of us," she says. "Instead, there's a huge mind-body connection. We pay a lot of attention to the food we eat, but we need to pay as much attention (if not more) to the kind of messages we're sending ourselves."
Finding the Source of My Food Anxiety
Thadani told me that the only way to change my destructive relationship with food was to determine where my anxiety around food was coming from: Were they messages I was given when I was young, or was I influenced by something I saw online? It was through a lot of deep introspection that I realized the biggest deciding factor that changed the way I viewed food forever came through the weight gain I experienced at 14 years old, and the subsequent feedback I got from my family. (Related: This Numberless Scale Changed the Way I Think About Weight Loss)
It was a few months before one of the biggest exams of my high school career, and as a result, I was so stressed out, I kept "emotional eating" while studying. I gained about 20 pounds quickly, and since I was always a very skinny, lanky child growing up, it was a shock to my parents. If I'm being honest, I didn't even really care—I knew my jeans were a little tighter but other than that, it wasn't something I was really bothered by since I'd personally never cared about my weight. However, they did. (Related: The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About)
I know they probably meant well and were worried about my health if I continued to gain more weight, but they started pressuring me to lose it through not-so-subtle little digs. For instance, my mom suggested I cut my carbs, and my dad used to call me "Tools", which is short for "chubby" in my native language as a "joke". They didn't realize how hurtful those comments were to a young teenager who was also dealing with the other issues that came with adolescence like trying to fit in, dealing with acne, and trying to not embarrass myself around my first crush.
When Things Started to Go Wrong
Looking back, I think this is when I began to equate my self-worth with my weight, even if I didn't really recognize it at the time. Why else would my parents make such a huge deal about it? Obviously, the only way I'd really succeed in life would be if I lost weight...right?
Armed with that notion, I set out on a quest to lose weight. I was desperate to make the comments stop and as a result, I basically starved myself. All I ate was popcorn and maybe some fruit all day, then I'd have a light dinner. When I started working out I felt weak and dizzy a lot of the time because I wasn't fueling my body properly for exercise. I continued like this for a year and lost 25 pounds in the process. It appeared I was finally at an "acceptable" weight because my parents' comments stopped. But my struggle wasn't over. By that time, my anxiety shifted to worrying I would gain it all back. (Related: Why I'm Seeing a Therapist for My Fear of Stepping On the Scale)
Back to present day when Thadani asked me about my triggers, it was fairly easy to identify. It was that familiar feeling of needing to stay at a certain weight and feeling unworthy if I was above a certain size.
I wish I could say it was easy to unpack, but pinpointing exact moments and how they made me feel was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I remembered the anxiety that came with feeling overly full and the mental effort that came from calculating every bite of food that went into my mouth. Even when I stopped obsessively tracking, food was always very black and white for me: There were 'good' foods, which made me happy when I was eating them, and the 'bad' foods, which led me to believe I had no willpower. Thadani's program made me realize that the perfectionist within me made me see things as all or nothing, which was affecting the relationship with my diet (and frankly, other relationships, too). (Related: We Seriously Need to Stop Thinking of Foods As 'Good' and 'Bad')
My A-ha Moment
The biggest turning point for me came when I realized that my relationship with my body was holding me back from other relationships in my life. It was actually closing more doors for me than I realized. For instance, I didn't go after a job I wanted for fear I wasn't good enough. Rejection from a person I had romantic feelings for led me to think there was something wrong with me. "You wouldn't talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself," explained Thadani during one emotional call—and I realized she was right. So why was I treating myself this way? (Related: 7 Behaviors I Find Most Concerning As a Registered Dietitian)
Obviously, changing your mindset on food or anything else doesn't come overnight, so Thadani had two very important pieces of advice for me:
No. 1. Pay attention to the conversation in my head. When I insult myself, replace it with something positive—even if I don't entirely believe it at the time.
No. 2. Learn how to self-validate. This was harder than it sounds, but by appreciating what I like about myself, both about and beyond my body, I'm able to walk through life with a lot more confidence than I had before.
My Current Relationship Status with Food
When you improve your relationship with food, you can improve your outlook of yourself, Thadani told me. I wish I could say I suddenly love everything about my body. For now, appreciation and validation are enough. It's a long-term process to unlearn the food rules and drop the insecurities I've carried, but I realize that the more I give myself permission to eat what I like, the less of a pull that cookie at a bakery has on me. Now I want to fuel my body with salmon and avocado most of the time, but I'll have that bowl of pasta whenever the hell I want. Similarly, if I have feelings for someone who doesn't necessarily feel the same way, I know it's not my weight or the way I look that's responsible—whatever the reason we aren't compatible, it's no reflection on my worth as a woman.
I sometimes cry when I think of things I haven't done because of my weight and my previous misguided beliefs, but I'm happy with the progress I've made and will continue to make. With time, I'm confident I'll come to appreciate my mind and body for what they truly are: strong, capable, and *really* resilient. My weight is exactly the same as it was before I started this journey, but one thing's for sure: The person I am is not.