How I Broke Up With Diets
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I’m really excited about it. Today, we’re talking about, how I broke the diet cycle. It happened a few years ago. Or at least it started happening years ago. It’s one of those things you're never done really working on it. And I wanted to talk about it NOW smack dab in the middle of resolution season.
You may be doing a Whole30 (me too!) or a cleanse, or trying keto for the first time this January, and I think it’s important to get in your ear now, before February nears and propose a slightly different alternative.
So, how the heck did I do this? I think it’s important to start with my story, because it’s important to know how I hit my breaking up point with diets. What were the emotions around it? What did I actually do? How did I do it?
For those of you who are relatively new readers, welcome. My name is Anna Glennon, and I got my start in the health and wellness industry with a blog that I started with a friend back in 2014. We wanted a blog so that I could share our recipes, as we were having a lot of fun in the kitchen, and because everywhere we went, we had people asking us what we were doing. And we had lots of friends and family members asking; gosh, what did you do? What are you doing? And of course they wanted to know what I was eating. Because that’s just where everyone’s mind goes.
I was essentially a different person. Yes, I looked different, (BUT not actually my thinnest!) but how I showed up to people was very, very different. All of a sudden, I was a much more confident version of myself. I was much happier. I was much more positive. I was much more energetic. It was as if someone found my plug, and just plugged it into the wall. And all of a sudden, I came to life.
I was one of those girls; or maybe just young adults in general—I know there are lots of young men who go through similar things. In high school, I wasn’t well. My parents were getting divorced, and I got mono at the beginning of my junior year. My emotional turmoil manifested as physical symptoms—I was in and out of the hospital, had aches and pains everywhere, couldn’t sleep, and vacillated between not being able to eat, and not being able to stop. I went to a boarding school for high school, so I had to learn how to feed myself there, and let me tell you it wasn’t pretty.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change my high school experience for anything, but it was tough. I was raised in a house that required eating a vegetable at every meal, but we also had a lot of lunchables and frozen lasagna for dinners. Girls weren’t “allowed” to eat off of plates according to the school’s social morays—just allowed to eat out of bowls, which didn’t lend themselves to a balanced meal. I thought it totally normal to eat a tiny salad for dinner and then sandwich frozen yogurt between two cookies for dessert (after lunch AND dinner), and then chug diet coke and sweedish fish once I was back in my dorm room. I played a lot of sports, so I didn’t gain weight right away, until I got mono, and wasn’t allowed to exercise.
Anyway, I went to college and joined the rowing team. We practiced so dang much that it really didn’t matter what I ate at that point. Some days I had two dinners, but truthfully, I probably needed them. After a few seasons, I decided I didn’t want to be a college athlete anymore, but continued to eat like one. I wasn’t exercising, and went to study abroad in India, where eating was a HUGE part of the experience. I had never learned how to stop eating when I was hungry—we were always asked to join the Clean Plate Club when we were little, and I thought I wasn’t “full” until the food was gone. That was college. And I started to balloon in college. They call it the Freshman 15; Sophomore 20 whatever you want to call it—I really did. I started to gain weight. And that was one of the first times that I really started to; my body changed a lot. In hindsight; my joints started hurting. I was so sleepy. I could not stay awake in a single class. (I wound up doing fine in college, in case anyone is wondering.) But I still believe that I could have done much better if I had figured out how to just change things for myself sooner.
I was very sleepy. I didn’t actually rest well at night. I have vivid memories of constantly tossing and turning at nighttime in my dorm room, and then sleeping until noon. I wasn’t eating well. And I hadn’t put that correlation together that maybe the food I was eating was having an impact. I knew that sleep meant; if I didn’t sleep well, I would probably be tired the next day. So I’d just have more coffee, and diet coke, and red bull. And it was just this ugly, vicious cycle.
My pant sizes kept growing. And I decided; you know what? What do people do when they keep getting bigger? They go on a diet. And that was when I first started dating diets. And I’m a front row student. I like to do my homework, dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, so that’s exactly how I approached diets. And one of the first ones I think I did was a calorie restriction diet. I went to a website, plugged in my weight and height information, told the website how much I wanted to weigh (with NO regard for if that was actually a healthy weight for myself or not), and began eating 1,200 calories a day. Including alcohol. I switched to exclusively drinking those awful Michelob Ultra beers so I could count the 67 calories with each one. And since I wasn’t eating that much, I didn’t need that many. And I would stick to these things, and I would find a way to fine tune them more. Find a way to make them more restrictive, because I was going to do the best at whatever diet I was doing at the time. At the same time, I would also go to the gym. I would sit on that elliptical for an hour, punishing myself for all the things I’d eaten late at night when my inhibitions were gone, and I’d stick on that elliptical as long as I could. And I was so tired, and my joints were in so much pain.
And then all of a sudden, the diet would fail me. Because I’d reach burn out. Because I was living off of food that you couldn’t live off of. I was really hungry. I was undereating. I wasn’t hydrating with actual water. I was killing myself in the gym, and expecting myself to perform in school, and it didn’t work. And I was baffled. So I would throw the baby out with the bathwater. Go back to my old habits, and even though I may have lost some weight, I would balloon right back up. And I felt worse than ever.
So then, maybe 2 months later, I would say; you know what? This time I’m going to do it and I’m going to stick to it. And I’d find another diet to date, and to lock arms with, and I would do the exact same thing all over again. I would follow the rules. Maybe this time it’s low carb. Maybe this time it’s no Diet Dr. Pepper. Maybe it’s just water. Maybe it was one of those meal delivery services. And now I’m going to also incorporate maybe doing some of those thigh machines at the gym in addition to the elliptical.
I just kept finding ways to one-up myself, do it better, and do it harder. And then when they would fail again, because I was burnt out, exhausted; mentally exhausted, physically depleted, I thought I was to blame. Because I didn’t have the fortitude to do it. And then I would get so down on myself, and I’d feel so bad about myself. And then I’d turn right back to one of my greatest comforts; food. And you guys can see; the cycle continues.
I kept in the cycle for maybe six or seven years…yo-yoing in and out of feeling great about myself and feeling awful about myself. I absolutely LIVED for those moments when I would show up at home and friends and family members look at you and they say; wow! You look so great! What have you been doing? And now I imagine myself giving them the real answer: “I have been calorie restricting. I’m eating 1200 calories a day. I cannot sleep at night. I have so much makeup on to hide my sad, sad bags under my eyes. And I’m not doing great in school because I’m so tired, I keep falling asleep in class. And I loathe my body, and all I look in the mirror and I see things that I don’t like. But I live for the 5 minutes of compliments I might get once a month. And that’s what fuels me.” If you give somebody that kind of an answer, they’d look at you, blink, and walk away. But that’s the truth.
So that’s the diet cycle, and that’s my diet cycle. So, at what point did I say; that’s enough? It was after more calorie counting, but also obsessively counting my macros to make sure I got the right amount of protein/fat/carbs at the right time of the day. Then I got sicker than ever. I actually got tiny—I started feeling sick after every meal, and stopped eating for fear of the stomach pain. I also started fainting, frequently enough to scare the shit out of me. I will never forget the day after I fainted for the first time (in a VERY public setting) and the paramedics who sent me home (after forcing me to eat a full dinner of lamb chops and mashed potatoes) told me to eat some high fat and protein foods for the next few days. I sat on my couch the next day, and ate a banana with *gasp* more than perfectly measured 2 TBSP of almond butter and cried. I cried because I was eating something that had previously been forbidden. I cried because I didn’t feel good. I cried because I knew something was wrong, and deep down, I think I knew I had done it to myself. I cried because I thought those extra servings of almond butter were actually going to make me fat, and I was so body obsessed, I couldn’t see that I was actually coming to life.
As a 20-something-year-old, I shouldn’t have been in that much pain. I had so much inflammation in my body. Of course, I didn’t see that. I thought I was just; I thought I had a lot of body fat that I was carrying on, and I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Every single diet I had tried had brought my back to a place of self-loathing. Of feeling less than, and thinking surely this diet will work, but it’s not working for me because there’s something wrong with ME. It never occurred to me that it was something wrong with the DIET.
At some point, Rachel, who started this blog with me, suggested doing a Whole30, to lose some weight. It was one I’d never heard of! Maybe THIS was it. I bought the book, and committed to doing it with her for 30 days. I was going to do it the best. I figured if I cut all these foods out, AND counted my calories I could finally do it. About 12 days in, I was SO tired I couldn’t make it to the gym. I just couldn’t do it. My fiancé (now husband) came home, and said “that’s enough. I’m ordering you a hamburger.” So I ate my grassfed beef burger on a cauliflower crust bun and EEK every single sweet potato that came with it. And it was that exact moment that I figured it out. I wasn’t eating enough. I realized food actually gives you energy. And you need it.
Then I actually started to listen to the parts in It Starts With Food and was SHOCKED that stopping counting calories and forcing myself to figure out when I was hungry actually worked. I had no idea to tell what my body wanted, or what I actually needed to feel well until now. I started to feel great, and started to feel really creative in the kitchen. I could sleep, without a sleeping pill; I had enough energy to be in front of kids all day AND go to the gym. And those elusive abs actually started to show for the first time ever.
All of these diets had totally blown up my relationship with food, and it had never occurred to me before that the diet industry is totally 100% set up to keep you coming back. They are selling that easy button by saying “if you just take this pill, or drink this shake, or go on this machine for 7 minutes a day, you too will have rock-hard abs and more energy and be as happy as these models.” So step one, I started to see the diet industry for what it was. It’s not out to sell you a solution; it’s out to sell you on becoming a customer for life. The next thing I realized was that the answers weren’t actually on the plate or in the gym or road race. I realized that I had to create my own lifestyle and define my own rules—and by actually claiming control of that, I felt happy.
So here I am, trying to convince you to break up with your diet too. This is a tough sell this time of year—you’re probably inundated by before/afters on your Instagram, and commercials on TV. If this resonates with you, if you want to break the cycle for yourself, here’s what I want you to do. Get out a pen and paper, and ask yourself: What is it that you want? Is it that you want to feel healthier? Is it that you want to feel more in control of the foods that are on your plate? Is it that you want to address a sugar addiction? Is it that you actually want to drop three pant sizes? What is it? What is it that you actually want?
The next thing you’re going to do is think to yourself, How can I solve that want without a diet? Is it that you could possibly maybe eat more greens? Maybe pass on dessert 6 nights a week? Do you think it will make you feel healthier if you only have cocktails or wine a couple of times a week? What is it that you need in order to answer that question? Is it that you would like to actually learn moderation? Is it that you want to have more energy? How can you answer the need for more energy without a diet? Maybe you reassess your bedtime. Maybe you reassess the foods that are actually causing you to feel more tired? So, that’s how you’re going to do it. You’re going to write down what you actually want, and then you’re going to write down the things you can do that are not a diet.
I knew wanted to feel in control. I knew I wanted some sort of a routine, because I really love routine. I had to create a list of things “to do” (hello I’m a rule follower after all), but had to find them in the place between restriction and health. I wanted rules, with flexibility. I wanted to feel healthier or for my pain to go away. I wanted to love my body. And I wanted to feel like I had a life, and that it didn’t revolve around foods that I could or couldn’t eat or around getting to the gym 6 times a week.
So how did I answer that without a diet? I made breakfast a priority. I knew, sometimes my meals become a runaway train throughout the day—sometimes I got frustrated in the classroom, and reached for the goldfish/chocolate/brownies someone had brought it. But, I knew I could get in a healthy breakfast. That’s the meal that I have the most control over. So I’m going to find the parts of my life that are within my locus on control, and I’m going to forgive myself the moments when I need to press the easy button and order Thai Food.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen all my healthy breakfasts. It all started there. Seriously, I would have a green smoothie every day for breakfast. I would load it up with tons of spinach or kale, some fruits, some protein powder and some peanut butter. Pretty much every single morning for breakfast, because I figured…I’m getting something green FOR BREAKFAST, and it’s coming with fiber, protein, and fats, and you know what, I felt good because I had nutrition in my belly and I had done something that didn’t leave me feeling mentally depleted.
Another thing I changed was my workout routine—I realized going to classes gave me a social fix as well as a health fix, and that I wasn’t competing with myself to stay on the treadmill for 5 minutes longer than I did yesterday. And then in general, I told myself that if I wanted to have a margarita, or if I wanted the brownie, I could have it. And you know what, if I wanted some more, I could have some more. Once you tell yourself something is allowed, it stops being naughty, and starts being a lot less appealing. If I had whatever the food was, and it wasn’t as good as I wanted, instead of eating the whole thing, I stopped. I ate it, and if I wanted more, I’d have some, but first, I would reassess. Do I really want more, or am I actually trying to solve an emotional problem with food?
I could go on and on, sorry for the long post, but this is what I help my clients do. I went back to school to learn how to be a Health Coach, so that I could help you break this cycle of craziness too.
So I hope this is helpful—tackle one issue at a time. Don’t try to address your sleep, wine, sugar addictions or workouts all at once. Give yourself the grace to solve one problem at a time.
So am I still tempted by diets? You betcha. Gosh they are just so tempting. And then I remember; nope. I think to myself what is it that I actually want? Usually, it’s that I want to have more energy, and I know which foods I have to eat to get that. I want to have a routine that gets my heart pumping and feeling strong a few times a week. Does that mean I need to do keto? Nope, that probably means that I need to set up a schedule that allows me to get to the gym…that doesn’t mean I need to go on a diet.
So some days I am more indulgent. Some days, I eat a perfect paleo diet. I just do my best to listen to what my body wants. Sometimes my body wants lemony kale and green juice, and other days it wants French Fries.
I hope this was helpful, and taught you that you too can break the diet cycle. You can do it. You can do it any time. It doesn’t have to be right now. You can do your January thing, if you're like; I’ve got my JanPlan! Come back to this. Revisit it later. It’s all going to be okay. The answers are not on the plate. The answers are not in a special golden ticket program. You have them. You just need to sit down and write them out, think them through, and you can solve this for yourself.