On being fat: the endless diet years (part 2)

The vegetarian years: I worked as a technician for a few years after college, before starting graduate school. I began dating the man who I would later marry. My job and my relationship were both pretty relaxed. I maintained my weight, although I still felt that I was too heavy. In hindsight, this was probably my most normal eating period. Our jobs were physical, involving a lot of hiking and packing equipment to remote locations. We’d then go running after work and hiking or skiing on the weekends. I followed a strict vegetarian diet because of ethical concerns over eating animals — and also because of “fewer calories.” I still binge-purged, but with far less frequency.

So why did this magical time end? Probably because this approach took an ungodly amount of time and effort. My job would soon become less physical and more desk-bound. Life began to interfere with my constant vigilance with my weight.

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Graduate school years: Wow, did things go downhill rapidly once I started graduate school, both with my weight and my psyche. I felt so out of my league, in over my head, and out of control throughout most of my graduate school years. I never figured out how to traverse this intensely competitive environment. Being a woman in a male-dominated field in the late ’80’s and not feeling particularly welcome didn’t help. My old ED habits resurfaced. Only this time, it was far more difficult to restrict. The less I tried to eat, the more I ended up bingeing. I gained so much so fast and was extremely embarrassed about my rapidly expanding body. I may have tried to stay active, but that proved difficult with my massive workload – a theme that kept repeating over the next years.

Looking back, all the signs were there that I was not cut out for this career. Perhaps the panic attacks were a clue. One reason I went into the field was that I felt challenged. But there’s a difference between being challenged and “left in the dust, limping just to keep up.” There is no winning with the latter. I kept at it, hoping things would get easier, but I would never really feel competent and accepted here. Perhaps that’s by design, and many scientists feel this way. Most aren’t eating themselves into oblivion though.

I did much weight cycling between getting my Masters and Ph.D., but I never got back to my lower weight. I always felt judged for being too fat — who wants to work with a fat field scientist? I was a “moderate fat” when I started my post-graduate position in a science agency, taking on more responsibilities, and feeling further out of place. I continued to eat to combat the stress, which led to additional weight gain. At one point in my mid 30’s, I estimate that I was about 300 lbs. I never got on a scale to know that for certain, but I was substantially heavier than my highest known weight (260). I wore men’s XXL shirts and sport leggings nearly all the time. I remember ordering some new clothes to wear to a conference — they were a size 22 and didn’t come close to fitting. So I was at least a size 24 or 26. I remember standing in front of the mirror in those clothes, buttons unfastened, feeling aghast at how large I had gotten.

I had to fix this. But how?

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The commercial diet years: I spent most of the next 20 years trying various ways to reduce and control my weight. Like most dieters, I’ve done the usual suspects: Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Atkins, and some less well-known plans in between, some of my own creation. They worked at first. I’d lose 30 lbs or so and go on a clothes buying spree. The joy weight loss brought me was unmeasurable.

Inevitably, I’d go off the plan because I got so hungry or felt terrible. I’d promise to “start again” the next morning, the next week, or the next month. I’d “be good” in the future if only I could have some food now. As people who study weight loss have begun to understand, such diets simply aren’t sustainable in the long-run and have been shown to wreak havoc with one’s metabolism (looking at you, Biggest Loser). In my case, nearly all of the diets exacerbated my tendency toward disordered eating — because they really are forms of disordered eating themselves.

Perhaps the worst example was a period of years in my mid-40’s when I did a high protein “shake” diet — 5 packets of chemical conglomeration a day along with one small meal. If one followed this correctly, the total calories were about 1000-1200/day. The pitch was that the body would go into ketosis, and hunger would just fall away. I’ve been in ketosis. It did nothing magical for me. I was still flipping hungry.

I did lose a lot of weight though and got to about 160 at the lowest. I was also barely functional. I remember sitting in my office and staring at my computer screen, unable to form words on the page while trying to write my papers. My brain had stopped working. Don’t get me started me on the GI issues that accompanied this approach. I was also prone to binges where I’d snarf carbs until I almost exploded, thinking that I could never have them again. Still, I got thinner, at least for a while.

As I started the inevitable regain, I tried even harder to follow this ridiculous plan that had brought me some weight loss success. I was dropping $300 a month on those dreaded packets, but it was getting more onerous to consume them. The taste was making me gag and I’d try to find ways to make them more palatable. I’d read the social media boards set up by the company, searching for ideas and inspiration. They were there, along with the requisite before and after pictures. Lots of people having lots of success. What was wrong with me?

What I didn’t realize was that the company shilling these products took down unfavorable comments and banned negative users. I discovered off-site boards that reviewed this diet and found people who were having the same struggles that I was. I began to realize that the problem wasn’t me, it was this dumbass approach to weight loss.

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A few years later, when we moved out of that house, I found boxes of expired packets in our basement and briefly thought about restarting that diet. I decided that I’d rather stay fat than do that again.

To be continued…….

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

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