An Anorexic’s Perspective on “Diet” Food

About a month ago, I was at the grocery store with my mother when we were stopped by the in-store nutritionist. “Would you like a sample?” she asked with a big smile. She had a cart with some sort of creamy nacho dip, which Mom happily sampled as I watched (someday I hope to be recovered enough that I can sample nacho dip at the grocery store, but I’m not there yet).

After my mother complimented the dip she’d tasted, the nutritionist handed her a recipe “so you can make it at home!” I glanced over at the paper to see what was in it, because I was curious, and it looked pretty good. But as my eyes ran down the list, I found myself beginning to get angry. Nearly every ingredient in the dip the nutritionist was distributing was “diet.” Fat-free sour cream. Reduced-fat cheese. I felt a strong urge to punch her in the face.

Why did I have such a strong reaction? I mean, I don’t have an agenda regarding low-fat foods – I’m not even trying to say they’re bad. I simply have a personal vendetta against them.

And they’re everywhere.

My eating disorder, on the other hand, adores low-fat foods. The fewer calories, the better. It’s pretty safe to say that’s how it all began – skinny lattes from Starbucks, nonfat yogurt, Truvia, Diet Coke, 100-calorie packs…the list goes on and on. These products were readily available and heavily marketed, and I felt good about myself when I chose them over the “unhealthy” options. And objectively speaking, these foods aren’t a bad idea. With our country’s increasing obesity rates, the general population of people could probably afford to consume less fat and sugar. The challenge is, then, to try to recover from an eating disorder in a society where “diet” products are being shoved down your throat.

I don’t want to shed negative light on my family, but this is an example: in my house we always used low-fat sour cream and fat-free salad dressing. It was kind of just an accepted fact as I was growing up – I actually don’t think I had ever tasted full-fat salad dressing before this year. In treatment, however, anything low-fat or low-cal was not an acceptable part of a meal plan, so I was no longer “allowed” those things. Basically, that meant I had to go to the store and get my own salad dressings and sour cream. If you were to visit our house on a night we were eating salad, you would see a bunch of reduced or non-fat dressing bottles on one side of the table, and a bottle of regular honey mustard dressing on the other – right in front of my place setting. In other words, it is painfully obvious that I am somehow singled out from our household “norm.”

I could give a thousand more examples. When I shop, I have to block out the advertisements that are yelling at me to choose the reduced-fat graham crackers or the 1% cottage cheese. And that becomes even more difficult to deal with when you add on the voice of the manipulative eating disorder that lives in my head and refuses to let me have a moment of peace (I will spare you the things it says to me, but believe me, they are very unpleasant).

Recovering from an eating disorder in a society that idealizes thinness and weight loss and constantly markets dieting? It’s really, really hard.

One day when I was in residential, we were sitting in the kitchen eating lunch and listening to the radio, like we always did, when suddenly we heard a commercial. I think it was for some kind of weight loss smoothie. Anyway, there was a woman on the phone with “customer service,” telling him about her experiences with these smoothies. “I have a problem,” she concluded. “I love your smoothies, but I just can’t stop losing weight!”

We stared at each other in silence, and for the rest of the week we listened to Pandora during meals. We didn’t turn on the radio again.

I want to stress that it is not these products themselves that I have a problem with, but rather my own shortcomings and my inability to stand up to them. I used to feel strong when people complimented me on my ability to resist taking a second cookie or eat plain yogurt (I still cannot fathom how I managed that one), but now with every bite I DON’T take I’m reminded that I still don’t have control over my own life. And while the voice of recovery tells me that I should use that full-fat sour cream, the eating disorder still picks the lowest calorie cereal it can find.

So, back to the nutritionist. I didn’t really want to punch her in the face. I wasn’t angry at her – none of the violent battles going on in my head were her fault, or anybody’s fault. I was just frustrated with the process, and of all the ways my environment seemed to be working against me while I struggled to do the right thing. And that’s not something that’s going to go away. Calorie-counting is always going to be a successful way for people to lose weight and get healthy, so they will continue to do it – and calories will always remain at the top of the nutrition label. Choosing certain diet foods is always going to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, so they will continue to be widely available. And thin is still going to be “in.”

For now, it’s just going to be hard. And it’s going to suck. And I’m going to keep having nightmares about accidentally eating an extra granola bar and feeling pangs of jealousy when I watch my mother eat a nonfat yogurt.

And one day I won’t get angry when I see a recipe for low-fat nacho dip. I’ll smile and say, “where’s the lard?” and move on.

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