My obsession with healthy eating began when I was 16. Although I wasn’t overweight, I decided that I needed to lose 15 pounds to achieve the model-thin aspirations that society had drilled into my psyche.
Since I knew that I would raise red flags if I told my family and friends that I wanted to lose weight, I told them I was newly interested in healthy eating instead. During my senior year in high school, my “healthy eating” focus paid off. I was thrilled to find myself needing new, smaller clothes, and I happily wore a backless dress to prom.
By the time I went to college, I had decided that “healthy” was going to be my thing. This decision stemmed not only from satisfaction with my thinner body but also from the observation that people seemed to equate healthy with virtuous. I liked that connotation; it boosted my ego.
My freshman year, I took a nutrition class. As I learned more, I created rules for myself about what I was and wasn’t allowed to eat. I became known in my circle of friends as an über-healthy girl, and I was determined to keep up that reputation.
However, it didn’t take long for my strict rules to leave me feeling deprived. I began sneaking unhealthy foods into my dorm room, where I would inhale them quickly and furtively. Over time, these episodes became more frequent, and it wasn’t long before I developed a full-fledged binge-eating problem.
Every binge came with a large side of shame and self-loathing. I was supposed to be a perfect healthy eater. Why did I feel so out of control around food?
This question and its accompanying struggle plagued me throughout college. My secret eating behaviors caused me to gain 30 pounds. In response, I became more and more obsessed with learning about nutrition and creating ever-stricter food rules in an attempt to overcome my binge eating through sheer force of will.
After I graduated from college, I began a career in health education, serving as a counselor and then director at a fitness camp, and then as a wellness teacher at a public school. I enjoyed professional success in these roles, but the self-created pressure to be a flawless example for healthy eating continued to create psychological stress that led to bingeing. I felt like a fraud. Shame and self-loathing continued to be my constant companions.
By my late 20s, I finally came to the conclusion that I needed a new approach to eating, one that was governed not by strict rules and a harsh inner critic. I gave myself permission to give up on healthy eating. From now on, I would eat what I wanted.
As I tentatively explored my new food world, I was surprised to discover that giving myself permission to eat and enjoy what I wanted meant that I often wanted healthy foods. For the first time in my life, I gravitated toward healthy choices out of inherent desire instead of from a place of “should.”
At the same time, unburdened by the idea that unhealthy foods were off-limits, I enjoyed them with genuine pleasure and not an ounce of guilt. My binge-eating episodes lessened in frequency, then stopped altogether. I steadily lost weight, without effort, until my body landed at its natural size.
I no longer care whether other people think of me as a healthy eater, because I’ve realized that what I eat has nothing to do with my value as a human being. I now enjoy a sense of peace and authenticity, and it turns out that giving up on healthy eating was the best thing I could have done for myself.
Today, I’m a certified mind-body-nutrition coach, specializing in compassionate health coaching for women and teen girls. I tell my clients that it’s not about food rules or willpower. Healthy eating by force only creates suffering. Eating what you want is an act of self-kindness. It’s possible to choose healthy foods with ease—but only when we’re willing to let go of our obsession with it.