All I could think about were the apples.
A bowl of perfect apples was sitting on a table at my child’s school, where I was volunteering, and I couldn’t stop dreaming about biting into one, how crisp it would be and how sweet it would taste.
But it was a low-carb day, and I had already used up all my allotted grams.
I was hungry and light-headed. But I was also wearing the jeans I had tucked away on the top shelf of my closet, the ones I didn’t think I’d ever fit into again (but couldn’t bear to give away).
I was in the goal jeans. And all I could think about was an apple I couldn’t have.
How I got there
Three years ago, against my own better judgment, I went on a diet.
It was partly for research purposes. Over the years, I’d nixed sugar, tried intermittent fasting, and gone gluten-free for short periods of time in the name of science, so I could have first hand experience when writing or talking about it.
And it was partly out of frustration with pounds that had crept onto my frame during my 40s. I was tired of buying new pants, as shopping for clothes had grown increasingly unpleasant with each passing year.
So I ignored the part of myself who’d sworn off diets in my 20s, and I tried something I hadn’t before: macro counting and carb cycling. The plan involved documenting what I ate every day on an app, eating within a prescribed budget of protein, carb, and fat grams, and following a few low-carb days every week.
The marketing around the plan promised it was a lifestyle that didn’t feel like a diet, and seemingly thousands of happy women on Instagram agreed.
Yet I still had a nagging sense of unease. In the past, tracking what I ate had never done more than concentrate my thoughts around food (ps: I also love pasta). But maybe this time would be different.
The Honeymoon Phase
“I kind of can’t believe how easy it’s been,” I said to a friend about two weeks into my plan. I’d been carefully logging what I ate in an app on my phone, mapping out meals that fit my daily protein-fat-carb targets from the lists of “approved” foods.
It was working. I’d dropped several pounds–enough to get me back into an entire tier of abandoned pants in my closet.
I later learned I was in what’s dubbed by some weight loss researchers as the “Honeymoon Phase” of a diet, when motivation is high, weight is falling off, and things feel so easy you wonder why everyone isn’t following this magical plan.
But just as a marriage can’t stay in the all-inclusive-Cancun-resort phase, your eating can’t remain constrained into a tightly-controlled formula without trouble. And hunger.
I see the declaration that “diets don’t work” tossed around a lot. But that’s not entirely true.
Most diets, if followed as prescribed, actually can result in dropped weight. What often doesn’t work is keeping it off. The pounds return. Feelings of failure wash over. The diet starts again. Rinse and repeat.
Why is maintaining weight loss so hard? Most diets are designed to work quickly, so there’s immediate success (though truth be told, much of the initial loss, especially with low-carb diets, is water weight).
But to work quickly, diets have to be restrictive. And restrictive diets are rarely sustainable in the long term. There’s only so much deprivation we can handle before we become obsessed with wanting what we can’t have.
For most of us, that means we crack. We eat what we’ve been avoiding–and because we’ve lived with a scarcity mindset around that food, we eat more of it than we normally would.
The body is also fighting change. After weight loss, your body makes a series of hormone adjustments to rev up your appetite and nudge you to eat more. So at the same time you’re trying to eat less, you’re actually hungrier than you were before, making everything feel that much harder.
The honeymoon is over
About four weeks into my diet plan, things started to go south.
As a Type A personality, I was determined to follow the diet to the letter and see it through to the end. But I was increasingly fixated on what I could eat next and when. I particularly struggled on low-carb days, which allowed for no more than 50 grams of net carbs (the equivalent of about two and a half apples).
The meal suggestions the plan provided for low-carb day (three scrambled eggs covered with a chopped avocado!) made my stomach turn. Though I don’t generally crave meat, I found myself standing in front of the open refrigerator, eating slices of deli ham simply to rack up protein grams. I grew tired of all the salmon I was making. And I was so. sick. of. eggs.
But I held firm. At a fancy brunch place with friends, I ordered eggs when I really wanted a waffle. I made pasta for my family and just ate salad, claiming I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t want my kids to know what I was doing. From years spent writing about feeding children, I knew it wasn’t healthy to talk about dieting or model restriction.
From my meticulous tracking, I also knew I wasn’t getting enough calories, clocking in below 1,000 on my low-carb days. My period was way late, a sign my body had shifted into survival mode.
I muscled through to the end of the six-week program. By all accounts, I’d been a model student. I’d lost pounds and inches. I also felt like I was starving.
The end of the diet coincided with Christmas, and cookies were everywhere. I was tired of counting grams and turning down what I wanted. It was the perfect storm, and I rebounded hard.
For the next few months, I frequently ate past the point of fullness. At times, I felt almost frantic about eating all the foods I’d been missing.
My goal jeans went back to the high shelf in the closet, and my pants grew tighter. Like so many before me, I gained back what I’d lost and then some. I had joined the ranks of yo-yo dieters.
I couldn’t help but feel shame. Shame that I didn’t trust my instincts and bail when I started to obsess. Shame that with all my knowledge and experience, I’d fallen into a trap I’d warned other people about. Shame that I’d punished my body like this.
What I learned
I don’t share my story to dissuade you from eating low-carb, trying macro-counting or carb-cycling, or even seeking to lose weight. I believe you have the right to be satisfied (or not) with your body and the right to change (or not) how you’re eating. (Read: Let’s Talk About Weight.)
I share my story because I learned a lot about myself in this process, and there might be something in those lessons that could help you too.
Lesson #1: For me, food tracking is triggering. There is evidence that some people who track eating (or fitness) are at higher risk for fixating on their diets and restricting their intake–yet other research doesn’t find this. In other words, it’s individual. I know that logging what I eat makes me preoccupied with food, and that isn’t healthy.
Lesson #2: For me, low-carb eating is miserable. The longer I’m a dietitian, the more I believe that different ways of eating work for different people. One person’s perfect plan is another one’s exercise in deprivation and denial. Some people thrive on a mostly meat-and-veggies diet. But so many of my favorite foods are rich in carbohydrates, from berries and oatmeal to pasta and cookies. I don’t want to live in a world where I can only have those foods on “cheat days”. (I don’t want to live in a world where I have to “cheat” at all.)
Lesson #3: For me, no jeans are worth it. Walking around in my goal jeans utterly desperate for an apple was an all-time low, and one I never want to repeat. Following this experience, I decided it was the last “diet” I’d ever go on, the last time I’d make changes that feel extreme to me.
I’m sure I’ll continue to adjust what and how I eat, as I figure out what feels best as I get older. But being in larger pants, able to eat foods I enjoy and not fixate on the grams of carbohydrate in an apple or piece of cake, is a trade-off I’m 100 percent willing to make.
That said, I recognize that my goals were only aesthetic. I wasn’t trying to wean myself off diabetes medication or lower my blood pressure. I understand that some people may have health-related reasons for making changes to what they eat, and I respect that.
My message for you
This was my experience. Yours may be different. Nobody is the same. It’s okay if something works well for you and not for me. It’s okay if something feels right to your best friend but awful to you. There’s nothing wrong with you if your experience is different from someone else’s.
It’s also okay to bail on something you thought might be helpful but turns out to be harmful to your mental or physical health.
My approach has always been to share what works (and doesn’t) for me and my family, so you can make the decisions that feel good for you.
But I will tell you this: Be kind to yourself. That includes being kind to your body. Eating when you’re hungry is kind. Nourishing yourself so you have energy is kind. Enjoying your food is being kind. Starving yourself is not.