I’ve never been much of a one for sin. It seems to be mainly a Christian notion, while I grew up in Reform Judaism and ended up an atheist. Ethics are what have always interested me, not some concept of sin or hell. Yet even though I live in a fairly secular society, I am continually astonished at how much the idea of sin comes into how people, and particularly women, are meant to relate to food.
The first time I noticed this was as a teenager. My mother was on yet another diet, one which classified foods as “sins”. Different types of foods were worth different amounts of sins, and you had a set number of sins you were permitted each day. I now know that it must have been Slimming World, putting their own spin on the points system of weight loss best known from Weight Watchers. A points system of dieting is basically a rebranded form of calorie counting, done in a way that some people find simpler and thus easier to follow, although these days you can get calorie counting software that does all the hard work for you. Since then, Slimming World have changed “sin” to “syn”, which they explain is short for “synergy”. Since no one is ever entirely sure what synergy is meant to be, they’re probably getting away with it.
Anyway, back then there was none of this guff about new agey words which people threw around airily without the foggiest idea of what they were talking about. It was about sinning. Being a good teenage feminist, I was quite appalled at this, and I still am. It’s a terrible way for anyone to relate to food. Or rather, it’s terrible for the poor sod who’s experiencing it. It’s great for dieting industries, because this is exactly the sort of mindset which leads to yoyo dieting and thus gives them an assured source of repeat customers.
It’s not just Slimming World who use this idea of sin in relation to food, they simply cashed in on it. It’s all over the place. People talk about “temptation”, about being “good”, “bad” or “naughty”. When they talk about being “bad”, they are often making themselves feel miserable, as if the act of eating food you hadn’t planned to was some sort of moral crime. When it’s “naughtiness” or “temptation”, then failure has already been built in, because it’s being set up as something ultra-desirable, even sexy. Think of “forbidden fruit”, where the metaphor is the other way around, using food to signify something which is desirable but unethical/immoral/bad for you.
That brings us to the myth which is behind all of it. Eve and the Apple, perhaps the first example of massively sexist scapegoating in human culture. The simple act of eating a piece of fruit is all mixed up with knowledge, power, men telling women telling men what to do, and most importantly, sex. The connection between eating, sex and sin was plonked forcefully into our cultural mythology, and it’s not showing any signs of going away.
It’s all about pleasure. If you get fat, you were enjoying your food too much. So now you must do penance by going on a diet, and the more penitential the diet and/or fitness regime, the better. Then you feel deprived, get miserable, and console yourself by indulging in forbidden food. After that you’ve fallen off the wagon, tainted yourself irredeemably, so you may as well give up entirely.
Unsurprisingly, this is a really bad way of approaching weight loss. Yet, somehow, this is what has become normalised in our society. It’s why I avoided dieting for so long, in fact. I thought it meant living in perpetual hunger, misery and guilt. I thought it meant being condemned to the type of unsatisfying meals Alan Ayckbourne described in Living Together:
REG: Oh, I’m starving after that meal. Salad. I can’t bear salad. It grows while you’re eating it, you know. Have you noticed? You start one side of your plate and by the time you’ve got to the other, there’s a fresh crop of lettuce taken root and sprouted up. You have to start again. And it still doesn’t fill you. You finish up exhausted and hungry.
I was enough of a foodie to know that a good salad should not be remotely like that, but I still expected dieting to involve relentless hunger and minuscule portions. The joke is that when I did finally start dieting, I was on a calorie allowance far smaller than what most people could tolerate, as I’m short and inactive. Yet I still managed to make perfectly satisfying meals, not to mention incorporating delicious small snacks. The sort of thing thought of as “treats”, except that they weren’t rewards for being good, they were simply small portions of something tasty that fit into my calorie allowance. I was still gaining plenty of pleasure from my food, whether this was a hearty meal for supper or a bowl of strawberries to share with my partner while cuddled up together watching TV. I also found that the darker the chocolate, the smaller a piece I could be satisfied by. Since this meant that I could keep a 100g bar of chocolate going for weeks, I made it really good quality chocolate and enjoyed the luxury.
What is more, achieving a diet that satisfied me was nothing whatsoever to do with being “good” or “bad”. It involved learning about calorie density and satiating factors such as fibre, so that I knew which foods would be more filling for the same number of calories, and then balancing my meals accordingly. Pile the veggies on abundantly, sprinkle the almonds with a careful hand. Yes, wholefoods are richer in nutrients, more likely to keep you satisfied, and less likely to be weirdly addictive in the way that processed foods are carefully designed to be, but healthy eating is still something entirely separate from virtue.
I found it disconcerting when people would say, “You’re so good,” or, “You’re so disciplined, I could never do that.” It really wasn’t about discipline or resisting temptation. If I found that I was really hungry, and it wasn’t a one-off attack of the munchies caused by being premenstrual, then I needed to replan my diet, that was all. Thankfully, this side of things was pretty minor, and mainly involved trying a few different ways of spacing my calories throughout the day, plus a few experiments to see what ratio of carbs/fats/protein I did best on.
I’d been doing a small amount of boredom eating and emotional eating, and that was something I did have to work on. The weight loss forum was very useful here, I could talk things over with other people who were going through the same, and who could help me analyse why I was doing certain things and how to change that behaviour. There were three main things that worked here. The first was simply keeping my food diary faithfully, as writing everything down before you eat it tends to stop you from mindless eating. Another was recognising which foods are trigger foods for me, i.e. foods where I find it hard to stop once I start. Bourbon biscuits and tortilla chips were accordingly removed from the shopping list, which was not exactly surprising news. And the third was to drop guilt from the equation. If I accidentally ate more than I’d planned to, and couldn’t juggle the calories for the rest of the day without feeling like I was having too little to eat later on, then I simply noted it down and moved on. Time and again, people on that forum reassured someone who had slipped up that they didn’t need to worry, they should pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go back to the diet as normal. They didn’t need to make themselves eat less the next day, and moreover there was no reason to feel so guilty that they dropped the diet entirely. As someone put it in their forum signature, “If you drop one egg, you don’t say, ‘Oh, shoot,’ and drop the other eleven, do you.” It’s funny how many of us needed to hear that. It’s alright to slip up, no one is perfect, it’s not some great terrifying trial where only perfection will do.
The really surprising thing was how happy I was while I was dieting. Part of it was the joy of seeing my body get smaller, which is always fun. I celebrated how much I had achieved rather than worrying about how much was left, and by “celebrated” I mostly mean “did silly little dances around the flat”. Part of it was that calorie counting didn’t turn out to be the chore I’d expected, and instead I found that it was interesting to see how my meals balanced and what my nutrition was like, with the dieting software producing nifty little graphs and charts at the click of a button. Part of it was that I was eating more sensible amounts at good regular hours, and my body was thankful for the improved routine and responded with a bit more energy. I can’t exercise because of the ME, but other people who are able to exercise report that once they find something that works for them, it’s great and they enjoy it immensely. And most of all, I was finally doing something about it all. I was able to take control of my body again. Bear in mind that I’d just spent the last fourteen years with an increasingly disabling medical condition, one which made me feel as if I was completely powerless, imprisoned in a body which not only didn’t work properly but didn’t even look the way that I associated with my true self. Now I could control an aspect of my body which may be relatively minor when it comes to health, but is very important when it comes to my persona and what other people see. This is an amazingly positive thing to experience.
I’d already come to terms with being overweight before I started dieting, I was pretty content in myself, but this added joy to my life. Don’t ever let them tell you that weight loss has to be miserable. It is usually hard work, it can be very difficult, and for some people it may not be worth what they will go through for an uncertain result – I’ve certainly had times in my life when I had enough going on already and couldn’t have coped with weight loss on top of that. But it is wrong to scare people off by telling them that dieting will automatically mess with their heads and make their lives a nightmare, and sad when people who are having a rough time with weight loss think that this is the only option and give up unhappily. It really doesn’t have to be that way, in fact it’s better when it isn’t. And whatever you do, do not think of food as a sin!