Trigger warning: This article contains themes that could be distressing those who struggle with eating disorders, particularly bulimia.
Have you ever had an emotional hangover after watching a show on Netflix? I felt sad for a whole day after watching the third episode of Season Four of The Crown. In it, Lady Diana moves in with the royal family as she awaits her upcoming marriage to Prince Charles. She is instantly beloved by the British public, who bombard her with fan mail and floral bouquets. But behind the image she projects, Diana's royal life is deeply lonely. She is in a loveless marriage, her husband (who suffered loneliness himself) is cheating on her, and she feels stifled by monarchy rules about what she can do and say.
The episode portrays how Diana's chronic loneliness fueled her bulimia. Feeling hopelessly alone, she would sneak into the royal kitchen late at night, where she binged on food before purging it. This episode hits close to home for those of us who have struggled with disordered eating. Many of us have felt that kind of loneliness and have used food and compensatory mechanisms like purging to find temporary relief. Of course, these behaviors come at a cost as they fail to address the loneliness itself.
A recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the same part of the brain that lights up when we're hungry is the part that activates when we're lonely. In other words, loneliness and hunger share a home in the brain. Another study found that loneliness predicts postprandial hunger (hunger that persists after you've finished a meal). Science validates what people with disordered eating have experienced firsthand -- that there is a close relationship between loneliness and hunger. That lonely-hungry feeling drives those who suffer to keep eating, even after eating enough to meet their bodies' needs. So the next time you have unwanted urges to use food in ways you wish you wouldn't, a good intervention would be to inquire about whether you feel lonely.
As a psychotherapist specializing in eating and body image, I am very familiar with that lonely-hungry feeling at the core of my clients' suffering. It is not the kind of loneliness we feel when we miss someone; it is about missing one's self. Disconnected from ourselves, many people exist without an inner source of validation, care, or kind companionship. When we can't find a friend in ourselves, the aloneness can be all-encompassing. And it makes it hard to connect with others. Unhappy with ourselves, it might be impossible to believe that anyone else could truly love us.
The chasm that separates us from ourselves can develop early. We now know with certainty that childhood adversity is a major driver. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, being mistreated, bullied, alienated, or discriminated against -- all these can make a person feel deeply flawed. Diet culture provokes similar feelings of shame and deficiency by influencing people to turn against their natural bodies and chase unrealistic forms. The result is toxic stress and chronic emotional pain -- or, to put it simply, that lonely-hungry feeling that messes with our confidence and eating patterns.
Mistrusting our bodies and our selves, we might put on a mask as Diana did. We might present a version of ourselves that feels acceptable while hiding our true feelings, needs, and even our gifts. We might shy away from connections with others as we try to fix the body or person that feels wrong. We tell ourselves that we'll pursue the meaningful life we want when we lose pounds or improve ourselves.
But the solution to the lonely-hungry feeling is not to hide or reshape yourself. That only perpetuates the sense of aloneness. The work starts when you find little ways to be real. You begin to accept your feelings and needs and take your gifts seriously. You find the courage to share your deeper self with others -- a little at a time, testing the waters, as you establish trust.
A favorite quote on this topic comes from the children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit, "He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real." In case you're not familiar with the story, "nursery magic" is the experience of being loved. When others love us, it instills confidence and the courage to be real. When we're willing to practice loving ourselves more fully at any time in our lives, the same thing happens.
I like to think that Diana conquered that lonely-hungry feeling and her bulimia later in life by getting real. I remember her telling the truth about her bulimia to reporters. By sharing it with the world, she helped to break the stigma about it. She bravely left her royal marriage and lived a meaningful, albeit tragically short, life. She publically hugged patients with AIDS at a time when most people shunned them. She walked through a live landmine with her son in a campaign to bring the world's attention to the problem. I think that Diana might have found some of that nursery magic for herself, and I know that it's possible for you too, if that's what you seek.
During the Covid crisis, many people feel more alone than ever before. If you are experiencing that lonely-hungry feeling, reach in and reach out. Reaching in involves noticing your own feelings, journaling about them, and responding to them with love and care. Reaching out is when you take a deep breath and let someone know what you feel and need. You can also heal from loneliness by joining one of many online communities that have popped up since the pandemic began. We offer one that helps you find that nursery magic, called How to Love Your Body.
We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you experienced that lonely-hungry feeling? What are some of the ways you've coped with it?
Special thanks to my editor, Barbara Cook.
Dr. Oz makes his intermittent fasting diet seem so easy. "Eat what you want!" he says (minus sugar, carbs, white flour, processed and fried foods, and certain meats and cheeses), "and stop eating at sunset."
There are so many ways this diet would go wrong for people who struggle with disordered eating (or who want to avoid it). But let's start with this --sunset comes at 5:05 pm. So, Dr. Oz is advocating for the end of dinner with friends and family?! Maybe this would work for a robot, but not for a human who is wired by years of evolution to communal eating.
Make no mistake. You won't fail this trendy diet, it will fail you.
In a recent blog, I explain why I think diets like these should come with warning labels. What you think? Let us know in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
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In the past, when people lost weight, I envied them. I wanted to know how they did it and emulate them. Today, as a recovered yo-yo dieter, I feel concerned about them. I remember how great it once felt to lose pounds. Diet culture supports it as a significant accomplishment. The people around us chime in to tell us how good we look and to ask about our strategies. But I also remember the cost to my physical and mental health of pushing my body toward an unhealthy weight. So, when people proudly post those weight loss after-photos, I feel concerned that they've set themselves up for a health disaster.
Only a person who loses weight knows whether they sacrificed their health for it. And, sometimes, weight loss is a result of efforts I consider healthy. Some of my clients lose weight when they ditch the stressful dieting mindset in favor of self-respect and self-care, put more nutrition and pleasure into meals, and hone their emotion and eating regulation skills. Even when these efforts don't result in weight loss, they are likely to affect health positively. But too many people have been made to feel that their worth depends on their weight and size. They seek weight loss feverishly, the "lose 41 pounds in 28 days" way promoted by this First For Women cover. They push their bodies by restricting food, overexercising, abusing medication, and waging a mental war on themselves -- the way I once did. When people lose weight that way, it's never healthy.
This magazine wants you to believe that you can lose 41 pounds in 28 days on the diet they promote and then ride off into a sunset with your health intact. I consider this a big, fat lie. No one could engage in such extreme weight loss without harmful side effects. Even a lesser amount of weight loss could come at a cost to health.
Here's what I know, any effort to push your weight below your healthy range will trigger survival responses as your brain does its powerful background work to adapt to the stressful dieting lifestyle and the threat of malnutrition. My clients and I are familiar with the grand spectrum of suffering triggered by hating our bodies, engaging in trendy diets, and the predictable yo-yo dieting cycles that ensue. Our diets have triggered obsessive thinking, constant weighing, fear of regaining, isolation, low-self esteem, feelings of failure, body image distortion, excessive hunger and cravings, disordered eating patterns, bounce-back weight gain, and even chronic illness. I think diets should come with warning labels.
If diets are dangerous to our health, where can we turn when we dislike our bodies, struggle with body image, or need to improve our eating habits for the sake of our health? My book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, will be available on Amazon soon. In it, I offer research about how dieting can actually make us heavier, hungrier, and sick. I also share what I wish someone told me when I started to dislike my body, develop unhealthy eating habits, and began dieting at the age of twelve. I needed someone to explain that health, confidence, and the sense of worth I sought would not come from chasing an unrealistic body. It would come from the realization that my weight was not the most important thing about me. Later, this discovery would free me to focus on my strengths and develop them into a meaningful life. And it would enable me to recover from the stressful dieting lifestyle that had triggered disordered eating patterns and a negative body image. Ditching the diet lifestyle was the best thing I ever did for my health. If you want to learn about getting healthy on the non-dieting path, join my email list. You'll be among the first to know when the book is available.
Take a moment to reflect on how dieting has affected your health. Do your experiences align with mine? Please share with me in the comments below.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
I recently read a story about a dad whose 8-year-old son was starting to feel insecure about his body. His son had a large birthmark on his chest that embarrassed him. He stopped going to the pool with his friends and didn't want to take off his shirt. The father responded to his son's growing insecurities in a beautifully, outrageous way. He went to a tattoo artist where he had a replica of the birthmark tattooed on his chest. It was precisely the right message when his son started to feel insecure about his body -- his father doubled-down on his appreciation for how his son is. You can see the story for yourself here.
Think back to when you started to feel insecure about your body. Was there someone in your life who encouraged you to appreciate your natural self? I was worried about my nose as a child. I repeatedly asked my mother to let me get a nose job. But she always responded by saying, "Nope, you're perfect as you are." Looking back, I appreciate her response. But, weight was a different matter in my childhood home. When I was teased about my size in my preteen years, my mother promptly took me to a diet center. There, I learned how to hustle for my worth, as Brené Brown puts it, by trying to reshape myself into a better form. My first diet was supposed to last ten weeks. I would diet and exercise myself into a perfect form and stay there forever -- at least, that's how the diet counselor made it seem. But my ten-week diet turned into an increasingly extreme obsession for more than a decade. And I'm aware that I'm in good company when I tell this story. In diet culture, too many children are encouraged to start watching their weight when their bodies begin to mature, when others tease them, or when the challenges they face cause them to question their worth.
The people who encourage children to diet are usually trying to help. Raised in diet culture, they also received the indoctrination that says, "if something's wrong, we can fix it by losing weight." They learned that diets work, even though a growing body of research shows that diets make us hungrier, heavier, and sick over time. In my upcoming book, Non-Dieting: How to Love Your Body and Be Healthy in Diet Culture, you can learn all about that. Although it is usually unintentional, those who encourage kids to diet in response to life's challenges are sending the message that the child is flawed and must fix themselves to fit in. When a child internalizes this message, it can set them up for a lifetime of insecurity, disordered eating, health, and body image struggles.
The right message is something more like what this father did for his son. Not that we need to go to such extremes. We need to find ways to double-down on our admiration for the unique composition of body, mind, and soul that each of us is. A mother once told me that she responded to her daughter's body insecurities by throwing off her shirt and dancing around her room. She jiggled her body as she sang, "This is how I am. I'm awesome." Her daughter found it funny, and she joined her.
How have people supported you to love your body? How have you supported yourself through body image struggles? Or, what do you wish someone told you when you started to worry that you weren't enough? Please share with us in the comments below.
Together we can create a more body-positive world. We can support each others' mental and physical health by appreciating beauty in its many different forms.
-Alison Ross, LMFT
For many, it has been a year of emotional challenges, loss, and change. We've had our silver linings. But, our collective hearts are filled with pain, confusion, fear, boredom, impatience, and anger. As we come to the end of the year, we might feel unsettled, as though we're breaking under pressure. Sometimes the burden is so heavy that all we see is darkness. But when we dig deeper, it's clear that something else is there too - you - the person surviving it. Helen Keller said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." What are the strengths that you are finding in yourself this year? Take a moment to acknowledge those sparks of light in you.
- Alison Ross, LMFT
Know someone who needs help to improve body image and overcoming disordered eating? We offer special cash prices on private therapy and support groups. Contact us for more information.
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Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.
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