Add my name to the millions-long list of people who started their first diet as a child. I was 12.
If my dieting history were a CV, it would look like this:
I belong to two internet body-related Facebook groups. My membership reflects my ongoing need for inspiration around healthy change and my interest in the saga of how women relate to their bodies, and how society relates to women and their bodies.
A new member recently introduced herself with a paragraph like this, "My name is Sally. I weighed 120lbs in 1995, then 145lb in 1998 after my baby, then 195 in 2003 after my second baby, then 140lb when I did Atkins and then now I am feeling gross at 175lb. And that's my story! Thanks for adding me!" Hold your roll, Sally. That's NOT your story. Why do you think that's your story? Sally, there's more, so much more.
But if we only share, and we only live by, our dieting CVs, then are we actually living?
I call this Concrete Diet Thinking where the attention is purely on the physical world, the material understanding of losing weight. It is embodied by "Calories In, Calories Out."
The 'fitspo' world belongs to Concrete Diet Thinking. 'Fitspo' is where women post photos of chiselled humans with weirdly-orange skin doing squats wearing thongs and sayings like "IT SHOULD HURT MORE!" Concrete Diet Thinking also encompasses any meal program that hands the dieter a select set of foods - whatever they are - and says that the answer to lasting weight loss lies in those foods, and those foods only, with a little bit of movement and motivation. Concrete Diet Thinking is focused solely on individual behaviour and does not shine a light on the obese-ogenic nature of our society.
My dieting history, in the image above, is a portrayal of my life in Concrete Diet Thinking Terms.
The second Facebook group is through a fascinating internet-based lifestyle program called Live More, Weigh Less by Sarah Jenks. The focus is on living more in the body you already have in order to be happier right now. The idea is that the extra weight comes from a lack of fulfillment with relationships, work and life so if you can fix that. you'll lose weight. It draws heavily on the work of Geneen Roth and lives as one of the best examples of Abstract Diet Thinking. Abstract Diet Thinking applies a more complex frame to weight loss and specifically looks for patterns and relationships between the experiences of the dieter to help elucidate limiting beliefs and solve the barriers to healthy eating. For people who have a trauma history or a history of chronic dieting against a back drop of negligible self-esteem, Abstract Diet Thinking is a liberating stepping stone on the road to recovery.
For Abstract Diet Thinking, food and movement is almost immaterial to the deeper workings of the mind and soul. Food and movement, known as secondary food in these circles, is not nearly as important as figuring out the s#@t you've brought to the table in terms of failed relationships and missed opportunities. Then you're supposed to let your body rebel against any eating rule until it calibrates itself to its own set-point. The rules themselves are the problem.
In the world of Abstract Diet Thinking, these are select relevant experiences from my life:
As with the dieting CV, this is an inadequate representation of my experience.
I've benefited from Abstract Diet Thinking and from Concrete Diet Thinking in that both have served as vehicles to learn about myself. But they both typically advocate for a singular path, one harps on restoring willpower while the other insists that there is some magic spirit fairy living inside you that knows exactly what your body wants and needs at every juncture.
I think they're both lacking as approaches to sustainable, healthy transformation.
We know that people with severe morbid obesity have physiological features which prevent their bodies from responding over the long term to diet and exercise. This is why we still have gastric bypass. It works better, and longer, for more people than any diet. They don't have a magic spirit fairy serving as their inner food intuition voice. They don't know hunger or fullness in the same way as non-obese people because their satiety hormones, insulin and the gastric peptides which communicate with their brains are dysfunctional. I know this from my studies and I know this because I live in a family where we experience obesity on a pathological scale. Just like with addiction, we collectively experience familial obesity. Abstract Diet Thinking does not work with the physiologic reality of our bodies.
I gained over 50 pounds between 2008 and 2011 through following the work of Geneen Roth and Abstract Diet Thinking. I needed about 20 of those pounds, the rest was literally icing.
The gaining was as much a source of personal growth for me as was the losing and I don't begrudge it, as difficult as it was to watch my body change uncontrollably for three years.
But it remains true that in order to maintain a health weight, one needs to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are not. Abstract Diet Thinking can help figure out the emotional reasons why this is a really hard job for a not insignificant portion of society. But it can't really help us figure out how to change our thoughts, feelings and actions in order to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full.
So what is the Third Space?
In sociology, the Third Space describes how every person is a reflection of their unique affiliations with society, culture, community, language and the economy. It is a theory of poverty alleviation that helps explain why our world has been so darn terrible at alleviating poverty. I used a variation of it in my master's thesis to help understand why women who sell sex and use high risk drugs in Vancouver don't like going to their doctors.
I would like to theorize for a minute here that there is actually a Third Space for dieting culture too.
If Concrete Diet Thinking is all about calories in and out, and Abstract Diet Thinking is all about patterns of experiences leading to the use of food as an emotional tonic, the Third Space creates room for both and more. It exists in another dimension altogether. It is the sum of one person's social, biological, genetic, economic, political and emotional narratives which explain the ways in which their affiliations, affinities and relationships shape their body AND it points to solutions for healthy weights and healthy change.
My body is shaped by my experience of bullying as a child as much as it is shaped by my current meal plan. My body is shaped by my genetics as much as it is shaped by my middle-income-hood. All of these matter and the tools of Abstract and Concrete Diet Thinking alone cannot leverage all of these affiliations, affinities and relationships perfectly.
What is the major tool of the Third Space?
I believe it is mindfulness which is a technical way of saying, simply, awareness of what is.
Mindfulness enables us to bring a solution into the moment when feelings are being eaten, instead of felt, and then to make the choice to be happy because the negative feelings we are eating are based on thoughts that probably aren't true or aren't important. By understanding the connection, you can act differently - i.e. by not eating.
I think I am in the Third Space right now. I use mindfulness to give myself a space to breath when I feel like I am going to use food inappropriately. I eat three meals per day and snack occasionally, and my meal planning allows me to make sure I can eat on insane days. However, on festive weekends, I still have old patterns from long-standing family traditions where I eat until I am uncomfortable because I don't have appropriate built-in satiety signals. I probably never will. This is where external limits - from the world of Concrete Thinking - imposed carefully by my brain on my body are actually really helpful. These limits serve as check-points for me to reflect on how my caloric needs and caloric intake are different (without actually measuring) and what that might be about.
But listen here: No one else can impose these limitations on you.
They have to come from within or they represent a form of social control against which you will inevitably rebel by sabotaging your own health. This is one of the first major failures of Concrete Diet Thinking.
And it is one of the most annoying things that non-obese people do to obese people: "Well, if you would only eat more like THIS then all of your problems would be solved!" No. Stop.
I think the Third Space is helpful for those of us with a physiologic legacy towards obesity. The Third Space helps us to see that the same amount of food in our bodies does different things than in the bodies of other people. This is unfair given the treatment of obese people in our society, but it is also true. This is why Abstract Diet Thinking fails me, and others like me. I don't have an appropriate set-point. My wiring is one determined to maintain fat stores. The several years I spent starving made all of this worse which is another place where Concrete Diet Thinking fails hard.
Now, there are medical conditions and medications that cause weight gain but are reversible. Those should be ruled out with your doctor. But these don't affect me.
But Abstract Diet Thinking often ignores the part where it IS actually important to lose weight in many cases, especially for many people weighing upwards of 400lb. We have a shared national problem in the form of chronic disease, more commonly experienced by people with large fat stores. Abstract Diet Thinking would insist to my obese patients that they can use social and emotional tools to overcome their obesity and I believe this is true but insufficient.
There are some Concrete Diet Thinking tools like meal planning, understanding macronutrients, determining portion sizes, scheduling your meals that can ground Abstract Diet Thinking in real life.
I can't always use my emotional tools to determine satiety and hunger because life is totally arse-over-tea-kettle nuts on some days and I need to eat while running. Actually. That's where I need a limited amount of food in my bag ready to be consumed for lunch at any time, under any conditions. Abstract Diet Thinking says that I should sit for a few minutes and realize what my body truly wants and then go feed her. OMG, this would take forever and be totally impractical at least 50% of the time.
So I use mindfulness to fill the gap left by the Abstract and the Concrete. I am working on nailing down exactly what that means for me, and also how I might share that work with others, but I experience liberty through this awareness.
It's the safest my body has ever been from sabotage.
Which tools do you think belong in the Third Space? I am so keen to discuss, so please comment or drop me an email.