If you experience an eating disorder, read with caution. And if you’re looking for diet ideas, this probably isn’t the post for you. Read my post about what it’s like to be a fat bulimic if you’re curious about the long-term effectiveness of any of these plans.
The first time I can remember deliberately altering the way I ate in order to get thinner was in high school. I was a freshman, and my best frenemy (who herself, I believe, was in the early stages of an eating disorder) would compare notes — how long had we gone without eating. It wasn’t a long-term pattern, but it did provide a sort of twisted fortitude I would later draw upon as an adult bulimic. If I could starve myself so easily at 14, I figured, I should be able to manage it at 24.
When I was a young child, my mother quit smoking, and after that there was a period of a few years when I can remember her frequently being on some kind of weight loss plan. There was Diet Center, and maybe Nutrisystem? She did Jazzercise for a bit. She ate cabbage soup. None of these lasted very long that I can recall, but they left a strong impression on me, clearly, since I’m still thinking about them more than three decades later, and since I have my own history of wacky diets of varying effectiveness.
The ultimate in gateway drugs, I think Slim Fast was my first official “diet.” You probably remember the ads — a shake for breakfast, another for lunch, and then a sensible dinner? I can’t remember if I was in high school or home from college over the summer, but I bought into the Slim Fast Jump Start program, which was basically the regular Slim Fast plan except that instead of a sensible dinner, you had another fucking shake. I blended mine with ice or frozen strawberries so I could call it a smoothie, or I pretended it was a Carnation Instant Breakfast (which was somehow better?) because I instinctively felt the need to hide it from my parents.
I put on the Freshman 15 plus in my first year of college, and at the beginning of the spring semester I bought and skimmed The Zone, which was the It eating plan of the moment. I was a vegetarian at the time, and for a few weeks I ate things like plain veggie burger patties dipped in barbecue sauce. I didn’t lose any weight that I know of, but the other girls from my dorm wing told me later that I had at least been in a really bad mood.
Yes, the very same! It resurfaced in my mind when I found the plan on a pro-ana message board I used to frequent in the early 2000s, and I gave it a try. You’d think I would’ve known, having seen it fail firsthand, just how ineffective it was going to be (especially because bananas were the “treat” food you were allowed to have, and I don’t like bananas), but a big part of my mindset during the peak years of my eating disorder was convincing myself that my mother had failed at weight loss because she lacked willpower, and I was stronger than she was so I would succeed. So I cooked up a huge pot of cabbage soup in my tiny New York apartment… and then left most of it neglected when I burned out on soup after a day or two.
The 2/4/6/8 Plan
Another gem from the pro-ana Web, this plan was intended to keep your metabolism from slowing down by eating a set number of calories on a four-day rotation. On Day 1, I ate 200 calories (or fewer, obviously; this was at the peak of my restricting phase, and I had days when I would get by on Diet Coke and a bell pepper), on Day 2 400, on Day 3 600, and Day 4 was my big 800-calorie binge day. The beauty of this was that I didn’t have to count all the calories I consumed if I purged afterward (that’s bulimic logic for you), so if I slipped up and accidentally downed a half-gallon of ice cream, I was OK as long as it was an 800-calorie day.
I didn’t become a full-blown bulimic until after I graduated from college, and as a young adult I quickly learned that if you had a few pounds to lose, you could easily conceal an eating disorder behind a veil of “healthy” intentions. In fact, at that point, people praised and encouraged you. So when I tried a “cleanse” I’d found in a “bikini body” book at the Washington Square Barnes & Noble, my coworkers and roommates were supportive. (The same bikini body book also advised sitting in a tub of ice to reduce the look of cellulite or burn fat or something, but I didn’t memorize that as closely as I did the cleanse. I was, of course, too cheap to actually buy the book.) The plan involved two days of strictly liquids (broth, tea, juices, water), after which solid foods were added back in at two-day intervals: fruit, then vegetables, proteins, dairy, grains. Theoretically, it was supposed to “purify” your body and rid it of “toxins,” but I saw it for what it was: a get-thin-quick scheme. I made it about a week before the constant diarrhea got to be too much for me. I tried it again a few years later and it ended up being the experience that led me back to eating meat.
The $5-A-Day Diet
This was a scheme of my own invention, designed to make me both thin and rich (because, as you know, you can never be too much of either). I decided I would limit my spending on everything non-essential (food, obviously, was considered a non-essential) to $5 per day and put the rest of my money in savings. If I spent less than $5 a day, I could bank the remainder for the next day or week. For several weeks, I ate mostly rice and beans for dinner (a complete protein!), which I could prepare for about $5 a week. Breakfast was a roll and coffee at the train station. I spent most of my evenings alone at home, watching MTV and feeling monastic. Eventually I gave up and switched to a new plan wherein I ate only Tasti-D-Lite for dinner.
The Full Bulimic
The worst and most extreme of my diets, this one was pretty straightforward: I ate whatever I wanted and then threw it up afterward. I do not recommend this as a lifestyle. Neither does your doctor, your dentist, or your accountant. If I had back every dollar I spent on binge foods during these periods, I’d never have to make another student loan payment again.
I know the cool Instagram kids prefer the term “plant-based” these days, but when I was a vegetarian, that was what we called it. I stopped eating meat as a teenager for ethical reasons, then started again during college, then stopped again after college and cut out cheese for a while as well. My rule through my early 20s was that I kept a vegan home but relaxed my dairy restrictions outside of the house. My vegetarianism was largely ethically motivated, but if I’m being fully honest with myself, the restrictions on dairy were rooted in my eating disorder. Ironically, this meant I ended up eating a lot of bread and pasta instead.
I tried this one after I had my first baby because it lets you have wine, and then I hopped off the bandwagon in fairly short order. You can’t have fruit (at the time, my go-to diet food), all the breakfast recipes called for eggs, and I got tired of chicken breasts really quickly.
This one was a more recent endeavor. I tried following the ketogenic style of eating for a few months last year. If you’re not acquainted, a ketogenic diet is a very-low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat way of eating that is designed to encourage fat loss by keeping the body in ketosis. When you’re starting out, this involves carefully paying attention to how many grams of fat and protein and how many net carbs you’re consuming each day. I was worried at first that tracking my food intake so closely might trigger a relapse, but it didn’t. It was mostly just time-consuming. And despite two months of obsessing about my macros, I lost very little weight.
Founders and followers of the Whole 30 will take issue with calling it a “diet,” but it’s kind of disingenuous to refuse to use that term when you’re talking about a set of rules that govern the way someone eats. It’s not a drastic weight loss plan or an unhealthy gimmick, but the Whole 30 literally is a diet, or at least the structure for one. And unlike most of the other “diets” I’ve been on, it’s not — for me, at least — a gateway to failure and self-loathing. I’m doing my second Whole 30 this month, and although there are challenges (like I would literally knock someone over for a glass of wine right now), it feels like a positive exercise in being more thoughtful about how I eat. It also has an explicit rule forbidding weighing yourself, which is hard for me to follow but also sort of a relief because it takes the focus off the scale and turns it back toward feeling good about eating.
And if this list tells us anything, it’s that feeling good about eating is something that’s never been easy for me to do.
This is the second time I’ve done the #Whole30, and while there are hard things about it (good lord do I miss coffee creamer and lattes), I’m remembering why it’s such a good program for me. 🥗 As a recovering bulimic, an overeater, emotional eater and compulsive eater, anything that makes me stop and think about what I’m eating is helpful. 🥗 On the Whole 30, I have to take time to prepare my food. I have to think about what I’m eating. I have to take that pause that I don’t take when I’m eating my feelings or because I’m bored or because I avoided eating all day and now I’m shaking from low blood sugar. 🥗 On a normal day, would I take the time to plate a salad so nicely and really appreciate it? No, I’d grab whatever was available and eat without thinking. Sometimes I’d make a healthy choice, and sometimes I’d eat something that left me feeling ashamed the rest of the day. 🥗 Bonus: Because I’m not using creamer or ordering lattes, I only had ONE cup of coffee this morning instead of five. Good for my stomach AND good for maintaining a better awareness of my actual hunger level during the day.