Why Do Others Still “Get” to Diet? – On Missing Dieting in Eating Disorder Recovery

A group of friends sharing a meal

Why do they “get” to drink that, we wonder as our friend gulps the Diet Coke in their hand, a glass of milk in ours. And why is it “okay” for them to order from the “Lighter Fare” menu? 

Why are my parents “allowed” to pack their carts with reduced-fat groceries and my sister to stick to sugar-free candy? Why can’t I skip the butter cube at dinner or pass on the dessert brownie?

It is normal to miss dieting in recovery, just as we can miss our eating disorders. And it is difficult, especially early on, to witness the dieting still going on around us. We might feel jealous, frustrated, or annoyed by it. We may feel that others’ dieting is something being done to us, like salt in a wound we are trying to heal.

Why do others still “get” to diet while we don’t? Why do we “have” to make another choice? Why might all of this bother us so much?

The questions are worth asking.

In response, we might complicate our answer, arguing that these dieters get to make decisions about their food we no longer can. “If I want fat-free yogurt, I should be able to choose it,” we reason to ourselves. “If I prefer sugar-free sweeteners, shouldn’t that be on my meal plan?”

We may swear that we actually like diet food better. Really, we might say. We’d choose them even if they weren’t low-fat or low-carb or high-protein or whatever diet is trending today.

“And that’s not the eating disorder talking, either,” we may add. 

And it may not be.  

Sometimes, though, it may be talking in its slick, enterprising way.

Do we feel the same pang of envy when people are munching on non-diet food in front of us with our meal plan? When our dietitians tell us that we can have diet food, sure, in addition to the variety of food on our meal plan—not as a replacement to them? When, yes, we can have Diet Coke as long as we’re also getting over our fear of caloric beverages? 

When, indeed, it is not our eating disorder talking.

It is often the eating disorder part of our brain that feels jealous when other people diet. It is crafty and insidious. Again and again, it will try to convince us of the same old diet culture lie: These dieters are “will-powered,” “disciplined,” “strong.” They are “free” to diet, and their restriction will be the path to happiness, control, and success our disorders have made it out to be.

Remember that an eating disorder will use anything to its advantage—diet culture, social comparison, flippant comments from family, whatever. And eating disorder rationale may feel justified, comforting, and appealing at times in recovery, just as it has on the hard days of illness. We may feel we need it when the non-diet approach seems like just too much. We may feel we can trust it because it’s familiar. 

But because we’ve gone down that path, we know where it leads—where even “just a little bit” of an eating disorder will take us again. It is true that many people who diet do not develop eating disorders. That is not our experience.

We can deal, though. We can break from diet culture in ways that our dieting friends and family might never. Recovery offers us that opportunity. It offers us freedom.

An ultimate goal of eating disorder recovery is to make our eating more flexible. We can strive to be able to eat more of our “safe foods” again, if we want, with the same neutrality we bring to the foods we previously feared. We won’t feel like we’re “missing out” when all foods truly fit.

We can remind ourselves of the freedom we’re working toward in the meantime. We can challenge diet culture’s lies with what we know to be true to our experience. And we can remind ourselves of the agency we do have here.

In recovery, we’re presented with many choices. Do we follow the rules rooted in our eating disorders? Or stick to recovery in the name of eventual food freedom?

That’s a choice we get to make.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out for help. Connect with the specialists at The Emily Program by calling 1-888-364-5977 or visit our Get Started page online.

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