The [Expletive]-It Diet
Caroline Dooner, author of The [Expletive Deleted]-It Diet, says we should stop dieting.
The book nails the Zeitgeist— combining feminism, profanity, pastries, and body positivity into an irreverent crowd-pleaser.
Caroline is a heretic among dogmatic dietitians and gurus peddling elimination diets. But like all heretics, she obscures a fuller truth with a partial one. Yes, restrictive diets fail. The best diet is the one that allows for the least restriction, and only denies those foods that inherently cause cravings.
The high-fat version of “paleo” or ancestral diet works because it satiates.
Interestingly, Caroline uses the same ancestral/evolutionary logic as the paleo community to explain why dieting fails. In short, our ancestors only would have restricted food during famine conditions. Famines signal a need to put more energy into securing food. The result is that dieting actually makes us fixate on eating! In other words, the harder you try, the harder it is to give something up, and the more you loosen your grip the easier it becomes to let it go.
But instead of swearing and giving up on ever winning the battle, people should be joyfully embracing a diet that includes both feasting and fasting. Feasting is a sign of abundance that tells our hormones (which in turn, tell our hunger) that good times are here and that we need not stress about where our next meal is coming from.
What the F-It Diet Gets Right
Caroline’s main idea is that restrictive diets make people hungrier. Most diets don’t provide adequate nutrition. A 2-year old needs 1,200 calories per day! she notes. Eventually our hormones start signaling the demand to binge on whatever we can get our hands on.
Dooner and I agree that restricting full-fat animal products like cheese and butter is a bad idea. The anti-fat dogma might have been the worst idea of the 20th century, and amounts to dietary malpractice.
I also agree with Dooner’s suggestion that changes should be adopted incrementally, realistically, and non-neurotically — in other words, for the most part we should be eating intuitively.
The Danger of Intuitive Eating in the Modern Milieu
Intuitive eating is code for eat what you want, when you want.
Kara Lydon belongs to the same school of thought, offering a free guide on making peace with carbs.
Kara Lydon Nutrition - Intuitive Eating Counseling | Boston Nutritionist
Workwith me Interested in working with a dietitian who keeps it real (hi, science), positive, and mindfully balanced…
This is an inevitable backlash to the popularity of very-low-carb “ketogenic diets,” and the appeal is obvious. We have been repressing our natural appetites for as long as we’ve been human — mostly to avoid eating scarce food. But today we face a very different condition of needing to restrict what has become cheap and abundant — namely junk food, and especially high-sugar carb-rich foods like pizza, soda, donuts, cakes, cookies and the like.
Yes, dieting makes us more obsessed with food. Yes, intermittent fasting can give way to intermittent gluttony. And no, body shaming does not help people enter a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.
The push toward “listening to your body” is understandable. Instincts are a powerful guide. Kate’s guide notes the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates, and when one might be favorable over the other. But when intuitive eating is equated with paying less attention to junk food, it becomes dangerous advice in our junk-food laden milieu.
I caution against using carbs as the primary source of fuel. Metabolic syndrome (diabetes and obesity) is exploding, and that’s exactly what we would expect from a society that produces and consumes way too many carbs for its level of activity. Unless you are an endurance athlete (an extreme outlier), carbs are not a great source of fuel for everyday life.
I suspect that Kate’s words will be a balm to the many people who have tried going low-carb without the essential corollary of eating high fat. It requires an exceptional leap of faith to make the switch to fat-burning mode — most of all because of the thought prison we have constructed which demonizes fats.
Credit to Caroline and Kate for not falling into the evil plot to make America obese by depriving them of vital nutrients, but there’s still the problem that for most people, eating carbs intuitively will meaning eating them at the expense of much healthier, more filling foods.
She brings in good evidence that even restricting sugar — something I’ve advocated — can backfire if it becomes an obsessive focus. A metabolically healthy person has to work harder, unnecessarily, to create sugar through gluconeogenesis, so I say go ahead and eat fruit and sweet potatoes.
We also shouldn’t fixate on completely eliminating carbs and sugar, or beat ourselves up for eating them. I like Caroline’s additive approach, and I would take it a step further saying, “Yes! Eat bread, and make it GOOD bread — fresh sourdoughs and the like.”
Finally, I appreciate her suggestion to give in to the foods you are afraid of — a sort of “exposure and response prevention” (ERP) for eating disorders. I sometimes eat Cheetos, for example, to overcome my anxiety of them, but this can be a slippery slope for someone addicted to food who is trying to nourish themselves with a whole food, high-fat ancestral diet.
Obsessive calorie counting is not healthy, but neither is indiscriminate eating when one’s intuitions are clouded by hormonal dysfunction, unhealthy gut bacteria, and the general milieu we live in of overconsumption of sugary junk foods made with rancid oils.
I can imagine people picking up this book and using it as an excuse to “let themselves go.” While this might be preferable to yo-yo dieting that leaves a person both heavier and less happy, I believe it is settling for less than what is possible with a more informed and disciplined approach to intuitive eating.
Is “High-Fat Ancestral” Even a Diet?
Eating a high-fat diet requires more attention to foods that spike insulin too high, too often, desensitizing your cells to the hormonal signals that regulate healthy metabolism.
Just understanding the insulin–body fat dynamic makes me favor meals that are higher in fat and lower in carbohydrates. It doesn’t feel like a restriction to give up a tortilla and order a “burrito bowl” with extra guacamole instead. That’s just a smart trade-off based on better knowledge of insulin and fat metabolism.
I try to keep under the threshold of carbs that will result in either lethargy or runaway cravings. When I eat too much sugar, I become desensitized to the natural sweetness of fruit, whereas starting from a high-fat, low-sugar baseline, I do not feel like I’m depriving myself by foregoing cookies in favor of chia pudding made with heavy cream and blueberries.
To repeat, an ancestral protocol should be seen as only restricting those foods which restrict the healthy enjoyment of other foods. You only restrict sugar and carbs so you can enjoy more health fats. Similarly, foods that cause inflammation can lead to arterial clogging, which has also led dietitians to suggest low-nutrient low-fat diets. The problem, however, is not cholesterol but inflammation.
Understanding Set points.
Like most diet books, The F-It Diet makes a bold promise at the beginning that the method described will eliminate all food cravings. Its logic is borrowed from Oscar Wilde:
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
Eat more, more often, and you will reassure your body that it’s not starving so it will eventually give up some pounds or at least stop putting on additional weight.
Many dieters have experienced the feeling that their body wants to be a certain weight. Despite their best efforts, as soon as they begin to lose some weight, it comes roaring right back. This is because our bodies tend toward homeostasis (i.e., bodily equilibrium), and most people are adapted to storing fat — preferring to get energy from outside the system — rather than burning fat from diet and the body’s natural stores of fat for energy.
On her delightful Instagram, Caroline Dooner notes that weight gain is part of how the body heals. Translation: most people have a higher than ideal set point, or equilibrium weight, because of the traumas and toxins they are carrying in their tissues.
It’s pointless to try to lose weight without addressing the underlying symptoms. But eating the right foods can be part of a healing process — a virtuous cycle that includes weight loss, greater mobility, and the energy to pursue real passions rather than living in food obsession and addiction.
“Orthorexia” — obsessive healthy eating — is a real thing. People with addictive personalities must balance healthy eating with a toleration of occasional exposure to unhealthy foods.
Four Ways to Lower Your Set Point without Obsessing
Caroline’s greatest insight is the diminishing returns to monitoring how much you eat. In fact, we can probably lower our set point by being less anxious about our need to eat in order to survive, and by eating to satiety more often.
She helps debunk the worst idea of the past 100 years (diet culture), and probably doesn’t sway those who are finding success with ketogenic diets or high-fat/intermittent fasting paleo.
I don’t want to derail those who are having success with eating more intuitively and indiscriminately a la Caroline’s recommendations, but I do think it’s valuable to have some additional tools in the toolkit. In all obsessive disorders, the misfiring and over-activity of our fears is partly a result of false beliefs that must be let go, and partly a result of some legitimate danger out there in the world. In this case, the danger is a world where yielding to the most common temptations will result for most people in metabolic syndrome (i.e., diabetes and obesity).
1. Refuel with healthy fats.
The keto people are basically correct that fat is the best way to get full. Without stressing about how often you eat or how much, we should be mindful of how we refuel between meals and choose foods that will make it easier to hustle until the next meal without feeling hungry or light-headed.
2. Don’t buy groceries that lend themselves to cravings.
Buy what’s good and then eat to your hearts content. Cookies and cakes, especially those engineered with vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup to be maximally rewarding, are asking for temptation.
Last night, after “first dinner,” I had a large bowl of chia pudding with liberal helpings of walnuts and blueberries, followed by several dates, and then a hearty tuna salad covered in olives, olive oil, sunflower seeds and feta cheese.
My thought was not “F it,” but I still ate until I was clearly full and then went to bed happy.
When I buy enough vegetables and healthy ingredients to prepare them with, I eat them in the right ratios for my body to feel good (generally 3:1 or 4:1 fat to everything else).
Caroline and Kara would say that if you are really eating enough and staying busy, you won’t even want to binge on cookies, and that the desire to control will lead to future binges outside of the house. However, just like an alcoholic wisely does not tempt himself with a six pack in the fridge, people coming off of years of unhealthy eating should not tempt themselves with the food equivalent of crack-cocaine in their pantries.
3. Find work that diverts your attention from food to purpose.
When you’re hustling, you are not only likely to burn more calories, you are also less likely to be thinking about your next meal. One of Caroline’s Instagram posts encourages people to work on improving the world, not their bodies. Staying mission-focused is a good way to stop obsessing about body image and food intake.
4. Don’t restrict ALL restrictions.
Ivan Illich once wrote that a kind of asceticism is the expression of true friendship. He spoke of the need for “simple acts of foolish renunciation,” to fulfill the badly-needed vocation of the friend.
True Wisdom is This
Illich’s ascetic suggestion reveals Oscar Wilde’s faux wisdom for what it is.
Eating is necessary. Food is good. But we can’t give up all resistance to temptation, and part of the battle for physical health will always involve some restrictions. Caroline lumps fasting into the category of neurotic restrictions that will backfire. I don’t recommend fasting as a weight loss hack but as a reminder of our dependence on God.
St. Seraphim of Sarov was once asked why miracles had become more scarce in modern times, and he replied, “Only one thing is lacking — a firm resolve.”
St. Seraphim did not fit the Zeitgeist. He spoke from a different spirit, which accepts occasional hunger and poverty of spirit so that we might be filled with better things.
So, to all those struggling with diets, read Caroline’s book but don’t take her advice too seriously.
Let go, but don’t give up, and embrace both the fast and the feast.
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