Cleveland, TN

Tired of Yo-Yo Dieting In Cleveland? You May Need to Quit Trying to Lose Weight

Shannon Ashley

Here’s what I’ve learned about combining weight loss and intuitive eating. by Thought Catalog (left) and ian dooley (right) on Unsplash

The other day, a reader left an earnest comment on one of my articles that I knew I couldn’t ignore:

I’m very interested in intuitive eating but I am also very eager to lose weight. The entire journey through weight loss is so darn confusing. I just want to quit.

I read that and thought, I really need to talk about that because I fully get it, and honestly, that’s the same mindset I had that kept me stuck in this “freedom vs. dieting” limbo for such a long time. If you’re familiar with my older work, you might know that I was circling the waters of intuitive eating for a couple of years before I finally made a commitment and felt things “click.”

You see, like a lot of other folks in Cleveland, my weight has been a longterm struggle. And when I first moved down to Tennessee, I struggled a lot with getting used to the heat when I'm a fat woman who's not too comfortable in summer clothes.

Back in August of 2019, I reached out to Dr. Marcia Herrin and worked with her a bit over video chat. We even had a few sessions while I was spending the day at the Cleveland YMCA. was so sick of yo-yo dieting, but I didn’t know how to stop. I was also so tired of feeling too self-conscious to enjoy a day at the pool or walking through the Greenway with my kid. Dr. Herrin is a leading expert on eating disorder recovery and knows plenty about weight loss, yet, she believes you really can’t address any need for weight loss before you deal with your diets and disordered eating habits first.

I was very new to food freedom in those days, and frankly, it all seemed too good to be true. Dr. Herrin wanted me to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner without worrying about portion sizes at all, and she even wanted me to eat dessert every day with breakfast and lunch.

“But I can’t eat that much food,” I balked. I was so sure that I’d only get fatter. Then, to top it off, the only calorie counting that she wanted me to do was for the desserts.

People have a tendency to try to get away with just a bite, but that can backfire, she explained. It needs to be substantial, as in 200 to 300 calories.

For heavy folks like me, with a long history of diet failure, what she wanted me to do seemed impossible in my mind. It didn’t mesh with much of anything I’d learned over the years about diets and nutrition. And it was certainly surreal to have a medical professional tell me to eat so much food when I was already morbidly obese. My whole life, doctors have been telling me to eat less and move more. Suddenly, this woman who is fully accredited and known for her expertise in treating eating disorders said they were wrong. She wanted me to “eat with impunity,” and I was just dumbfounded.

When all was said and done, I didn’t even follow Dr. Herrin’s advice. I mean, I tried. I began buying “fun foods” as the doctor calls them. Ice cream, bread, and candy — all of the stuff that a very fat person is absolutely not supposed to eat.

But I was still struggling. I struggled to give myself genuine permission to eat three meals a day. I still struggled with the notion that I was allowed to eat until I was satisfied. After all, my hunger and fullness cues were so messed up that I could only really be sure when I was overstuffed and miserable. Or empty, you know, I liked the feeling of being empty, but I knew that as soon as I ate something, all heck would break loose.

Since I did so much binge eating, I also skipped lots of meals. It only seemed fair. I didn’t think I was in any position to need food (not when I was already obese), so, eating felt like the kind of thing I should do as little as possible.

No matter how much Dr. Herrin told me that I needed to stop binge eating first and that the only way I’d stop it was to quit restricting myself, I guess I didn’t believe her. I wanted to believe her. But I had way too much diet baggage to trust what she said.

Since I felt so guilty about “failing” her, I quit setting up meetings. My life grew more stressful and I used that as an excuse to quit trying to eat intuitively at all. Instead, I fell back into my usual cycle of dieting, overeating, and of course, self-loathing.

The following summer, I once again felt fed up with myself, my weight, and my constant guilt about eating. I had a lot of conflicting feelings about, well, everything because, on the one hand, I was so dang tired of being fat and feeling all of the limitations that went with that. I was angry with myself for not being able to stick to a diet, especially since I’ve lost more than 100 pounds before. Twice, actually. Even so, I also had an inkling that another diet (even a so-called successful one) wasn’t going to fix my food issues.

It was bad, y’all.

I felt so fixated on food. It easily determined the entire mood of my days. Would I “be good?” Would I binge? Eventually, I had to admit to myself that it was all madness because I felt so dang guilty for eating anything at all. I could eat a salad or a cookie and either way, I felt like I’d done something wrong.

And then, to make everything worse, I couldn’t seem to navigate all of the different diets out there. Low carb, low calorie, keto, fasting, vegan, or raw foods. In theory, I understood that any of those could “work” to lose weight, but I worried what would happen when the drawbacks began to bug me. Because every diet has a drawback. There’s always some sort of food that’s off-limits. It’s always awkward to navigate restaurants and the holidays. Plus, I knew I didn’t have it in me to go through all of the pain and sacrifice to lose weight just to gain it all back again.

I know how to read food labels. I know how to track my food. Frankly, I knew I was suffering from information overload about every diet on the market and various (conflicting) theories of eating for optimal health.

In the midst of all my inner turmoil, there was just something about Dr. Herrin’s message that stuck with me. She said she drinks a glass of orange juice every day just to sort of stick it to the sugar phobic crowd. She talked about the privilege of going on a keto diet. I suppose you could say she had a certain brand of moxy that I’ve never seen from anyone on any diet. This whole “forget it” attitude that was actually empowering.

Every time I found myself locked in an especially ugly battle with food and self-loathing, I knew I wanted a way out and I remembered Dr. Herrin’s attitude, so, I eventually began looking at “food freedom” on Google again.

Several articles I found online about food freedom and intuitive eating talked about the rise in registered dieticians pointing their clients away from dieting. It was fascinating for me to click on all of the links and follow each dietician onto Instagram, where they were sharing all sorts of graphics and tips to help people change their relationships with food.

I was cautiously and nervously intrigued. A lot of the women who do food freedom coaching wear straight sizes and fit my definition of conventionally slim and attractive. For me, a woman who’s been over 300 pounds for most of her adult life, and who’s also dealing with the disfigurement of lipedema, I felt out of place. I wasn’t sure if food freedom was meant for me. Sort of the way that “body positivity is for everyone,” until you find out that some of the gatekeepers don’t actually mean obese bodies.

To be fair, I didn’t know if any of these slim dieticians could even understand me, but then, I ran into one on Instagram who was consistently putting my struggle into words with so many of her posts that I knew I wanted to work with her.

So, I did.

I’ll be honest. Working with Bonnie on food freedom was really, really hard for me. I never second-guessed myself so much before. We talked so often about recognizing hunger and fullness signals that I thought she’d surely grow sick of my constant uncertainty and anxiety about listening to my body.

When the program was over, I knew I’d made a lot of progress with adjusting my mindset about food, but I wasn’t happy with myself. I still had this feeling that I was a failure, and I still felt that if I was really doing a good job with intuitive eating, my weight would have gone down, and it would have been very noticeable.

Since I still felt so bad about myself for not losing weight (as far as I could tell), I easily jumped back into my binge-guilt-restrict cycles. There was a difference, though. Taking at least some of Bonnie’s lessons to heart, I tried to be gentler on myself about my binges. I also tried to keep more “junk food” in the house in an effort to make peace with my food.

By then, there were definitely aspects of intuitive eating and food freedom that made a lot of sense. But I struggled to get things to “click.” Even with the lessons from Marcia and Bonnie under my belt, it’s like I was just feeling my way through the dark.

While I don’t think I ever officially gave up on food freedom, I was stuck on my desire to lose weight.

For a few more months, I couldn’t fully engage with intuitive eating because I still thought about it as a diet. Even when I worked with food freedom dieticians, I wanted it to be my diet-free answer to weight loss, and I felt like that was a pretty reasonable expectation.

During my sessions with Bonnie, I developed a painful infection on my upper thigh. Basically, I stuck a bandaid onto a developing “chub rub” sore, but it was really the wrong type of bandage and it wound up making more friction. Since it was one of those thin, ultra waterproof things, I couldn’t get the bandaid removed for a few days. By the time I got it off, I had a pretty painful skin ulcer.

It was miserable. I had to tightly wrap an elastic bandage around my thigh, just to hobble along and drive my daughter to school. I applied antibiotic ointment day and night and sprayed the wound with Bactine every time I had to use the bathroom. The sore was painful for weeks and I worried that I’d have to go to a doctor about it — which just humiliated me. It was one of the lowest times in my life because I was trying to do the food freedom thing and embrace “joyful movement.” I was trying to take back my life and make wise choices. But I suddenly couldn’t walk up the stairs or take a shower without horrific pain, and my legs are so large from my lipedema that I struggled just to clean and bandage the wound.

This was just last summer and it scared the heck out of me. How could I not want to lose weight after that? To be honest, there have been too many things over the past few years about being morbidly obese and suffering from lipedema that have made me feel as if it’s impossible to think about anything else. Walking has been more difficult. Using the bathroom has even been awkward.

All of these things I just… I don’t even talk about. Not really. There are so many layers of shame about being a fat woman in America, and about being “so fat” that it negatively impacts your day-to-day life. Over the years, I’ve internalized a whole lot of fatphobia too, so when I look in the mirror, I silently criticize how “I’ve let myself go.” Or, I ask what’s wrong with me to have allowed things to get so bad.

When I brought up these thoughts to Bonnie, along with my frustration about it being so hard to find decent clothing, she couldn’t relate to my life in a superfat body. No kidding. Plenty of people can’t do that. What she could do for me, however, she did. Bonnie affirmed my feelings as completely valid and talked about society’s inherent fatphobia. She reminded me that my lack of access to quality clothing or unbiased doctors is a diet culture problem, and not a “Shannon is terrible” problem. Even here in Cleveland, where it's not that unusual to be heavy, I've been nervous to deal with various doctors.

Bonnie also walked me through the concept of mourning the body I wanted. This is a big thing in intuitive eating — accepting that your vision of the ideal body might not be attainable. Most intuitive eating advocates say that diet culture gives us entirely unrealistic expectations about just how much control we have over our body weight, shape, and size.

A lot of us have spent our whole lives thinking that if we could just fit into a certain size, life would be better and easier. Bonnie talked about how some things might get easier, but not necessarily everything. And then she asked me to go through some of the adverse side effects I’ve experienced with diets — things like irritability, a greater fixation with food, declining social invites because I’m worried about breaking my diet, hair loss, poor sleep, and feeling cold all of the time.

There were other side effects, too. Things like regain, depression, and the feeling that my self-worth was directly linked to my adherence and success on a certain diet.

When Bonnie took me through another exercise where I wrote out the various qualities that make up the total person I am, my lack of healthy self-worth hit me hard. The worksheet she gave me had a simple line drawing of a flower. I was supposed to write out some of my positive attributes — one for each petal. This exercise made me cry. I realized that I had hated myself for so long just for failing to fit into society’s mold of worthwhile and good, that there wasn’t much left that I even valued in me.

I couldn’t actually fill up the petals. Even when I added something like “good mother” or “good writer,” I felt lots of caveats. I’m a good writer, but not a great writer, I thought. And I try to be a good mom, but there’s a lot I still struggle with and don’t do well, I added.

This is sort of the crux of intuitive eating. This is why it can feel so difficult to do. You have to finally face your feelings and the truth that even when it seems like all the sadness in your life relates to your weight, it’s really not all about your weight at all.

It goes deeper than that.

So, yes. Even after my 12 weeks ended with Bonnie, I still wanted to lose weight. It’s not the sort of desire that goes away without a fight.

I did, however, also recognize that I was really sick of diets at the same time. Everything Bonnie, Dr. Herrin, and every other intuitive eating dietician said rang true. It really was my long-running desire to lose weight and feel “acceptable” that kept me second-guessing myself.

Fortunately, some of the lessons about food freedom stuck with me despite such conflict. So, every time I considered another diet, I noticed more of the downsides. And I stayed stuck in that limbo for a few more months. It was always the same. Food Freedom on one side, Weight Loss or Diet Land on the other. I didn’t want the two outcomes to be at odds with each other, so, I tried to tell myself they didn’t have to be.

But they were. As long as I kept holding out hope for weight loss, I found it impossible to fully practice food freedom and intuitive eating. I still got hung up on “good” and “bad” foods. I still worried about calories, eating too much, and most of all, I still felt a compulsive urge to overeat. I also continued to feel like I had to skip meals to compensate because I still couldn’t seem to quit “overdoing” it with food.

Finally, it hit me. I could be fat and miserable while plugged into diet culture, or, I could be fat and happy because I’d repaired my relationship with food. And I thought about that for a while.

On the one side, there was Diet Land. I’ve certainly been there before. I could keep on restricting myself to cut out entire food groups and the calorie requirements of a toddler, but I was always going to be hungry. I would panic about every holiday and feel guilty about anything I ate.

Living in Diet Land meant accepting that my sense of self-worth would be forever tied to the food I ate and how much weight I’d lost. Or gained. I also knew that my desire to binge eat and “go off of my diet” was never going away, since I have a lifelong history of going up and down on the scale but never actually keeping the weight off. Shoot, even if I went through all of the pain of losing 100 pounds again, I knew the chance that I would keep it off for long was incredibly slim.

I thought about what that would mean for the rest of my life. I thought about the stress of going back and forth and going on another bender just because I ate something “off plan.” I also thought about how messed up all of that would be for my daughter. How she’d get older and I wouldn’t be able to hide certain dysfunctional habits anymore.

Then, I thought about what might happen if I lived in Food Freedom instead. How I could actually fix my relationship with food and quit binge eating once and for all. How I could possibly enjoy the holidays without fear. I might even learn to love my body regardless of my weight, shape, or size. And I thought about everything that would mean.

I could be just as fat as I am right now, but finally, quit feeling guilty about food. I could quit making myself sick on food, and quit punishing myself for feeling like such a failure.

I might actually lose weight. Some folks do. But even if I didn’t, I’d still be in the same boat with clothes shopping. Not a worse one. On the plus side, though, I might actually feel better about all of that. I might feel more confident and care less about what anyone else thinks. I might be able to get out and move my body more because I quit feeling so much shame.

Shame was key. As I contemplated my options, I knew that dieting and weight loss were never going to help me feel better about myself because they would always be rooted in shame. The confidence I gained in the past has been short-lived and was always contingent upon my perfection. Since I never could be perfect, I lived with some degree of shame surrounding my results.

Intuitive eating was a completely different animal. It’s hard to explain exactly how I knew that since I had never fully allowed myself food freedom, but it really resonated with me as a much more natural and healthy way to be. I suppose I saw Food Freedom as something much more practical than Diet Land partly because it better resembles the French, Mediterranean, and Japanese approaches to food. And while shame is such a detractor and demotivating presence in one’s life, I knew that freedom from shame brings about all sorts of healing.

So, I realized that I would most likely become a much happier and healthier person if I mastered intuitive eating. And if I stayed stuck in my history of diets and relapses, I knew I’d be miserable for the rest of my life.

As it turns out, holding onto my desire to lose weight was holding me back from experiencing food freedom. I began eating three meals a day and also eating to satisfaction without food rules. I quit judging myself as “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods and I stopped feeling guilty when I had six crackers instead of three. None of it came naturally to me at first. It’s easy to forget just how “normal” it is in our society to restrict food and then congratulate ourselves over the disordered eating habits that supposedly lead to weight loss.

It all got easier, though. And I definitely noticed a greater sense of control after just a few days. Like a lot of long-term dieters, I have never actually felt “in control” of my food before. In the past, I often felt that I was just one bite away from a full-blown binge.

Fully embracing food freedom has been a game-changer for me. After practicing it for several weeks, I feel as if my life is so much simpler. I can eat a meal and move on. Every once in a while, if I need a snack? I do the same thing: eat and move on. I’m no longer nervous about holidays, or the nights when my daughter asks if we can order a pizza. We can enjoy a fast food meal without my having an internal meltdown about where it will lead me that night.

Now, I can’t even remember the last time I woke up miserable because I binged the night before. I no longer even feel that compulsion to stuff myself. These days, I feel like I’m no longer scared or “fuzzy” about making food choices. And it’s given me more energy, too.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still morbidly obese and if my body releases some weight, I understand that it will take a lot of time. Even so, my recurring leg ulcers have been healing without new ones cropping up, and I’ve been walking without pain. It’s become a bit easier for me to do certain tasks that were becoming too difficult, like putting on socks or using the bathroom. I know these improvements are happening because I’m actually leading a healthier life.

One of the most valuable things Bonnie taught me about intuitive eating was the importance of recognizing what I can and cannot influence right now. I can’t go out and get lipedema surgery right now because it’s too expensive. I can’t easily find affordable clothes I love in every way right now. I can’t make the world any less fat-phobic right now. For now, I can’t stop diet culture from doing what it does.

And yet? I can choose to honor my hunger and fullness to foster a healthier relationship with food. I can decide today to spend more time, money, thought, and patience(!) on finding clothes that fit me comfortably in the colors I love. I can learn how to advocate for myself when I run into fatphobia out in public or with my healthcare providers. I can set up my social media to tune out a lot of diet culture noise and instead follow intuitive eating experts and influencers for encouragement. And I can be kind to myself as I take this journey, free of guilt and shame.

A lot of that might sound super woo woo, and anytime we touch on self-love as the answer, there’s bound to be somebody telling us that being fat can’t be healthy or loving. But even if that were true (and health at every size advocates certainly beg to differ), how does it benefit an overweight person to hold them in contempt until they shrink down into a more socially acceptable size?

That’s what diets and fatphobia do: hold larger bodies in contempt and expect them to follow any disordered eating habit it takes to lose weight. It teaches us to be ashamed of our bodies. It suggests that we aren’t truly worthy of good things until we reach a “better” weight, shape, or size. That’s why as hard as it is to let go of our weight loss plans, I’d argue that the benefits are worth that initial sting.

Intuitive eating addresses the big picture of our overall health. Diet, exercise, and weight are only fragments of that. There’s also our sleep, mental health, relationships, self-worth, sense of purpose, and so much more. Naturally, our health suffers when we get caught up in fear, shame, or doubt.

It’s something I’m learning firsthand. Now that I’m focused on intuitive eating and food freedom, I pay better attention to the way food makes me feel. Do I feel tired, cranky, or bloated? And while I might not be losing weight (not that I’ve noticed, anyway), I still feel lighter. I sleep better. It’s a bit easier for me to take walks and go up the stairs. I don’t have such a fatigued feeling or the heaviness that I used to feel doing everyday tasks like taking a shower or preparing meals.

All I did was change my mindset about food and eating, but it’s made me feel a whole lot healthier both mentally and physically. For someone who’s been stuck in such chronic (and frankly, debilitating) shame cycles, that’s an enormous win.

So, here’s the thing about intuitive eating. You really can’t look at it as another way to lose weight, because then it’s just another diet. And our bodies really don’t like diets. They actually fight them pretty hard. But I know how inconvenient that seems because I understand the desire to lose weight more than most people. Wherever I go, I am typically the heaviest person in the room, yet, at the same time, I’ve also gone to greater lengths than many people to quickly lose excess weight.

This means I understand exactly what’s at stake. I know how much weight gain can impact our moods, work, and relationships. But dieting has never been the great remedy we all hoped it might be. And there are now decades of research to confirm it.

My wish then is to help you avoid some of the same mistakes I’ve made in my fight against fat. Mainly, that includes trusting diets and allowing my desire to lose weight to crowd out the rest of my life.

Intuitive eating works for everyone who ditches diet culture. That’s not because it’s some one-size-fits-all solution, but because it allows each of us to listen to our own body’s needs. I think most of us know when we have a poor relationship with food, but we hate to admit that our previous efforts at weight loss could have been a problem. It’s also difficult to admit how much our society endorses eating disorders for anyone who looks like they could stand to lose a few pounds.

My advice to anyyone interested in intuitive eating but holding back because they also want to lose weight is this. Consider what would be a better outcome for you: feeling unhappy with your weight and frustrated with dieting for the rest of your life, or, being heavier than you think you’d like but successfully repairing your relationship with food.

Most people who are honest with themselves sense what an enormous weight would be lifted if they could fix the way they deal with food. Just the notion that they could eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re satisfied, and quit overthinking it feels like nothing short of a miracle.

Most of us have given so much of our lives to the other mindset. We’ve bought countless books, gadgets, supplements, and gym memberships. Then, we’ve berated ourselves for failing at every turn. If you consider what’s at stake — peace with food and your body — I think you’ll discover that it’s worth giving intuitive eating a fair chance. I’m not saying it will be easy, because it’s not. There are so many diet culture lessons to unlearn, and you’ll need to do plenty of self-work to better grasp why you approach food the way that you do.

But yes, it’s worth it. Unlike diets, you don’t even have to spend a dime on products or programs. Coaching is optional but you can literally do it all for free. The biggest “investment” you must make is to simply let go of that desire to lose weight and focus on healing your relationship with food instead. I hope you do it. Even though I've got a long way to go, many things have improved for me. I can even walk into Crumbl's Cookies on Paul Huff Parkway and share a cookie with my daughter, guilt-free, because now I know I don't have to go overboard.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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