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The "Diet Rule" That Changed My Life

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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Diets are a lot like religions: They're all basically aiming for the same thing, but each faith has its own set of specific beliefs and practices. Then there are the sub-groups within those factions who interpret the rules slightly differently — especially when it comes to food: Legumes are forbidden during Passover (except if you're Sephardic); Islam prohibits alcohol, though Alevi Muslims may drink; Catholics were bound to abstain from meat on Fridays until 1966, when the pope was like, "Oh, go on, have a burger."

I don't say this to trivialise religious faith (okay, sorry about the pope joke). But when I think about my history with diets, nothing else compares to the fervency of my commitment. Diet was my dogma: Thou shalt not eat pasta, save for that made of rice flour. Ice cream shall be observed on cheat days only (and also your birthday, the High Holy cheat day). But the second those food rules became commandments in my mind, I, a sinner, yearned to stray. There was one rule in particular — an agnostic law, applied in every diet plan I followed: Do not — lest ye incur the mighty wrath of hell — eat after 7 p.m.

Many foods were sinful, but all of it became forbidden fruit after 7 p.m. (or 6 p.m., or 8 p.m. — three hours before bed was the actual rule). Depending on the diet, the 7 p.m. rule was about blood sugar, metabolism, or simply eliminating post-meal snacking. It didn't matter how much weight you wanted to lose or how you were trying to lose it — fasting three hours before bed would do it. Therefore, I could never do it.

Because of its ubiquity, I believed in this rule more than any other. If I stopped eating before 7 p.m., I knew I was thinner the next day. Sometimes, I was right, when I interpreted the rule as, "skip dinner, forever." Other times, I read the rule as, "Eat all the chips and guac you can before the sun goes down." Then, not so much. Either way, I was never able to obey the rule consistently. A few weeks of late-night compliance would pass, before I'd find myself standing shameful in the kitchen, gorging on Cool Whip by the light of the moon.

When I finally quit the diet cycle, quitting that rule was one of the best parts. At last, I was free to eat when I was hungry, even if it was 8:17 p.m.! I didn't have to atone for getting home late from work and quickly scrambling some eggs for dinner, and then collapsing into bed 10 minutes later. The movie's at 6:40 p.m., meaning we won't be at dinner until 9 p.m., so I'd better just cancel this date and — oh wait, never mind, that's insane.

Being liberated from the tyranny of the clock was exciting enough. But when, lo and behold, I did not burst out of my jeans as a result, I was pleasantly shocked. The time of day did not have an alchemical effect on calories after all. Joking aside, it felt like I'd been given back a whole third of my life. I seized the night.
Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Two years later, though, something else came along and seized my nights back.

Nausea has always been my body's go-to symptom. Anxiety, sadness, fear, excitement — it all gave me a stomachache. Whatever the cause, it always got worse when I went to bed, and I'm used to spending nights curled up and wincing with a bottle of Pepto Bismol. However last summer, those nights became more and more frequent and severe. Pepto didn't cut it and I was sick almost every night, sometimes to the point of vomiting.

The puking set off alarm bells in my head but I hit the snooze button on them, because surely this would pass. These bad tummy phases always did. After all, I was under unusual stress, trying to finish my book. That project had me overworked, under slept, and eating not-so-intuitively. (It was odd though, how things like olive oil, tomatoes, and any kind of meat suddenly triggered my nausea like they never had before.) I developed a new nervousness around food, which had nothing to do with the size of my stomach but the acute pain inside it.

I turned in the book but the night nausea continued. That's when I finally snapped out of it, wondering if maybe my lifelong history of "bad tummy phases" was more like "a symptom." I found a gastroenterologist, who — after taking my history, running tests, and doing a thorough exam — told me the obvious truth: "Acid reflux. Classic." I think classic is the medical term for duh.

Acid reflux had never occurred to me because I thought it was basically glorified heartburn (which I'd never had). But it turns out nausea is frequently part of that icky package. Considering the circumstances and evident triggers of my stomachaches, mine was definitely a duh case.

I was heartened when, rather than simply throw pills at the problem, my doctor handed me a list of ways to manage symptoms myself. But when I looked at it, the alarm bells came back. Alongside a list of trigger foods to avoid there was a whole host of "lifestyle changes." Anyone who's ever been on a diet knows what "lifestyle changes" really means: Rules.

— Don't drink water after a meal.

— Break meals in half and eat them 90 minutes apart.

— Stop eating three hours before bed.

Just when I thought I was out.

I walked away from the doctor's office waiting for panic to hit. I'd committed much of the last two years of my life (not to mention my job and my memoir) to quitting dieting, and here I was, about to start a new one. Only this time, if I failed, it would mean a life of constant pain and maybe even oesophageal cancer.

In the face of that terrifying thought, a funny thing happened: the panic didn't come. Instead, I was bathed in relief. I was elated! I'd had a "difficult stomach" for so long that it never occurred to me I might not have to!

Only when I was given this list of guidelines did I realise how long I'd been living in two distinct states: nauseated or in fear of becoming nauseated. I'd been devoted to my newfound freedom to eat, but when I wasn't looking, food had become a source of stress again. Just as when I was dieting, eating now ruled my social life (leaving the party early to go home and soothe my tummy), my romantic life (sex and vomiting? Nope.), and my mental outlook. It's hard to find joy in the day when you're dreading every night. I don't exaggerate when I say that Xeroxed piece of paper felt like a kind of salvation.
I did take the pills for a few weeks, to ease my symptoms during the transition. I learned that certain soothing foods I'd been eating to try and relieve the nausea (like avocado and peppermint) were actually triggers. I stopped guzzling ice water after dinner (and instead started sipping it before meals). And I stopped eating three hours before bed. There was no stress and no guilt. There was only instant, unimaginable relief.

Months later, the 7 p.m. rule — once my greatest torment — has become an ally. I embrace it, I'm grateful for it. I never worry about "breaking" it because it's really not a rule anymore. I do sometimes eat later at night now, but that's my decision — not a transgression. All the guidelines go out the window occasionally, because there's a special occasion, or I worked late, or the guacamole at a restaurant is just that good. When those incidents happen, I don't waste a second worrying over it. I'm not a dietary devotional anymore. I'm just trying to enjoy my life, my body, and my food.

Most days, I gladly eat dinner early. I go easy on the onions or decline a rich dessert. Sometimes I feel a little pang, wondering if I'll regret the tiramisus not taken. I never have. In fact, I enjoy the ones I do eat even more, because I don't do so with fear. I trust myself to listen to and care for my body in the long term.

This is what so many people misunderstand about intuitive eating. It's not a hedonistic binge where you eat pizza ‘round the clock because you can. It's allowing yourself to eat for you and your body — not anyone else's rules. Without the rules, there's nothing to rebel against. So you don't rebel.

Lying in bed one night, miraculously comfortable, I realised this is what they mean when they say, "It's not a diet. It's a lifestyle change." I'd gone to bed a little peckish, but opted out of snacking. That too, was a choice — and not a punishment. I didn't do it based on the false belief that I would wake up thinner. I did it knowing I would have a peaceful night ahead and a better day tomorrow.

Isn't that what we're all seeking in the end?
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