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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat a Cheeseburger

Illustration by Eliot Wyatt
Illustration by Eliot Wyatt

I first heard the saying at age 15, at a Weight Watchers meeting in a charmless church rec room in my Ohio suburb. I had a school dance coming up, and the only thing I wanted was to look hot in my formal dress so I could make out with someone, anyone. The meeting leader told us that whenever we found ourselves craving our favorite food, we should invoke these hallowed words: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” I followed that mantra faithfully for three months and lost 30 pounds. It became my personal rallying cry.

In the 15 years that followed, I was many weights and many waist sizes. But the consistent thread was the feeling that my body was not what it should be — a force I had to push up against by obsessing about the food I ate.

In that respect, becoming a food writer had a certain twisted logic to it. My life already was food, my brain a riot of pirouetting Weight Watchers point counts and shimmying nutrition labels. Roused from a deep slumber, I could tell you within seconds how much fiber is in a serving of raspberries (eight grams) or how much sugar is in my bowl of oatmeal (13 grams, 20 if I add maple syrup).

Of course, when food becomes your career, you can’t live off Lean Cuisine and low-fat yogurt. You have to eat actual meals in actual restaurants, where each dish contains more butter than I have in my fridge right now. So I learned to hedge, insisting on sharing dishes so that I could have a few bites of everything but still leave hungry. When I did have to face down, say, a 15-course tasting menu, I’d game out how to enter my meal into the MyFitnessPal nutrition tracker so I could know how much to atone for later. (An actual thing I have Googled: “Alinea edible helium balloon nutrition info?”) When dining on my own, I’d arrive at a lusted-after restaurant only to order a chaste salad.

Then, in January, something snapped. I was sitting at the bar of the downtown seafood restaurant Portsmith, trying to estimate whether the beurre blanc on the sole or the Greek vinaigrette on the salmon had more calories, and it hit me how unhappy I was. I realized how much joy I’d sapped from my life in the pursuit of an arbitrary number on the scale.

My constant dieting, instead of improving my well-being, was rendering me anxious, depressed, and exhausted. And so, so hungry.

I put down the menu, turned to my boyfriend, and blurted out, “I’m done dieting. Forever.” He took my hand, smiled, and said, “OK.” I ordered the fish and chips, and ate every bite. It was fucking delicious.

Since then, I don’t just appreciate food, I revel in it. I find new joys at every meal: in a tangle of supple pasta at Monteverde, in the way the juices stream down my fingers when I bite into the burger at Owen & Engine, in the crispness of the roasted carrots at the Publican. My meals are more balanced and fulfilling. I sleep better, have more energy, and feel less stressed.

Occasionally, when my stomach strains against the waistband of my jeans, that cliché will echo in my head again. But then I take another bite of my burger. It tastes way better than skinny feels.

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