I remember the taste of my first diet: milk chocolate and metal.
It would be about a year after my body catapulted into puberty and I became increasingly mortified by the way it was changing. I made the decision in the locker room at the local ice rink as I gently ran my fingers along the elastic waistband of my shiny putty tights.
The older girls had always joked that one of the trainers, a five-foot-tall blonde named Barbie, whose voice had the characteristic rasp of a lifelong smoker, would threaten them with more cardio if she “could pinch an inch” of fat anywhere on their bodies. I felt the way the new soft curves of My the body was constricted by the pantyhose, especially around the stomach.
I wasn’t sure if there was an inch of meat but there was more than the previous year and that alone seemed like too much.
Falling into a crash diet was really easy. It was the late 90’s or early 2000’s, so I just raided my mother’s stash of SlimFast shakes and used them to replace two meals a day, usually breakfast and lunch, just as recommended by my mom. company itself. The smoothies were supposed to taste like chocolate, and they made it as I drank them. However, they left this film on my tongue that tasted like wet pennies, which I would readily cover with chew sticks and sticks of sugarless gum.
Within days, I was running on fumes. I felt dizzy when I lifted my head too fast and gasped for air as I skimmed the ice rink; but I noticed that both my tights and my school uniform pleated skirt were on the looser side. So, I finally let myself eat until my body felt full, confident in my new awareness that I could lose weight again.
Falling into a crash diet was really easy.
But from then on, I was always losing weight to something, and there was always a new diet staple to help me get there.
My best friend’s older sister, a volleyball player with her sights set on a college scholarship, was doling out advice she’d gleaned from the supermarket tabloids they read surreptitiously.
“Freeze the grapes,” he once wisely decreed. “That’s what Posh Spice does. He eats them instead of candy.”
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When I was 15, I transitioned from figure skating to ballroom dancing and was told I had to “lean out” to look even with a slimmer partner. I turned to plain ricotta topped with a ridiculous amount of ground black pepper paired with hours of uphill walking on the treadmill (because that’s what I’d heard “The Biggest Loser” contestants do off-camera).
When I was 17, it was lightly salted rice cakes eaten so I could fit into a wedding dress that I never actually wore. Then, when I was in college, it was plain dry chicken breasts eaten under the guise of “meal prep.”
When I finally got help for disordered eating in my 20s, there was a long list of foods that the diet had tainted in some way for me, and as I healed my relationship with nourishment in my body, I tended to avoid them. . I mean, there are endless options other than rice cakes, so why bother going back to them?
I didn’t think there was a reason to do this until about a year ago when my doctor advised me to cut out some foods to address some health issues that had been plaguing me. This left me in the bread aisle of my local supermarket looking for some gluten-free toast options on a late Sunday night.
The shelves hadn’t been replenished after what had apparently been a busy weekend so the selection was quite limited. I turned to Google: “Gluten-free toast alternatives.” After scouring a few lists of brands my market didn’t have, I saw where someone recommended rice cakes. They are crunchy and naturally gluten-free. I grabbed a bag off the shelf, wincing slightly at the “guilt-free!” label on the bag, and I added it to my cart along with some good almond butter.
The next morning, I was determined to put on my “food writer hat” and make something decent out of it. I coated one with a thick layer of almond butter and topped it with alternating rows of thinly sliced strawberries and blueberries because I’d seen a teenager on TikTok do something similar and thought it looked cute. I sprinkled the berries with some agave, some orange zest and a sprinkle of smoked salt. It was the most overly dressed rice cake I’ve ever come across and it was delicious.
Honestly, there was and is something incredibly rewarding about revisiting old diet foods and “reclaiming” them.
Honestly, there was and is something incredibly rewarding about revisiting old diet foods and “getting them back,” preparing them in new ways that speak to their potential as ingredients rather than shorthand for deprivation.
Over the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with chicken breasts all over again, this time through the rich and tender Hainanese chicken rice topped with a spicy chili sauce. Cottage cheese also lit up. As Amiel Stanek wrote in his defense of dairy for “Bon Appetit”:
What is ricotta if not yogurt with more texture or ricotta with more character? We dizzyingly tear apart juicy wads of burrata and garnish them with all kinds of high-season produce. But how different, I ask, is the humble ricotta from the creamy stracciatella and curds inside these whimsical-sounding balls of milk?
And the thing is, he’s right. Ricotta topped with market-fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, and a drizzle of good olive oil is a great summer lunch. Rice cakes have also held a place in my regular rotation, quite often these days as a vehicle for soy-smoked salmon, sliced avocado, and yuzu furikake.
That said, SlimFast can stay in the 90s.
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