Kelsey Miller hates the diet industry. The Refinery29 writer has spent much of her life obsessing over calories and “good foods” and “bad foods,” with her weight yo-yoing in between each diet, until she decided to try a different way.
She discovered intuitive eating — a nutrition philosophy that’s based on listening to your body’s natural hunger signals — and documented her experience in a column, The Anti-Diet Project. Since the column launched on the lifestyle website in 2013, she’s appeared on countless news segments, been named a body image hero and wrote a memoir, “Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Found a Life,” released last month by Grand Central Publishing, which further details her lifelong issues with dieting.
amNewYork spoke with Miller about her column, book and approach to healthy living.
Your column has such a personal focus. Why do you think it connected with so many people?
I really think it was probably just that. When you’re vulnerable with other people, and with readers certainly, that resonates. I knew that my story was not remotely unique. So many people, I think women in particular, feel troubled with food and body image and messed-up relationships with fitness as well. I sort of hit my own rock bottom with that, and I knew that there were others who were probably feeling the same way. I think we all know in the back of our heads that the whole dieting thing doesn’t work, but sometimes you need that shoulder shaking, and I had that myself. I wanted to share those lessons I learned along the way.
Do you have a sense of how the project has grown?
I was really lucky and surprised that it really did perform very well right off the bat. When I started it was every other week. Between the first and second column I ended up on “Good Morning America.” That’s a pretty good response. Certainly Refinery29 has grown a lot since then, and my readership has grown a lot since then. I have a healthy mix of loyal readers who return for the column every week, and I do think I get new readership. I get emails every day from people that just discovered it. Maybe the topics of body positivity and the rejection of dieting are more popular in the zeitgeist now.
Who have been some guest contributors for the Anti-Diet Project?
I had a great piece from Jes Baker. She had her book come out earlier this year, “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls.” I had Elna Baker, a wonderful storyteller and writer and comedian that wrote a story over the summer about what it was like after she lost 110 pounds and actually had skin removal surgery, and the reality of your body after that. She shared a bunch of personal photos which was incredible. I recently ran an excerpt from “Fat Girl Walking,” which was really cool. I’ve had a lot of voices. I read every pitch I get. If the writing is strong and the angle is something I feel needs to be shared, I’ll work with nonprofessional freelance writers to get their story out there.
Your project is also about sustainable fitness. What does that look like and mean to you?
I feel it’s the opposite of what I was doing before. I was very all or nothing. If I was in diet mode, I was really totally obsessive. I didn’t think it was exercise unless you hated every second of it, and I worked myself up to the point of injury. Or, years would go by and I wouldn’t bother walking to the subway, I was so sedentary. What I mean by sustainable, or rational, fitness is just the difference between those extremes — being a gym junkie or someone who feels totally alienated by fitness — and just being an active person. This is the first time I have a regular exercise habit, and one that’s not totally based on counting calories.
What is your fitness routine like?
I do like to go to the gym in the morning, I go to Equinox. I try to make sure it’s a mix of cardio and weight training, or resistance training, things like Pilates. Like many people who were diet-centric like I was, I felt like cardio was the only important thing, and you had to do as much of it as you could. I had that awakening myself. It didn’t happen as fast as the whole dieting thing, but my relationship with fitness has evolved slowly. I feel so much better now, really able.
Do you take classes like Pilates at Equinox?
I try to do different classes. Equinox has ones that have intimidated me. When it’s intimidating I feel like I have to try it so you don’t live with that fear, even if you hate it. I’m really excited — they have this new boxing one I would like to try, I feel it would be a good, emotional, cathartic experience. It also looks really fun. I have also done Pilates at Brooklyn Strength that I learned about through Jemima Kirke when I interviewed her for the Anti-Diet Project last summer. Her trainer, Cadence Dubus, owns that studio. It’s really small, and it’s got a good vibe. It’s a wonderful place.
How did your memoir come about?
The Anti-Diet Project took off, and I started hearing from book agents and I got this opportunity. Of course, it was always one of those dreams of mine to write a book, but it never seemed like a dream that would happen. So when I got this opportunity it was very exciting. I felt there was this other side of the story to tell that wasn’t in the column — how I got in this mess in the first place, and the back story of how I got trapped in this life of dieting and what happened when I got out of it.
You mention going to therapy in your book. Was that a way to address your relationship with food?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the first time I went to therapy was when I started gaining weight as a kid. In my mind, all my problems tied to food and body, and on the other side of that — if you just lost weight, all your other problems would be solved as well.
Why do you think intuitive eating worked for you?
It just gets you back to that common sense we all have. We all have instincts that help us eat the way we need to eat, in a way that’s both satisfying and fueling. But I think most of us have pretty much lost connection with that instinct. Everything around us is telling us we’re doing it wrong, and telling us the ways we should be doing it right. It’s not just me, I think most people could use a little getting back to common sense. Also, it’s something that isn’t sexy or glamorous and doesn’t make grand promises the way Weight Watchers does. It’s doesn’t promise everything will be great in the end. I think it works because of that, because it gets you back to just eating like you normally would if you were just listening to your own body and brain instead of everyone else in the world.
Do you recommend going to an intuitive eating specialist?
For me, I realize I was very lucky. It was in large part because I was writing this column that I got this help. I would say if you can, it’s incredibly helpful. It makes a very big difference because I think when you’re first getting into this, you can feel like, “I’m crazy, I’m wrong,” because everyone around you is doing their cleanses and eating clean and going paleo, and you feel like the weirdo because you’re eating a sandwich, just because that’s what you would like to be eating. If you can’t, the book [“Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch] is indispensable. I go back to it myself and it’s really helpful. It’s not jargony, it’s not culty. It’s common sense. There’s also an enormous online community of people. Just having that support of knowing you’re not alone makes a big difference.
In your book you mention Internet trolls. Is that something that still deal with?
I don’t. Honestly, it’s not because I made some grand effort to stop doing it, it’s because I kind of got bored with it. I used the comments to sort of fuel that voice in my head — “You are crazy, you’re doing it wrong, you’re a big fat failure.” Those trolls were just saying, in my case, things I believed about myself. There was a part of me that wanted that, that was a comfortable way of thinking, and I guess I don’t really need it anymore, thank God. I don’t dive into that well anymore, I don’t engage with it. I don’t believe in that voice in my head anymore.
Any new projects in the works?
The column continues. There’s always a new lesson, I’m not done learning lessons. I certainly hope to expand that and have even more content in the coming year. I write an advice column at Refinery29 now, I still write a number of features. And I am working on the new book idea. Hopefully I will have news on that in the coming year.
What are some of your go-to healthy restaurants in the city?
I eat all kinds of food, I like just good quality food for the most part. I think if you’re eating just well-made food, then that is probably healthy food. On special occasions I like to go to Peter Lugers — I don’t think anyone would consider that healthy food, but it’s the world’s most perfect steak. I love Souen so much. If you’re at all vegetarian, I think it’s an amazing place. My favorite dish there is the salmon with almond pesto.