I Spent a Week at a Retreat for Women Who Struggle With Weight and Food—Here’s What the Experience Taught Me
On a sunny March morning in a small town in Vermont, four women of different shapes, sizes, and ages sit at a square table with bowls of whole-milk Greek yogurt, honey, fruit, nuts, and oatmeal in front of them.
Hailey* appears slightly curled in on herself, her shoulders slumped. The 21-year-old engineering student from California easily the slimmest woman at the table, but has been body-shamed by her family since childhood, she says. “My dad started making me ride the exercise bike every morning before school when I was 6.”
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Next to her sits a cheerful, smiling 25-year-old, Stephanie. She has a sparkling new engagement ring on her finger and a good job as an accountant. But she’s been binge eating in secret for years, and deep down, she worries that her weight and disordered eating will keep her from “being anything important” in life. Rachel, 47, is a diehard yo-yo dieter who’s tried everything. Last year, after signing up for one popular weight-loss program for the sixth time, the medical professional and mother of three hit a wall: "I said, that’s it, I'm over this! I can't do this to myself anymore."
These women and a half-dozen others were having breakfast in the dining room of the country’s first and oldest non-diet retreat for women who struggle with weight or emotional eating: Green Mountain at Fox Run. Unlike weight-loss spas and “fat camps," there’s no talk of calories or fat-blasting cardio at Green Mountain. There isn’t even a scale. The program takes an anti-diet and weight-neutral approach, based on research showing that mindful eating and movement have major benefits—such as lower blood sugar, better body image, and less depression and anxiety—whether people lose weight or not.
The workshops, workouts, and even the dining room menu focus on building health-supportive habits that help visitors feel good and enjoy life, free from obsessions over weight and food.
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I first visited in 2016 when, after a decade of solid recovery from binge eating disorder, I began struggling with weight gain and emotional overeating again. What I learned was so influential that I decided to go back a few months ago, this time as a reporter for Health. Get ready: The lessons shared here could change the way you think about your body forever.
You didn’t fail at dieting, dieting failed you
“Many of the women who come to us are basically professional dieters—they’ve tried everything and feel like failures,” says Green Mountain executive director and licensed clinical mental health counselor Kari Anderson, DBH. “But the vast majority of people can’t stick to a diet or strict eating style. You may do well for a month or two, but inevitably life happens and you rebound. You may eat terribly and feel awful. Then, when you can’t take that feeling anymore, you gather your resolve and do it all over again,” she explains.
Research suggests that labeling certain foods “bad” or “off limits” creates a sense of scarcity that your brain and body react to in the same way they would if you lacked access to food because of outside factors like poverty, says Anderson. “It’s called ‘food insecurity,’ and it increases your desire for foods you can’t have, and can lead to binge eating or obsessive thoughts.” With a more flexible eating philosophy in which all foods can fit, you’re better able to make empowered, intuitive choices instead of getting stuck in a cycle of feast and famine, says Anderson.
Body comparisons are pointless
So, your best friend does Spin class five times a week and seems to thrive on her paleo food plan. That doesn’t mean you should do that too, says Green Mountain therapist Haica Rosenfeld, PsyD. “Every one of us really does have unique needs, abilities, and genetics. What works for one person isn’t necessarily right or even possible for someone else,” says Rosenfeld.
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To illustrate her point, Rosenfeld likes to show participants in her class on “Body Neutrality” a cartoon about dogs. In the short film by the Association for Size Diversity and Health, petite and fluffy poodles believe they’re the epitome of health and beauty, and that other dogs should be more like them. But what if you’re a mastiff, or a terrier? A starved, permed mastiff will never be a poodle. “You could be the most fit, flexible mastiff ever, but if you're trying to be a poodle,” Rosenfeld says—“you’re going to feel like shit!” a participant calls out. Exactly.
This concept of being neutral about your body, as opposed to loving every last thing about it, is freeing for me. Because I’m a self-help author and advocate for size acceptance, I sometimes feel as if I’m never allowed to have negative thoughts about my shape. Now I know that simple neutrality is enough if it allows you to honor, respect, and care for your body as it is.
You will be able to trust your hunger again
If all foods are allowed, won’t we all just stuff ourselves with pizza and ice cream until we die? If you’ve ever craved a salad after an especially indulgent couple of days, you know the answer. Guilt-free access to formerly “off-limits” foods actually decreases your cravings for them, says Green Mountain at Fox Run’s lead dietitian Dana Notte, RD.
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If we tune in, our bodies will send us signals about what and how much food we need. “On my way home from Green Mountain I stopped at the Vermont Country store and ordered a sandwich, broccoli salad, and a slice of pie,” says Mary Beth, 53, a tech professional who has struggled with weight gain and binge eating for decades. “I was eating slowly and mindfully and realized I was full after the salad and half of the sandwich. Later, after dinner, I was mindfully eating the pie for dessert, and after a few bites, I’d had enough. That was a big change for me.”
I had a similar experience recently after eating junky takeout dinners for days in a row: By day four, I couldn’t stand the thought of another French fry or pizza slice. All I wanted was a huge, crisp salad. Luckily, you can get those as takeout, too.
Mindful eating makes food taste really good
Each table in the Green Mountain dining room had a card with a “mindful eating tip” on it. My favorite one said, “If your food is starting to lose its flavor, that may be a sign you’ve had enough.” That lesson, like so many other lessons learned here, is almost revolutionary in its simplicity. Being mindful is just slowing down and limiting distractions while you eat so that you actually notice the food—and catch your body’s cues about whether you’re hungry, full, or even like what you’re eating.
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Being quiet can make a big difference, I realized one night during “silent” snack time at Green Mountain. (They discourage chatting during the p.m. snack because so many women have troubles with overeating at night.) The snack plates held two thick squares of delicious Vermont white cheddar; after mindfully eating the first, really tasting the sharpness and feeling the creaminess of the cheese, I realized I didn’t need the second square. I was a little sad about it—the cheese was so good! But I was happy to know that if I stopped to listen, my body would talk.
Others felt the same. “Some foods I thought I really enjoyed, I’m finding out that I don’t so much, like the fries at In-n-Out,” says Hailey. “I ate them by the handful. But when my boyfriend and I went for burgers recently, they were kind of tasteless. I had a few and then put them aside. My boyfriend was like, ‘Who is this person and what have you done with my girlfriend?’”
The scale might hurt more than it helps
Green Mountain used to offer women the option of being weighed the day they arrived and before they left, but they tossed the scales in 2016, says fitness manager Bibiana Sampaio. “We found that even if women had made huge strides, like being able to do exercises they never thought they could, or feeling comfortable in their clothes, or their digestive bloat had disappeared, they would deflate if the number wasn’t what they wanted it to be.”
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There are three possible outcomes when you step on a scale, says Notte: It says what you want it to say, it says you’ve gained, or it says you’ve lost, but not as much as you expected. “Two out of three of those scenarios kind of suck. There’s a greater chance that any time you step on the scale, it’s not going to tell you what you want to hear,” she says. What happens then, she asks participants in her “Measuring Success Beyond the Scale” workshop? “You feel guilty,” one woman answers.
None of these feelings and reactions are helpful for your health journey, says Notte. Besides, the scale is not as accurate a representation of what’s happening in your body as you may think: Weight changes significantly with hormonal fluctuations, water retention, if you gain lean muscle, or have food in your digestive tract.
Some women do notice changes in their size when they leave Green Mountain—it makes sense that things would shift after a week of mindful, guilt-free eating and plenty of exercise. Hailey told me she had to buy new bras when she got home. She can also easily crank out 30 minutes on the elliptical, when she used to get winded after the first few minutes. She’s holding herself differently, too. “According to quite a few people, I’m standing up so much straighter,” she says. “Apparently when I first got to Green Mountain I was hunched over and looking at the floor.”
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Stephanie feels more confident after her stay too. “I feel empowered to take care of myself—which seems like the simplest thing, but it’s so not,” she says. She makes sure she has breakfast every day, and brings lunch to work instead of skipping it and subsequently bingeing later.
When nutritionist Thelma Wayler founded Green Mountain at Fox Run in 1973, it was the only program of its kind. Today, her conviction that diets don’t work is a widely accepted mantra—and it’s getting easier to find providers who embrace a size-inclusive, non-diet mindset. To look for weight-neutral, non-diet health help near you, click on “Find an expert” in the “Resource” section on the Association for Size, Diversity, and Health website. Or scan provider sites for phrases like “intuitive eating,” “non-diet,” “weight-neutral,” and “size-inclusive,” says Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, author of the book Body Kindness.
Sunny Sea Gold is a health journalist and author of the book Food: The Good Girl’s Drug. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @sunnyseagold.
*Names have been changed