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After 17 years of dieting, I’ve finally stopped and learned to love myself as I am

Constant diets became mentally exhausting for Amy Bates – until she put on weight and began to love her bigger body

Amy Bates on her wedding day (left) and 10 years later, after finding her 'happy weight'. (Supplied)
Amy Bates on her wedding day (left) and 10 years later, after finding her 'happy weight'. (Supplied)

Amy Bates, 37, from Birmingham, spent 17 years on a constant and exhausting quest to be thinner. She’s now changed her relationship with food for good, given up dieting and learned to embrace her bigger body.

“I've always dieted, I don't really remember a time that I didn’t. Even when I was 16, I did the Atkins plan and would take sandwich boxes with slabs of cheese and cold pork chops to work.

Over the years, I've used meal replacement shakes and colon cleanse powders and followed WeightWatchers and Slimming World. My mum did those diets and there would always be low-calorie chocolate bars and low-fat yoghurts in the fridge, so I had those principles around me throughout my childhood and teenage years growing up.

I was never big, no more than a size 12, but I was bigger than my friends. It was just my body shape but, when you’re younger, that doesn’t sit very well, plus, I was always heavier than my mum by a good stone. I’ve always weighed heavy, even when my body was slim.

Shamed at work

I joined the police at 19 and had to have a medical examination where the nurse weighed me and I fell into the obese category according to my BMI. She could see that I didn’t look fat but she sent me away telling me I needed to lose weight. I felt so angry that she said this to me at such a vulnerable age, and it just reinforced what I was already feeling about the number on the scales.

Amy enjoying a night out in her twenties. (Supplied)
Amy enjoying a night out during her twenties which she spent yo-yo dieting. (Supplied)

Society is set up in a way where we think we need to be in a small body. Diet culture has become normalised and, when I was in my teens and 20s, that cycle of ‘I'll get back on it on Monday’ was a constant. There were years of frustration where I'd yo-yo between diets, losing half a stone, putting it back on again, not really getting anywhere.

By 27, I was preparing to marry my now-husband Adam. I went on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and did a lot of running to get into my slinky wedding dress. I was at the peak of my physical fitness when, before my hen party, I found out I was pregnant with my son Ryley, now nine.

Read more: Here's what happens to your body when you're happy

Food was my version of smoking or drinking or anything else people do excessively to comfort themselves, and so I decided I was fine with eating whatever I wanted because I knew I’d deal with it afterwards. I piled on four and a half stone and had pre-eclampsia towards the end which gave me water retention.

A girl I know made comments about how fat I was – which just reinforced this message that we’re not even supposed to be big when we’re pregnant. I was gutted. I was already very aware and conscious of the weight gain so having someone say it out loud like that was just horrible.

Amy with Adam attending a friend's wedding. (Supplied)
Amy with Adam, pre-marriage and kids, attending a friend's wedding. (Supplied)

Yoyo dieting

I lost most of the weight on a meal replacement diet and, two years later, I got pregnant with my daughter Cady, now six. I put a lot of weight on again and, afterwards, struggled with the headspace for a diet.

I’d left the police and I started a new business, opening a beauty salon when Cady was six months old. I was busy and got into the habit of grabbing Diet Cokes and chocolate bars on the go.

Read more: 3 in 10 girls under 18 have an eating disorder, finds major new study

When COVID hit, I started following diets that were all about healthy fats and proteins, but I still wasn’t losing weight. I hit a wall and started to recognise the fact I couldn't eat anything without having so much 'noise' going on in my head.

Every time I was preparing a meal there would either be a dialogue of ’This is a good meal. Aren't you a good person? You should be pleased with yourself’ or, if I was in a slump and eating something that I would consider to be bad, I’d think, ‘Look at you, you’ve got no self-control’. It was absolutely exhausting.

Tackling my food issues

Something needed to change and I started learning about body image and the psychology around disordered eating. I started to see an intuitive eating coach to work out how to eat according to my hunger and satisfaction, to learn to stop restricting myself and having rules around ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food.

Amy Bates, pictured recently, says 'changing the dialogue' in her head around food has been life-changing. (Supplied)
Amy Bates says 'changing the dialogue' in her head around food has been liberating. (Supplied)

It was like therapy and there was a lot to unpick. One of my issues was a real fear of hunger, which I came to realise stemmed from my days as a policewoman. There were times when I was very, very hungry and wasn't able to get food because of the work we were involved in, so that made me overeat because my brain was telling me, ‘You don't know when you get to eat again.’

Another issue was the concern about how my relationship with my mum would be affected if I was fat, because I’d grown up with her always dieting.

After about six weeks of sessions with the coach, all the noise in my brain and the heaviness of mealtimes and eating started to fade away. I finally stopped thinking about counting calories and began to see food as nourishment for my body. I’ve now got much better at leaning into what my body needs.

Read more: Teenager with fear of food who only had hot chocolate finally recovers – what is the eating disorder 'ARFID'?

If I’ve been running, my body might be craving protein so, the other day, I had a tuna melt for breakfast because I no longer have rules about what I should eat and when.

Sure, there are days where old thoughts creep back in, but I’m better equipped now to shut the noise out – if I’ve eaten rubbish, then I’ll think I'm feeling rubbish not I am rubbish. I’ve changed the dialogue in my head and it’s absolutely changed my life.

Learning to love my body

It's like I've had an item on my to-do list for so many years and it’s no longer there. I'm just happy existing in this body. My relationship with my body now is about it working well and being healthy and what it does for me, letting me exist in it and getting me from A to B.

What it looks like isn’t the most important thing. I coach other people on body image now through my company Beauty Rebellion, and encourage them to look at their strengths, their values and what is in their hearts and minds.

Our partners, our family and our friends, they love us. Sure, we have an attraction to our partners, but you don't have a long-lasting relationship with a person based on the fact they’ve got a small bottom. They fall in love with your heart and your mind.

Amy Bates says she's a better parent since developing a healthier mindset around food, pictured with her two children last year. (Supplied)
Amy Bates says she's a better parent since developing a healthier mindset around food, pictured with her two children last year. (Supplied)

Ditching the scales for good

I stopped weighing myself 18 months ago. The last time I stepped on a scale, I was 16 stone and it blows people's minds that you could be 16 stone and say ‘That's fine’, but I now eat to nourish my body. I'm also training to do the London Marathon with my best friend.

Training for a marathon is hard for anybody but it's really hard when you’re bigger because you’re not set up for that – but it doesn't mean that I can't do it.

I’ve never exercised before for any other reason than to lose weight. I would run because I was going out for a big meal later, it was always about punishment and reward.

Read more: Workouts not working? Experts reveal the reasons why you're not seeing progress

Now, I’m doing it for my best friend, who is running even though she has been diagnosed with bowel cancer and is having chemotherapy, and to see what my body is capable of doing. It’s the first time I have gone running and not come home checking whether my belly looks flat or my bum looks smaller.

My mind is clearer, I’m calmer and it’s even made me a better parent because I’m equipped to help my kids grow up establishing a healthy relationship with food and exercise – and themselves. I’m so much happier and have way better self-esteem than I ever did when I was younger and thinner.”

Sponsor Amy in the London Marathon and raise funds for Bowel Cancer UK at JustGiving.com.