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It’s not surprising. The world around us is continuously telling us our bodies need to be small(er) to be healthy and attractive.
Thankfully, there seem to be small chinks of light in the fatphobic tunnel. The amazing work of the Health At Every Size movement, populated by knowledgeable, talented, skilled and generous dietitians, nutritionists, therapists, coaches, doctors, academics, yoga teachers, personal trainers, writers, speakers, artists… (the list of allied professionals is long…) with books, blogs, YouTube channels, research labs, powerful social media accounts and extraordinary podcasts, are starting to wake people up to the futility of dieting and worrying about their weight.
More and more, mainstream media outlets are featuring articles on the problems of a focus on dieting: it doesn’t work for long term weight loss and increases incidences of weight cycling and weight stigma, which are linked to health problems. In addition, the evidence for improved health being achieved by weight loss just isn’t there for the vast majority of people. It’s health-promoting behaviours that impact health. Weight loss isn’t a behaviour.
This is encouraging!
But you still want to lose weight, right?
…even though you know from your own experience, never mind the growing list of academic studies, that any time you’ve followed a diet or a new ‘healthy lifestyle,’ you’ve perhaps lost weight initially, but inevitably you’ve regained it (perhaps gaining more than your starting weight).
You might even have dug deeper and explored why (given what you know) you still want to lose weight.
You want the ‘best’ of both worlds, as you see it. You want to achieve a smaller body (to avoid anti-fat bias – whether that is health or appearance-based) without the problems (and futility) of dieting. Perhaps you understand that your pursuit of weight loss maintains or even increases fatphobia with all of its associated mental and physical health problems. You may even feel some shame or guilt about this (please let it go – it’s not your fault you feel this way.)
Something catches your eye. Someone offering weight loss without dieting…
You see an ad, or a blog. Or someone shares something on social media that looks intriguing.
Perhaps how someone lost weight without dieting. How they’re ‘so much healthier now’. How they’re so happy they can ‘fit into their old clothes’ again. How they ‘changed their lifestyle.’
They may even have achieved this result over a fairly long period of time, which makes it all the more compelling because they’re not advocating a quick weight loss, which you already know is doomed to fail.
With the increase in research and media coverage about the ineffectiveness of dieting, the weight loss industry has changed its tune. ‘Diets’ and ‘dieting’ have been replaced by ‘lifestyle change,’ ‘healthy eating’ or ‘eating for wellness.’ Just look at the recent rebranding of one of the world’s biggest weight loss companies as a blatant example.
That same range of professionals mentioned in the long list above might be offering you weight loss without dieting.
Even worse, they might be calling it Intuitive Eating, Mindful Eating or Health At Every Size (HAES) – all of which are weight inclusive with size acceptance at their core. If you see anyone offering weight loss in the name of any of these, please, run a mile.
This is how it can look
- “We know dieting is bad for your mental and physical health, but we also understand that being fat is bad for your mental and physical health. We’ll help you lose weight so you can look better and feel better, without depriving yourself.” *(In case you missed it above, it’s weight cycling and weight stigma that are far far far worse for your mental and physical health than a stable larger size, for the vast majority of people. Also ‘looking better’ is only a ‘thing’ in a fatphobic world.)
- “There’s a difference between weight loss and fat loss. Weight loss you do through dieting, which we know is bad for us; fat loss we do through specially targeted nutrition and exercise, without deprivation.”
- “Mindful Eating has been shown to help people lose weight.”
- “If you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re reasonably full, you’ll automatically and naturally lose weight because you won’t be overeating.”
- “Once you stop eating emotionally, you’ll lose weight effortlessly.”
- ‘It’s all about mindset! When you have the right mindset, the weight will drop off.’
- We know you want to lose weight and it’s absolutely your choice. But dieting is harmful. Come work with us, we’ll show you how to change your body in a safe, sustainable way.
I could go on.
OK, I will: one last one because it beggars belief. It’s a rather stunning example of what the awesome and magnificent Fiona Sutherland of The Mindful Dietitian calls ‘splinterassing.’ It means you’re sitting on the fence to the degree that you’ve caused such a deep split in your you-know-what, it’s now riddled with splinters :).
A prominent personal trainer recently made the case that even though people are aware of the mental and physical health risks of dieting, they keep doing it. The only reason he could come up with for this was that people must be addicted to dieting. He compared this to smoking: even though there are health warnings on packaging, people still smoke, because they’re addicted to nicotine. His solution? Do what they’ve done for smoking: accept there’s an addiction, and help people engage in the addictive behaviour with less damage, like vaping. His way of helping people do this is by name-swapping – similar to what the whole dieting industry is doing. He swaps ‘weight loss’ (which he says is bad, because you have to do it by dieting) for ‘fat loss’ (according to him, this is good and you do it with his special formula).
What he misses entirely is that promoting or promising fat loss is exacerbating fatphobia – which drives what he calls an addiction to dieting .
If the world was safe for people at higher weights to exist, to get their needs met and to live without prejudice in the world, how many people would be ‘addicted’ to dieting?
So, what’s the problem with trying to lose weight?
You might understand that dieting itself doesn’t work for long-term weight loss, but what about trying to lose weight without dieting? What about trying to lose weight by eating more of the foods you’ve been told help weight loss and less of the foods you believe hinder it? What about exercising more? Or cutting out alcohol?
The first thing to say is that what we weigh is the result of an incredibly complex process. Apparently, there are over 100 genes involved. Your size is said to be up to 70% determined by your genes. That doesn’t mean your genes determine you’ll be a specific clothing size. It means your genes determine how you process macro-nutrients, how you respond to periods of starvation (we call it dieting), how your hormones respond to various things, how your body responds to stress, environmental conditions, how your unique metabolism works – and so on. This is not my expertise and I’m simplifying this massively, but if you’re interested, you can listen to an incredibly informative podcast on weight outcomes here. The bottom line is that there is a very small amount of our weight (5-10%) that is within our conscious control.
Given this, what are the costs of focusing on weight loss?
The social costs
It perpetuates weight stigma and anti-fat bias
- As long as people are trying to lose weight, the false beliefs that fatness is bad, dangerous, unattractive and unhealthy will continue to be reinforced.
- The faulty assumptions that fatness equates to laziness, greed and a drain on resources will be perpetuated.
- People in larger bodies get worse medical treatment, aren’t as well paid and don’t get promoted with the same frequency or speed as smaller-bodied people – this too will be perpetuated.
Pursuing weight loss is an individual choice – but the impact isn’t only felt by the individual. It’s our culture that needs to change its attitudes to make it safer and more equitable for bigger bodies to exist safely in the world, just as attitudes have had to adjust to make it safer for gay people to exist safely (in some parts of the world). We still have a long way to go to make the world a safe place for people in minority bodies.
Culture is made by human beings. It’s up to us to decide what kind of culture we each want to be building.
The personal costs
It destabilises body image
- You might think that losing weight will improve body image – but it doesn’t. The only reason it does is through receiving temporary external approval and temporarily experiencing less anti-fat bias. However, at the same time, the person is either worried about how long it’ll be before they start regaining the weight (thereby losing that approval and regaining the stigma), or thinking they still don’t look ‘good enough’ and need to lose more.
- Weighing, measuring and body checking in mirrors, are behaviours associated with a focus on weight loss and poor body image.
- Also, people who are weight stable tend to have a better body image than people who yo-yo.
It destabilises trust in your own body’s signals
- You’ll be more likely to ignore your hunger, because of the belief that going hungry results in weight loss. This just perpetuates the cycle of binge eating.
- You’ll be more likely to turn down foods you want to eat but believe are ‘fattening” – creating a sense of deprivation which inevitably leads ‘backlash eating’ or binge eating.
- You might over-exercise – or push through your body’s need for rest or repair.
It leads to obsession
- When you put your focus on losing weight, you don’t free yourself from obsession, you entrench it.
- With obsession come intense and what seem to be unstoppable cravings.
- You know when you can’t stop thinking about the cupcakes in the kitchen at work, but you know you ‘shouldn’t’ have them? That’s because of a restrictive mindset. Then what happens? You decide to have half of one. Then you think ‘I’ve blown it, may as well eat the rest of it and start over tomorrow.’ Only trouble is that the ‘I’ll start over tomorrow’ thinking makes you decide to have 2-3 more cupcakes because you won’t be able to have them for a while… sound familiar? You then call this ‘sugar addiction’ and try to abstain… which keeps this whole cycle going .
The bitter-sweet pill of the truth
What happens if you do all the things the weight-loss-without-dieting ‘expert’ suggests and you still don’t lose weight, which is a very real possibility, given what we know about weight science.
No one can guarantee what will happen to anyone’s body size. No one. In fact, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is so certain that any kind of lifestyle intervention in pursuit of weight loss will result in weight regain within 2-5 years, that they call it ‘Level A’ evidence. This is the same level of evidence for the statement that ‘smoking causes lung cancer.’ Let that sink in.
Let’s say you did start to feel better with this weight-loss-without-dieting programme because you were eating more fruits and veggies, perhaps doing a bit more exercise and getting fresh air, maybe sleeping a bit better, perhaps the weight-loss-without-dieting ‘guru’ included meditation in the programme and you were getting benefits from that too… But without the weight loss you feel like a failure again, and maybe throw in the towel on all the behaviours you were doing that were helping you feel better! What a waste!
Whether or not losing weight might indeed turn out to improve a person’s health or wellbeing, promoting or promising weight loss or a change in someone’s shape, whichever way you justify it, will cause harm, rather than wellbeing.
If what we want is to improve health and wellbeing, we need to
Focus on behaviours that do that
- not smoking
- drinking alcohol within national guidelines
- eating fruits and veggies
- and moving in a way you enjoy, that’s sustainable and honours your limits
Make the world safe for fat people to exist, by
- making fat-shaming a hate-crime
- making it as easy for fat people to live life as it is for smaller bodied people: think jobs, clothing, seating, hospital beds, access to medical treatment, basic respect etc.
- teaching critical thinking and how to examine explicit and implicit biases
Let go of weight loss as a goal
So that people can focus instead on doing things that make them healthy and happy, however, they might define that for themselves if that’s even a priority for them (and it may not be) and let their bodies settle at whatever size that happens to be.
Work on dismantling social injustices
For example, poverty and marginalisation are by far, the greatest cause of ill health on a population level – both mental and physical.
The good news and the bad news
The bad news is, anyone who’s attempting to help you lose weight or fat-mass with or without dieting is knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating harm, any way you cut it.
The good news is, you can improve your health and overall wellbeing without focusing on weight loss. While you’re doing this, you’re also improving the lives of people around you, simply by not perpetuating fatphobia.
This content was originally published here.