Monday, May 6th is International No Diet Day, a day to celebrate the beauty and diversity of how bodies show up in the world, affirm every body’s right to live free of shame, stigma, and oppression, and learn the facts about weight loss, dieting, health, and body size. After working in the dominant weight paradigm for seven years as a “health research interventionist,” I started to wonder why we were focusing on weight, when it didn’t seem to be helpful and was starting to feel harmful. The six-month weight loss intervention “worked” in that people lost weight in the short term, and yet, within two years, the majority regained the weight, plus more. The participants blamed themselves for the weight regain, as did the researchers, so they started to look at ways to follow people and help them maintain their weight loss. I thought we could shift the focus away from weight, towards self-care from a weight neutral standpoint, and trust people’s bodies to sort out the weight. Around this time, I discovered a growing community of health care providers, promoting a Health at Every Size® or HAES® approach to health, who were concerned about the health effects of the war on people’s weight and were advocating for a weight-inclusive model of care.
The truth is that our bodies respond negatively to food restriction and dietary restraint. Diets follow a predictable cycle of initial enthusiasm and excitement (the honeymoon phase), followed by hunger, cravings, worry, and fear. Then the “screw it” phase begins and any weight that was lost comes back on. When this happens, we get mad at ourselves and we try another plan, or the same plan, expecting different results.
But it likely won’t be different next time, and this is not your fault. Diets fail because they do not work sustainably over time. People who chronically diet and weight cycle experience a “diet backlash”–increased rigidity regarding “good” and “bad” foods, restriction leading to increased binge eating, reduction in trust of self with food, feelings about not “deserving” food, social withdrawal, and shortened duration of dieting episodes. The body loses tolerance to dieting, and the inability to maintain a restrictive eating pattern is a sign of health, yes, HEALTH!
Pursuing weight loss is not a way to “take care of yourself.” Chronic stress and weight dissatisfaction influence your health. Feeling dissatisfied with your body supports a state of being that is not holistically health-promoting. The fat shaming rampant in our culture places blame on people and their health behaviors as the primary cause of having a larger body size, while leaving out all the other factors that influence weight and health.
When we believe “thinner is better,” we are disparaging the beauty, worth and inherent human value that comes in people of all sizes. Hating on our bodies and only conditionally loving ourselves inadvertently supports a limited set of acceptable ideals that have been established by industries that want to make money off of our shame. Until we shift our focus, we will continue to pass on the harm, disregard, and limited living dieting promotes to those who come after us. We are the ones who can change this. Here are some recommendations for a path forward:
- Stop investing in a failed paradigm. Stop blaming yourself. The path to freedom will not be found in another diet or program focused on weight loss.
- Beware of diets in disguise. The weight loss industry knows the word “diet” has become a four-letter word, so they’ve found all kinds of ways to repackage their offerings and rebrand while continuing to collude with the dieting mind.
- Reduce body checking behaviors like weighing, measuring, comparing, and scrutinizing your body in the mirror.
- Take a stand against fatphobia, size-ism, and weight discrimination.
- Reconnect with the messages your body sends about hunger, fullness, desire, and satisfaction.
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat and enjoy food.
- Root your self-care practices in weight-neutrality.
Let this be your guiding question:
If you woke up tomorrow and lived in a weight-inclusive, body affirming world, where you never had to worry about being judged for how your body presents to the world, where all bodies were welcome, what would you want to do to take care of yourself?
Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD is a trainer, mentor, yoga teacher, and dietitian specializing in Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating. She is the co-founder of Be Nourished, a community based outpatient clinic and professional training institute that created Body Trust®—a strength-based, trauma-informed, scientifically grounded healing modality that encourages movement toward a compassionate, weight-inclusive model of radical self-care to address body oppression, heal body shame and associated patterns of chronic dieting and disordered eating. She was once an adjunct professor in the Eating Disorder Certificate program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, and coordinator of the Columbia River Eating Disorder Network. For more information about her, visit www.benourished.org.