It’s as reliable as the seasons: the latest diet fad. In the past, it’s been Atkins, South Beach or the Mediterranean diet. This year it’s Keto and intermittent fasting. Next year, it’ll be something else.
If you’ve jumped on the dieting wagon, you know how it goes: You’re excited, because this is the one that’s going to work. You do lots of planning and portioning. You’re hungry, and you cheerfully suffer for the sake of the end result.
You lose some weight, and then some more, but then the weight stops coming off. You try harder and harder, you’re miserable, and nothing seems to help. Eventually, you give up…until the next diet comes along and the cycle continues.
If diets were going to work, wouldn’t they have worked by now?
It’s time to turn to a kinder way to treat your body — one that still lets you pursue the health benefits you were going for in the first place and one that doesn’t re-traumatise you! Here are five things you deserve to know about health, bodies and dieting, plus how to turn a failed diet into a body-friendly future.
1. You deserve to know the truth about bodies
The bad news: There’s a toxin affecting your body. The good news: You don’t need a detox or a juice cleanse, because the problem isn’t chemicals or heavy metals — it’s diet culture.
Diet culture is driven by the $452-million-dollar weight loss industry, and it’s what makes us think that all we need to be happier and healthier is to be thinner.
According to registered dietitian Christy Harrison, diet culture is “Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin ideal.’
- Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
- Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health,’ which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”
In truth, we know from actual science that diets don’t work. Our bodies want to protect us, and fight to maintain the reserves of body mass that help us survive famines and other emergencies. Most people who diet will regain the weight back within a few years, and many of those dieters will regain even more weight than they lost. We just don’t have a way to make bodies smaller in the long term.
2. You deserve to feel worthy
Before we dive into what factors can change your health, I want to emphasize that you and your body are worthy regardless of your health, regardless of your body size, and regardless of any health conditions or issues you may or may not have at this moment.
You are worthy, because you possess a human body, of dignity, respect and care. You are worthy of looking in the mirror and feeling neutral, or even positive, about the body you see there. You are worthy of proper healthcare, of clothing that fits you, and of a society that treats you like an equal and worthy being no matter what body you live in.
3. You deserve health – whatever that looks like for you
Learning that diets don’t work can make it feel like you’ll never achieve your health goals. But this isn’t a hopeless scenario! We don’t have a scientifically-backed way to make larger bodies smaller, but we do know that listening to your body and pursuing healthy behaviors can make the difference in a way that pursuing weight loss itself can’t.
Switching from a mindset focused on dieting to a mindset focused on healthy behaviors and listening to your body can be scary. We’re not used to trusting our body to provide us with feedback on how we should move or eat each day, but it’s the best guideline we can possibly have.
Thankfully, there’s a system to help guide us in learning to listen, and it’s called Health at Every Size, or HAES® for short. Health at Every Size® focuses on being compassionate with your body, learning what works for your particular body, and finding ways to work with your body to pursue health, rather than against it.
Created to give people a way to make peace with their bodies and still be as healthy as possible, HAES® uses science to debunk these myths:
- “Overweight” and “obese” people die sooner than leaner people.
- Being “overweight” or “obese” puts people at significant health risk.
- Anyone who is determined can lose weight and keep it off.
- Weight loss will prolong life.
- The only way for “overweight” people to improve health is to lose weight.
- Health is declining as a result of an “obesity epidemic.”
(You can read the full mythbusting here.)
But if none of these things are true, what should we do? Here’s what Health at Every Size® says:
“HAES® acknowledges that well-being and healthy habits are more important than any number on the scale. Participating is simple:
- Accept your size. Love and appreciate the body you have. Self-acceptance empowers you to move on and make positive changes.
- Trust yourself. We all have internal systems designed to keep us healthy—and at a healthy weight. Support your body in naturally finding its appropriate weight by honoring its signals of hunger, fullness, and appetite.
- Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Develop and nurture connections with others and look for purpose and meaning in your life. Fulfilling your social, emotional, and spiritual needs restores food to its rightful place as a source of nourishment and pleasure.
- Find the joy in moving your body and becoming more physically vital in your everyday life.
- Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and seek out pleasurable and satisfying foods.
- Tailor your tastes so that you enjoy more nutritious foods, staying mindful that there is plenty of room for less nutritious choices in the context of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
- Embrace size diversity. Humans come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Open to the beauty found across the spectrum and support others in recognizing their unique attractiveness.”
But does that mean that every person is always healthy at every possible body size? Size is not always a determinant of health. In Stop The fat Shaming: No-one is More Aware of Their Body Than a Fat Person, Founder of The Soul Centre, Jodie Gale writes,
“When I was in my eating disorder – I was thin, exercised excessively, restricted, binged and purged, smoked a pack of Marlboro Lights a day, drank Cherry Coke and shoved copious amounts of amphetamines up my nose to suppress my physical and emotional hungers. Now in a bigger body – I am clean, recovered from bulimia, I exercise regularly and I mostly eat a wholefoods diet.”
It’s also important to recognize that many people live with health conditions and chronic illnesses, and those conditions have little or nothing to do with whether that person is doing healthy behaviors “right.”
No matter your health status, we all deserve to be treated like equally worthy human beings, and deserve the ability to focus on pursuing healthy behaviors if we choose to.
4. You deserve to be treated with respect.
Health at Every Size® is just one facet of learning to appreciate and work with our bodies, of course. The more we work to live in the bodies we have, the more we increase self-worth for ourselves and everyone else.
Being just positively in passionate love with our own bodies, though, only helps us so much when navigating the world around us. Taking delight in your bangin’ hips doesn’t help them when they get banged up by a too-narrow chair at the doctor’s office!
That’s why Health at Every Size principles are vital for healthcare providers to learn, too. When providers focus on weight as a measure of health, warning signs get missed.
When a person over a certain size goes to the doctor and gets prescribed weight loss as a solution to a health concern, they’re getting set up to fail: We know that restricting food not only leads to bingeing later, but that since we don’t have a way to make bodies smaller long-term, that patient will inevitably weight cycle, disappointing both doctor and patient — and ignoring the actual reason for the initial visit.
This is also why a HAES approach is invaluable in treating eating disorders as well. With a focus on health, rather than weight, eating disorder treatment can resolve disordered eating without reinforcing the stigma around larger bodies that often underlies those behaviors.
Finding a primary care doctor or specialist who follows Health at Every Size principles can be as simple as doing a web search or looking in a directory, such as the HAES® Australia website or the International one provided by the Association for Size Diversity and Health.
Books like Body Respect and Anti-Diet are also fantastic ways to learn more about Health at Every Size and the science behind bodies and weight.
Dive deep and learn how to befriend your body…
As you learn more about pursuing health in your current body, it’s a good time to dive deeper into learning to befriend it, too. Jodie has created a free 65-page eBook called 4 Ways to Befriend Your Body that she would like like to offer you. It’s designed to lead you through improving your body image and self worth in four areas: body, mind, feelings, and soul.