To be blind is bad, but worse it is to have eyes and not to see. Helen Keller
Below are some common myths that stand in the way of un-dieting. Let's set the record straight!
“It’s Healthy to Diet”
“Dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain.” How do you feel about that discovery? Were you surprised? Upset? If so, you aren’t alone. The research about the harms of dieting took much of what I’d learned during my years of conventional nutrition education and turned it on its head. To put it bluntly, this is NOT what I learned in dietitian school. It took a while until I adopted a weight-neutral approach, but once you know something to be true, you can’t “un-know” it. The January 2017 issue of Today’s Dietitian ran an article titled “Metabolically Healthy Obesity: An Oxymoron or Medical Reality?” The concept is new even to dietitians! But the facts are that it is possible to be thin and metabolically unhealthy and it is also possible to be fat and metabolically healthy. With our Standard American Diet (the acronym for that is SAD!), it’s no surprise that nowadays many people do gain too much weight. The premise behind the Health at Every Size movement is that most of us stand to benefit from improving our lifestyles, regardless of size. However, it is a false assumption that every person living in a larger body must be eating poorly and living an unhealthy lifestyle. I am not anti-weight loss. Weight loss that comes as a result of beneficial lifestyle changes can be helpful. But weight loss for its own sake can be very harmful, on individual and societal levels. If a person is large because that is how she is genetically programmed to be and she lives a healthy, active lifestyle, then starting a diet to achieve a “dream weight” can set her on a cycle of yo-yo dieting that is far less healthy. The belief that we should all strive to achieve one particular body type is extremely detrimental, especially when it comes to the next generation. While 12 in 100,000 children have type 2 diabetes, 2,900 in 100,000 children have an eating disorder. Statistically, we should be worrying more about the prevention of eating disorders than the achievement of weight loss.
“If I Don’t Diet, I Will Gain Weight”
The primary concern people have when they consider giving up dieting is weight gain. They wonder how they can possibly maintain a healthy weight without keeping their intake tightly controlled. The first question they have about a non-diet approach is, “But can this help me lose weight?”
Perhaps. But not necessarily. Getting off the crazy diet train can help you normalize your eating and result in less rebound overeating, and this might result in weight loss. It might also not. If your body’s ideal weight is higher than you want it to be, and if you’ve been suppressing your weight by disordered eating, then stopping to diet and normalizing your eating may allow your body to reach its healthy set point, which can mean weight gain. Or, you might find that when you stop dieting and allow yourself to eat normally, your weight remains the same. Ceasing the restrict-binge cycle and feeding yourself in a consistent way can result in a stable weight.
Not dieting means that your body has a better chance of settling at its natural healthy weight. The factor that exerts the strongest influence on your body’s non-diet weight is your genetics. The other significant contributor is how you choose to eat. Making responsible food choices that result in a healthy lifestyle is important regardless of your size.
“Giving Up Dieting is the Easy Way Out”
It’s definitely not the easy way out, and I actually wish it were a lot easier! Many people in our society have internalized the thin ideal, the belief that the best body is a thin body and that thinness is equated with happiness and success. It’s understandable that so many believe that if they just achieve a certain image, everything else will fall into place. Rates of depression after weight loss surgery are disappointingly high, and one contributing factor is that it can be devastating to realize that just because one’s body has changed, everything else in life doesn’t necessarily change with it. This magical thinking, that happiness is at the end of the dieting rainbow, keeps many people stuck in a futile cycle of yo-yo dieting for decades. To an individual who equates thinness with happiness, whether consciously or subconsciously, giving up dieting can be too difficult to even contemplate. As mentioned above, a non-diet lifestyle can result in weight loss, weight gain, or weight maintenance, depending on your body type. There’s no guarantee. And if you are someone who has been fixated on achieving a certain image, being willing to face the unknown can feel very risky.
But dieting isn’t just about weight loss. It’s also about fitting in. Dieting has become such a dominant issue in our culture that if you aren’t dieting or feeling like you should be on a diet, you’re probably the odd one out, no matter what size you are. Not doing what everyone else is doing can be really uncomfortable. How many times have you sat down to a table with friends and NOT heard anyone bring up what they should or shouldn’t be eating? Dieting has become something over which everyone can bond. It’s so common for someone to start moaning about how bad they were on their diet and then get commiseration and reassurance from her listeners. It’s less common to hear someone criticize herself about how she lost her temper with her kids and felt like a horrible mother. It’s so normal to want to feel connected to others and have shared experiences, and talking about food is one way to meet that need. If you are no longer finding connection through discussing your weight loss journey, you may feel a void.
You may also miss the virtue you felt from complying with your diet. Were you “good” today? Dieters absolutely experience a high from having a “successful” day or seeing a lower number on the scale. It’s an instant way to get an ego boost and experience a sense of control and even worthiness. While the depression and shame that comes from “cheating” can be crushing, the euphoric part of dieting can keep you coming back for more. You remember how great you felt when things were going according to plan, and you may really miss that feeling when they aren’t dieting. The sense of physical and emotional wellbeing experienced from healthy, non-diet living is real and enduring, but it is not as instant as the dieter’s high. Giving up dieting takes courage, determination, and a strong sense of self-worth. No, it’s not easy.
“Not Dieting Means Giving Up on Yourself”
In the long run, dieting does not deliver on its promises of happiness and health. What it does instead is eat into your time, headspace, energy, and self-esteem. One of the questions I frequently ask clients is, “What percentage of your thoughts are about food and weight?” and it truly saddens me to hear responses of 80%, 90%, and even 100%. Dieting will probably not be your key to a smaller waist, but it sure can be your path to a smaller life. Replacing dieting with a commitment to taking care of the body you have right now opens the door to better physical health, greater peace of mind, a healthier relationship with food, and more space in your life for the people and things that that truly matter. After all, you don’t have a soul – you ARE a soul. You HAVE a body.
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