I’m a registered dietitian in private practice, so it’s probably no surprise that my phone is ringing off the hook this time of year.
I’ve heard from so many people this month, lamenting how guilty they feel about what they ate over the holidays. They tell me they feel uncomfortable in their bodies, that they are desperate to lose weight. Should I do Keto? they ask. Intermittent fasting? Weight Watchers?
My answer: None of it.
Whether we call it “dieting,” “eating clean,” or “trying to be good,” most people believe that restricting food is the key to being healthier and feeling better about themselves.
But here’s the truth: these goals are achievable without weight loss.
First, let’s dig into the science. Studies have shown that eating less doesn’t work over the long-term. At least 95% of dieters regain the weight they lose in two to five years, and up to two-thirds of cases they end up weighing more than where they started. In fact, researchers have determined that dieting is one of the strongest predictors of future weight gain; it also results in countless negative physical and mental health consequences. Yikes.
[M]ost people believe that restricting food is the key to being healthier and feeling better about themselves ... but these goals are achievable without weight loss.
I see this daily in my counseling practice. My clients often blame themselves when they are unable to stick with a diet; but let me assure you, it’s not a matter of willpower.
Biologically, dieting sets you up to fail. We all know the cycle: feeling we have overeaten “bad” foods during the holidays, followed by an urge to “get back on track” in the New Year. We get on the diet train for a while and cut out those “bad” foods. Soon enough, though, we’re hungry and craving the food we’ve eliminated. We “give in” and feel out-of-control around food again, followed by familiar feelings of guilt and shame. We think the answer is simply having better “self-control,” so we begin again. Rinse and repeat.
The problem (and, really, it’s not a “problem” at all) is that our body registers dieting as a threat to our survival. We are biologically wired to fight against it, and thankfully our bodies work just the way they are supposed to — by bringing us back to a maintainable weight and preventing future starvation threats.
Our bodies have a natural set-point weight, largely determined by genetics. And your body is determined to stay there. A helpful analogy: imagine your weight as a beach ball that you are holding underwater. You can suppress it with constant effort (dieting). But how long can you stand there applying pressure? Eventually, your pressure eases, and predictably, your weight floats back up to where it began.
So, if weight loss only sets us up to fail, what the heck are we supposed to do about our health?
The science is not as straightforward as you might think when it comes to the relationship between weight and health. While there is a correlation between BMI and certain health conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure), most research does not control for factors such as poverty, mental health, stress, access to medical care, body image, weight fluctuation from dieting and weight stigma. Experiencing weight stigma has been shown to be an independent risk factor for an alarming number of negative physical health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease and physiological stress — more of a risk than weight itself.
So, instead of focusing on weight in 2022, I invite you to try these health behaviors as an alternative to nourish your body and mind:
*Say ‘no’ to diet culture. Disengage from diet talk in conversation. Refrain from commenting on other people’s bodies or their food choices. Even complimenting weight loss, while well-intentioned, perpetuates the belief that smaller is better, and places value on appearance and unrealistic expectations.
*Learn to trust your body. Focus on listening to your internal hunger and fullness cues to guide you in when and how much to eat, rather than arbitrary diet rules or measured portion sizes. Eat foods that make you feel good and taste good.
*Make peace with food. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat foods you enjoy. Bake cookies with your family. Over time, this will eliminate your uncontrollable cravings. Once you knock those cookies off their pedestal, you will have the freedom to eat them when they will be the most satisfying.
You deserve to feel empowered, not discouraged, when it comes to your health and how you feel in your body.
*Move your body. Suppose exercise had no effect on your weight: how would you choose to move? What brings you joy? You might choose to take a walk with a friend, go ice skating with your kids, do gentle yoga.
*Rest and de-stress. Get enough sleep. Find helpful ways to cope with stress.
*Practice self-compassion and acceptance. It’s normal for your body to change over time. Consider what your body can do, instead of what it can’t. Your weight does not define your self-worth.
*Find anti-diet community and support. Explore Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. Challenge your own weight bias. Follow anti-diet social media accounts, join support groups, read books, listen to podcasts, find supportive practitioners (dietitians, therapists, doctors).
Taking the focus off weight might contradict everything you’ve been told by your doctors, the media, and your friends and family. I encourage you to consider the complex nature of health, the impact of living in a culture obsessed with thinness, and your own history of dieting. Has the pursuit of weight loss been sustainable? Has it made you happy?
You deserve to feel empowered, not discouraged, when it comes to your health and how you feel in your body. Let’s stop draining brainpower with thoughts of food, guilt, shame and negative body image. This year, recharge yourself with self-care rather than “self-control,” so that you can put time and energy into other parts of your life that you truly value.