The internalised messages of needing to be in a particular sized body are very strong in our culture. And extremely damaging to women's mental health and wellbeing.
Have you heard that weight loss diets don’t work, but only 95 % of the time? Its true- statistically, they actually pretty much all backfire long term. But because they all tend to work in the short term, dieting is a perfect way to make women feel inadequate and guilty for not being strong willed enough to continue. Dieting has also caused so many women to have eating disorders that these have become normalised. Do we even remember what it is like to eat ‘normally’, as we did as kids (if we were lucky)?
I have been through a bit of a revolution in my own thinking around weight issues and diets recently due to my own experience, and doing some reading and research. I love to research and learn (and unlearn) things that completely change my thinking around a topic, especially a health topic.
Doctors and other well meaning people including natural health practitioners, often can’t see past a weight issue and presume fat people are lazy and overeat, wheras that isn’t usually true at all but is a cultural sterotype and bias. Rather than focus on health and the reasons, often financial or social for poor lifestyle patterns, health professionals often focus mainly on weight loss for health issues in people who weigh more than the societal ideal, which actually doesn’t work. This approach leaves people feeling disempowered, unheard and unseen, and further prone to self ridicule that they can’t do something they think other people can do- lose weight.
Pretty much no one can continue a calorie restricted diet indefinitely, because the body has such deeply wired survival mechanisms to defend against starvation.
These survival processes include:
Slowing down the metabolism when we eat less, making us cold and sluggish
Making us hungrier than ever, literally
Making food taste better than ever, especially the high caloric forbidden ones
Making us obsess about food
Lowering our mood
These mechanisms frequently induce a bingeing impulse to balance the starvation effect. Familiar?
The science around dieting is actually pretty clear. Restrictive dieting (of calories, of whole food groups such as carbs or fats) doesn’t work long term. We cannot in the long term usually override these primal, evolutionary mechanisms which are designed to make us find food and eat it, now, when we have undereaten.
So, after the first high from the enthusiasm, good intention, excitement and determination to finally become the ideal size we want to be, and the rush of positive feedback from initial weight loss....it becomes gruelling, and we become miserable, but we hang in there for varying lengths of time, telling ourselves it will work this time and we can eat like this forever.
This can last for weeks or even months, even a couple of years for some. But 95% of people do not maintain their weight loss and have returned or exceeded where they were before dieting, within 5 years. Not because they are weak but because their body is doing what is is designed to do, and doing it very well. It is designed to survive! It can override our conscious mind quite easily. We are not weak, we are perfectly normal. In fact, we are the descendants of the people who didn’t starve because these mechanisms were so strong!
So why do we want to lose weight in the first place? For many people it is because of an ideal in our heads that was put there by the advertising and fashion industry, and then reinforced by the medical industry. We are not all meant to be the same size, and the BMI scale is not so scientific as you might think.
Why not focus directly on the health issues....and the lifestyle, dietary, exercise prescriptions and social support that will support the health issues...rather than the weight? Telling people to lose weight hasn’t worked yet- why do we keep doing it?
It is possible to be healthy and weigh more than the BMI scale tells you is healthy. In fact, carrying some extra weight improves longevity and recovery from illness, according to good studies. The science behind everyone needing to be slim for best health is not actually solid at all, but it is so entrenched in our culture that even despite evidence to the contrary, health professionals keep teaching it and focusing on weight rather than health and wellbeing. And when the issues are often social and economic disadvantage, it completely misses the mark.
Self love, self kindness, self acceptance, are so much healthier for us than disordered eating patterns will ever be. But ask any teenage girl and half of them at least will be on a diet of some sort. It starts young, and it is the antithesis of self love, and it leads to disordered eating patterns. And when we eat in a disordered way, listening to external authorities and ideals we have internalised, instead of our own natural appetite, we have lost touch with what our body wants and needs.
We have lost touch with what normal eating looks like and replaced it with ideals and beliefs (which change regularly - low fat, low carb, vegan, keto etc). Normal eating means we eat when we are hungry and sometimes we eat when we are not hungry. SOmetimes we naturally eat more such as when feasting or in social situations, and we eat what feels good to us- and we are in touch with what we feel like eating- we eat intuitively, naturally. Our weight does stabilise and our appetite varies. We listen to our bodies. We enjoy our food but it becomes a normalised part of our life, not an obsession. We don’t think about food all the time, or about our weight all the time. We don’t obsess about what we can’t have, or how we should look. We enjoy our bodies, our natural appetite, food and movement, in a more natural way.
I was on a post-menopausal diet (to lose a few kgs). I considered it was working and beneficial and had the initial weight loss and even maintained for a year. Then I became obsessed with food, and ridiculously hungry. My next meal was all I could think about. I realised something was not right about this, and my picture of what I should look like and weigh was skewed and not worth the food obsessiveness. And it wasn’t working anyway after a while. I could feel my metabolism slowing down, and I had to eat less and less to maintain the lower weight. Something in me recognised I had to let go and follow my natural appetite and let my weight fall where it will. Then I did some reading (such as the books I have listed at the end) and recognised myself in them.
When we deprive ourselves of what we crave, we can become obsessed with it (which can lead to bingeing). When we have permission to eat what we want, it loses its power over us- although it takes a leap of faith to trust that it will. Of course, we also eat for emotional reasons, which is natural....and if the disordered eating patterns are triggered by trauma, or started in childhood, or extreme, it can take some unravelling and healing, perhaps even needing counseling and trauma work. What is clear though is that believing that the disordered eating and dieting culture will resolve the underlying trauma and “weight issues”, or that focusing on weight will resolve health issues in the long run, is misleading. It just doesn’t.
Here are a few books if this topic intrigues you, and you would like to be free of yo yo dieting and disordered eating, and come back to enjoying food and eating normally.
I am a practitioner who is embracing this way of thinking, and I wish to support people of any size and weight to be healthy, to resolve health issues including those traditionally associated with excess weight and to feel relaxed and free of weight loss fixation, the diet industry and unrealistic ideals. This may involve some unravelling of conditioning, and some re-learning to love and accept ourselves as we are, and only from here can we be free and comfortable in our own bodies, and kind enough to ourselves to respect and listen to the wisdom of our bodies.
Body Respect : What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out and Just Plain Fail to understand About Weight by Linda Bacon PhD and Lucy Aphramor PhD
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole
Health at Every Size by Lucy Bacon PhD
The Fuck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
Body Beautiful by Anuschka Rees