Throughout the Diet Myth series I’ve explored some of the reasons why I first got into dieting, as well as the ill effects it had on my body. As much as I strove to eat well and exercise for overall wellness rather than weight loss, dieting and counting calories became an obsession for me, as it is for so many others.
I spent too long thinking that the issue was with my lack of conviction – that I somehow didn’t want to lose weight badly enough, or perhaps that I didn’t deserve it. Seeing doctors who told me that I just needed to try harder obfuscated the reality, which was that dieting itself was what was holding me back, and even causing me to gain weight.
It was a difficult set of lessons to learn: that I’d been misled by media and medical professionals alike, and that beyond a certain point, my body size and shape aren’t necessarily within my control to change. It’s difficult to accept that there may simply be a certain body shape that will forever be out of reach – a hard pill to swallow, if you believe that your happiness lies in reaching that unrealistic goal. Most importantly, though, I learned that even if I do have the power to change my body, dieting isn’t the way to accomplish this.
I’ll be honest: I still struggle with body acceptance and self-esteem. It’s a battle I’m constantly fighting, whether it’s against images in the media, my self-perception, or even others’ treatment of me. It’s difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by the message that your body must look a certain way, and that, by extension, you’re a failure or worthless if it doesn’t. More difficult, still, when you’re contending against the commonly-held belief that your weight is easily within your control – surely if you just tried harder, you’d lose those last few pounds.
It’s no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise, as young women and men alike resort to more and more drastic measures as a form of weight control, with destructive long term side effects. And even people who seemingly epitomize today’s beauty ideals find themselves caught in the same trap of self-consciousness and insecurity, as model Cameron Russell’s candid TED talk about beauty reveals.
So, what now? If you’re like me, giving up dieting may leave a void in your life. It may be frightening or feel like a loss of control. When something becomes such a fixture in your life, so much a part of your daily routine, it’s almost like an addiction. Even after my diagnosis revealed that dieting was actually destroying my metabolism and any chances I had at controlling my weight, it still felt strange to no longer count calories or restrict my meals.
All of those feelings are normal, but there is a way forward. I have some closing recommendations for anyone who is trying to break free of their diet addiction and form healthier long term habits. Apologies in advance: this post got a little bit longer than some of the others, but hopefully you’ll find it’s worthwhile reading.
Evaluate why you want to lose weight
Do you really need to lose weight to be healthier? Or is it because you feel pressured by mainstream beauty standards?
You may not think it’s because of the latter, but the roots of body dysmorphia run deep. Over the years, even children have started dieting at younger and younger ages – now, girls in the U.S. begin dieting as early as age 8, and 42% of girls in first through third grade want to be thinner. These horrifying statistics highlight how early we receive the message that “thinner is better”, and how soon body hyperawareness becomes inculcated. With the message that thinness and physical beauty are inherently your worth as a person, it’s no wonder that we feel pressured to lose weight, even when it isn’t actually necessary for health reasons.
It’s worth noting that, throughout the years, women especially have been subject to a variety of unrealistic body standards, which are inevitably inequitable in some way or another, even when they may seem more realistic or attainable. After all, even curvaceous Grecian beauty standards would have excluded women who were naturally slim or didn’t innately have an hourglass figure. All beauty standards throughout the years have excluded someone in one way or another.
Recognize that health is the most important
In some cases, it may be medically necessary to lose weight, but in most cases, it’s worth remembering that body weight is not the best predictor of long term health. Most important is healthy habits that you enjoy, not the number on the scale. In fact, losing weight is not necessarily correlated with changes in cholesterol, lipids, and blood glucose at all.
What is much more certain is that lifestyle changes like eating well and exercising – regardless of your weight! – will increase your lifespan and make you more likely to succeed in the long term. Plus, if you focus on your health rather than obsessing over your weight, I can guarantee you will be much happier throughout the process.
Stop weighing yourself and counting calories
If it isn’t working anyway, why keep doing it? Your body will tell you what you need and when you need it. Dieting overrides these natural signals; it’s good to get back in touch with them, as well as learning to trust (rather than distrust) them.
Find diverse examples of healthy bodies
It’s worth remembering that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. It’s easy to forget this, especially when we are inundated by images in movies and magazines that only portray one kind of body type. Below are some links that serve as a useful reminder that weight and BMI are just numbers – and flawed ones, at that:
- Kate Harding’s BMI Project (SFW) reminds us that BMI often fails to account for muscle mass and in general is a very poor predictor of, well, anything.
- The Nu Project (NSFW): In their words, “a series of honest nudes of women from all over the world. The project began in 2005 and has stayed true to the original vision: no professional models, minimal makeup and no glamour. The focus of the project has been and continues to be the subjects and their personalities, spaces, insecurities and quirks.”
- The What’s Underneath Project (Mostly SFW, shows people in their underwear): In their words, “We’ve asked a select group of individuals to participate in a project in which they will remove their clothes to honor how style is not the clothes you wear. […] It is comfort in your skin, it is acceptance of yourself and others, it is knowing who you are, it is your spirit, it is immaterial, it is what’s underneath.”
In addition to looking at diverse examples of bodies and reminding ourselves that they are all beautiful and deserving of kindness, it’s also helpful to read stories about healthy bodies and self-acceptance. Some of my favorite blog resources for this include:
- Dances with Fat: A blog about one woman’s experiences with fitness and fatness.
- Gabi Fresh: Gabi is one of the foremost plus size fashion bloggers, and isn’t afraid to hit the beach in a bikini. She’s an inspiring, refreshing face in the fashion world.
- Shapely Prose: No longer an active blog, but Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose archives are one of my favorite resources for discussions around how body size and health are not directly related. She’s an indomitable force in the body acceptance community.
And lastly, some of my favorite body acceptance articles and reading:
- I Love My Fat Body: a story from a fitness video game designer who, like many of us, eats well and exercises, but is genetically predisposed towards having a larger body.
- She’s 350 Pounds and Olympics-Bound: Olympian weightlifter Holley Mangold is an inspiration and yet another great example that strength comes in many shapes and sizes.
- Mary Lambert On Body Acceptance: Singer Mary Lambert is yet another inspiration, and she is open and candid about her own struggles with body acceptance and self-esteem.
- Fat is Not a Feeling: An inspirational YouTube video from a young woman who has struggled with an eating disorder, and her personal path to self-acceptance. (Trigger warning: brief mention of sexual violence)
Treat yourself and others with kindness
Do you find yourself looking in the mirror and criticizing your appearance? Scrutinize yourself from various angles when you walk past store windows on the street? What about when you look at other people – if you’re a woman, do you look at other women and judge their bodies without even realizing you’re doing it?
Somewhere along the way, we’re taught to become harsh critics not only of ourselves, but of others. Whether you mean to or not, it’s difficult to view your body lovingly if you see the world through a judgmental lens. I’ve tried to break out of this destructive mindset with a few hacks, including:
- Paying genuine compliments to yourself and to others – Paying yourself compliments is a proven way to improve self-esteem, and giving other people compliments is a surefire way to boost their mood. You never know who else may be struggling with their own self image.
- Correct negative criticisms with positive responses – For example, if I ever have an automatic negative criticism of someone in my mind, I look for at least 3 positive things to admire about them instead (“Wow, I love her scarf”, “She’s got great style”, etc.)
- Go out of your way to admire other people – In addition to correcting inner negativity with positive follow-ups, I try to train myself to automatically find positive things I like or admire about people, even if they’re just strangers on the bus. You don’t have to say anything out loud to them – just think it to yourself.
- Admiring at least one positive thing whenever I look at my reflection – I used to reflexively think critical thoughts whenever I caught a glimpse in the mirror. Now I make sure to take a moment, pause, and find something I love.
It’s difficult to break free of these body-hating habits, but I have found that these tricks have helped deprogram my brain from making harsh, unfair judgments, and they also help me approach both myself and others with greater kindness, love, and compassion.
Approach diet and nutrition from a place of love and respect
I’ve found that if you approach diet and exercise from a place of self-hatred, you will often be unkind to yourself. I once viewed dieting as a form of punishment against a body that, in my eyes, didn’t deserve to be treated kindly. Restricting food was the dietary equivalent of being put in the corner for time-out, which is a broken system if you want to have a healthy nutritional outlook.
When I approach eating whole foods as a way to honor my body and exercise as a way to feel healthy and powerful, I am much happier and much more likely to succeed at my goals, which is corroborated by the study I previosuly linked where they discovered that a “Health At Every Size” approach to nutrition is much more successful long term than dieting.
Educate yourself on nutrition
- Eating what makes you feel good, and eating whole foods out of respect for your body
- Giving yourself permission to eat what you want
- Respecting your body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness
- Not demonizing some foods as “good” and others as “bad”
- Moving your body in a way that feels good to you
- Eating well and exercising as a form of honoring your body, rather than a form of self-punishment
- Loving your body regardless of its size
I also love the following books’ approach to nutrition:
- Have Your Cake and Your Skinny Jeans Too: Ignore the terrible, “thinspiration” title – I still found this was a useful resource on eating intuitively as well as moving away from viewing some foods as “good” and others as “bad”.
- The Metabolic Storm: Written by my diabesity doctor, I recommend this if you want to understand the scientific and medical reasons why dieting doesn’t work.
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight: I love this book’s approachable introduction to HAES principles and destigmatization of body size as well as food.
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works: The original book on intuitive eating that goes in depth about the tenets of its nutritional philosophy.
Additionally, if you have the resources to do so, try seeing an HAES or Intuitive Eating nutritionist who can help you put together meal plans and ensure you’re eating balanced meals. If you’re working out, make sure you are fueling before, during, and after your workouts – a nutritionist or a sports medicine doctor can help you put together a meal plan for your exercise routine to make sure your body doesn’t go into starvation mode.
If you are practicing Intuitive Eating or HAES and find that you keep on gaining weight, have trouble feeling full, feel hungry all the time, or feel sick or tired after eating, then you may have a metabolic or blood sugar issue, which brings me to the next recommendation.
Find medical professionals who understand your condition
As much as I love exercise classes, be wary of people in the fitness industry without nutrition backgrounds who try to give put you on a gym diet or try to sell you on low-carb or other fads, and run far, far away from any doctor who tells you that calories in/calories out is the foolproof way to lose weight or accuses you of not trying hard enough. Sadly, fat bias in medicine is an issue, and one that I’ve personally experienced in the past.
Don’t compromise on your right to see a healthcare specialist who treats you with dignity and listens to your concerns. If you’re having trouble finding a doctor who takes your health seriously, Mara Nesbitt’s guide to finding a fat-friendly doctor is an excellent starting point. If you can, see an obesity, metabolic, or diabesity specialist and an HAES/Intuitive Eating nutritionist. An endocrinologist may also be helpful if you suspect you have a thyroid problem. If you are concerned that you have a blood sugar issue, make sure your doctor is doing glucose tolerance tests that go beyond just your fasting blood sugar levels to look at the complete picture of what happens 90-120 minutes after you eat, as well as a complete metabolic panel.
Ultimately, I believe that we need to stop obsessing over diets and weight. We need to acknowledge that it’s less about how your body looks and more what you do with it. Our bodies do not deserve punishment. They are not untrustworthy, bad, or ugly. They’re beautiful, strong, and capable of so many incredible things. It’s time to stop the body torture and begin loving ourselves. Everyone deserves to be happy and healthy, and breaking free of dieting is the first step down that road.