First, Do No Harm | A Response To “Is the Anti-Diet Movement Leading Us Astray?”

a response to "is the anti-diet movement leading us astray?"

Trigger warning: the articles mentioned in this post contain diet language and weight talk.

“Is the anti-diet movement leading us astray?”

I have to admit – I scroll through social media a lot during the day, as I think most of us do. I think it’s fun to follow friends and blogs, and I love the HAES community I’ve found. It’s life-affirming for me to discuss my values with people that share them, and it refreshes me when motivation is low. But when I saw the above headline being shared in my circles, my mind started spinning and my stomach dropped.

Intuitive eating and HAES have gained a lot of buzz lately, but also (as with anything rising in popularity) a lot of criticism. Usually, I’m up for an open discussion! It’s not my job to show up perfectly for anyone else, nor is it yours. But I highly value IE and HAES, and I like to share that with others.

The problem is, these articles fail to understand even the most basic concepts of HAES. Instead, they take culturally acceptable norms and project them onto a movement aimed at challenging those very assumptions. They disregard the science, and put appearance on a pedestal. And they certainly don’t take into account the several factors that influence health (not one of which is weight). So, today I’m tackling some of the problems and assumptions in that article – because we as practitioners owe it to our patients and ourselves to first, do no harm. (For the record – the article did quote Rebecca Scritchfield, one of my favorite body-positive RD’s! It just included a lot of diet culture messaging and I’d like to clear some things up.)

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WHAT ANTI-DIET STANDS FOR

First of all, all of the articles I’ve read have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be anti-diet. Anti-diet doesn’t mean “disregard all health recommendations and exist entirely on highly palatable foods.” It doesn’t mean you don’t care about your health. Anti-diet is pro health.

Here’s some things we know: dieting predicts weight gain. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve outcomes. Weight stigma has negative psychological and physiological effects.

So instead of a stigmatizing, rigid, and harmful approach to “health” that applauds those with the genetics that allow them to achieve a culturally approved aesthetic, we’re offering an approach that fits and honors the health of all individuals. To slap a literal “one size fits all” recommendation on patients is a disservice to not only our patients, but ourselves – it’s lazy medicine.

When we recommend that patients leave dieting behind, we’re recommending that they release the pursuit of weight loss – an endeavor we know to be unsuccessful and mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. Focus is taken away from external cues like an eating plan or calorie count, and turned inwards to what you like, and what feels good in your body. Instead of eating trendy “superfoods” because we think we have to, intuitive eating opens us up to discovering a wide variety of foods that are pleasurable and satisfying to us. It’s not a diet. It’s freedom. (For more on how health behaviors align with a non-diet approach, read this and this).

Anti-diet stands for:

  • Value and care for all people, regardless of size
  • A flexible way of thinking about health that acknowledges differences between individuals
  • Fighting the assumptions often assigned to people in larger bodies
  • Defining health in a way that’s enjoyable to us as individuals

Weight is an outcome, not a behavior – meaning it’s not something that we can control. Instead of a focus on weight, the anti-diet approach places focus on the whole patient, health behaviors, and the patient’s wants and wishes.

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DIET CULTURE IS MORE EXTREME

Every time I hear someone describe this approach as extreme, I remember what it was like the last time I dieted. The crazy tactics I tried to use to avoid certain foods, force-feed myself the “trendy” health foods of the day, and how stressed I was if I ate more than my daily allotted calories. I’m not going to list actual eating disorder behaviors here, but let me assure you – they’re more extreme than diet culture.

The “extreme-ness” of dieting is viewed as “worth it” in our culture because of the high value that is placed on having a specific type of body. What diet culture is really saying is, “It’s only extreme if it doesn’t fit into my personal values”, aka: “I find it extremely shocking that you dare disagree with me.”

This viewpoint that anti-diet values are “extreme” seems to stem from social media. The argument is made that anti-diet posters show just too dang many highly palatable foods like pizza and ice cream. As my sweet friend Haley puts it, responsible social media means that if we’re going to show food, we have to show all of it. It’s natural and normal to eat those foods, among many others. It’s fun to share pictures on social media. And nobody is obligated to sit there and type a pages-long caption about how much they ate of the pictured food or what decisions went into choosing that food.

Diet culture has done such a loud and effective job of stigmatizing food, that we have to be just as loud and frequent in our posting of those “forbidden foods”. If there’s one thing I want my followers to know, it’s that I don’t make my eating decisions based on what will look good on the ‘gram, or give much thought to if I have too many desserts back-to-back on my feed. Like unrestrained eating, those little square pictures will balance themselves over time.

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HOW IS THIS SERVING PEOPLE IN BIGGER BODIES?

Pretty well, thanks. A size-neutral and intuitive eating approach actually helps stabilize weight and improves health outcomes, as opposed to a weight-centric approach. Favoriting a weight neutral approach removes stigma and protects our patients from its effects. How are patients supposed to trust us if we don’t value their whole health? Who are we to decide who does and does not deserve a holistic, patient-centered approach?

When people ask “how does this serve people in bigger bodies?”, they are assuming that people in bigger bodies are automatically unhealthy, that they want to change their body size, and that they have control over their body size. They’re saying that the only health that matters is physical health, and that weight loss is the only way to get there (no and also no). The big takeaway: anti-diet is primarily about ceasing to focus on weight as an indicator of health – it’s more of how we can use our internal cues and knowledge to guide healthful eating, sleeping, moving, and social patterns in a way that helps us live out our values.

Healthcare is a service field. That means we serve each and every person that needs our help and knowledge, and that we don’t discriminate based on anything.

You deserve quality healthcare. You deserve to be heard. You deserve to be viewed as a whole person, not one value. So no, the anti-diet movement hasn’t gone too far. It’s not even halfway done yet.

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Intuitive Eating Basics

intuitive eating

New to the Abundantly Enough series? Make sure to read about Health at Every Size here before reading this post!

health at every size

I chatted about the basics of HAES the other day, and now it’s time to dive into the “how” you can live a healthy and fulfilling life without diets and rigid exercise plans! First up: intuitive eating. Note: this post is mostly informational, where I’ll explain what intuitive eating is and a bit of how it works. I linked resources at the bottom of the post if you want to do some reading, and I’ll be posting soon about breaking the diet mindset/learning how to eat intuitively!

WHY DIETING DOESN’T WORK

There’s a lot of science and evidence behind why diets don’t work, and that’s a whole post for another day (this is a good read if you want to get a jump on things). Today, we’re using a simple graphic to describe/relate to how diets and bingeing go hand-in-hand and perpetuate the restrict-binge cycle.

This graphic shows the relationship with dieting and how it feels and looks when diets fail. Remember: you are not failing. By breaking food rules/eating, you are responding to your body’s natural drive to eat and fueling yourself. Diets are failing you by creating an unnecessary and unrealistic eating environment that makes you feel crazy around food.



If you have some hangups about this graphic, here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Have you ever tried a diet that “worked”? And I mean, worked for 2+ years – not provided short-term and temporary weight loss.
  • How do you feel emotionally when dieting? Do you feel the need to avoid social situations where there will be food, or feel out of control when you eat certain foods?
  • Is dieting sustainable? Are you constantly starting a new diet or trying new tips?
  • What would your life look like without diets? What would you have more time for?

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INTUITIVE EATING BASICS: WHAT IS IT?

Intuitive eating is a concept/philosophy/process that helps you develop a healthy relationship with food. And by “healthy relationship”, I don’t mean always eating foods we think of to be healthy. I mean that through intuitive eating, you can become a competent eater who…

  • Recognizes and responds to hunger and fullness cues
  • Can be calm around highly palatable foods (ex: brownies, cake)
  • Tunes into food cravings and desires
  • Guides eating with gently applied nutrition
  • Enjoys food from a variety of groups and flavors, without wanting to “make up for it” or planning a new diet the next day
  • Thinks less about food overall

I go over the principles of intuitive eating in this post, but basically: IE is a way of eating that tunes you into your own body, not external cues like rules or diets. By taking away limits, you open yourself up to discover what foods you truly enjoy and allow balance to find you. When you start eating intuitively after a long time spent dieting, it’s possible that your intake will be both more than you expect, and will mostly focus on foods that you’ve been restricting for a long time. That can be scary, but know that A) the tighter you’ve been restricting, the more time it may take for you to stop craving those foods, and B) this too, shall pass.

Here’s some questions to help you start thinking about your relationship with food…

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are likely turning to external cues like a diet plan or food rules to help you decide what to eat, rather than listening to your own body. But don’t worry – that’s what intuitive eating is for!


INTUITIVE EATING RESOURCES

One of the first steps you can take towards eating intuitively is to arm yourself with information. If you’re reading this post and it’s speaking to you, chances are you’ve already hit diet “rock bottom”, or you’re close to it. If you feel frustrated with dieting or like you continue to gain weight despite several dieting attempts, intuitive eating is for you. Recognizing that frustration is the beginning of what can and hopefully will be a very freeing experience!

Here’s some more helpful resources:

GETTING STARTED: THREE ACTIONABLE STEPS

RESPECT YOUR CRAVINGS

Eating what you really want is satisfying and allows you to move on from that eating experience feeling calm. Avoiding what you want to eat is a surefire way to promote obsession and possibly overeat that food the next time you have it. So instead of avoiding the fries, order them, enjoy them, and carry on.

BE CURIOUS, NOT JUDGMENTAL

Because diet culture is so loud, I think it’s really easy to judge food in general – whether it’s in a commercial, in conversation, or on our own plates. Instead of using those food rules to judge, let’s shift to being curious about our intake. What guides your decisions? Do you eat when bored? Does a certain food/group sound good only when you’re stressed? Do you have more hunger on days you move more? Exploring your body objectively allows you to understand your motivation more and tune in to your intuition more.

BE IN THE MOMENT

I’ll be real: the process of transitioning from dieting to intuitive eating is active, not passive. Because you’ve been shutting out internal signals for so long, you have to pay even more attention to them to know how to read them AND to encourage them to talk to you. So in the beginning, it may feel like a lot of work – but it does get easier and more natural as things go along. Think of it as a learned skill that becomes a habit. In the beginning especially, try to eliminate distractions while you eat and just be in the moment. Think about how your food tastes, feels in your mouth, and feels in your body. Maybe eat a little slower if you have time, so you can feel how your body fills up. (I know this isn’t always realistic because of work and real life and kids and pets, but trying it when you can is so helpful)

COME JOIN US!

This post is part of the Abundantly Enough blog series, where my friend Amy Shen and I talk about all things HAES/intuitive eating/joyful health. Come join us in our Facebook group for extra conversation and content!

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A Gentle Approach to Nutrition

intuitive eating and gentle nutrition

There’s this misconception that when we begin to eat more intuitively, we’ll immediately go out and eat only energy-dense (cupcakes, bread, fried items) foods, and I think it’s pretty ridiculous.

For one thing, all foods are part of a healthy eating pattern if you are aiming to listen to and satisfy your body as opposed to micromanaging its size via food. Healthy eating requires enjoyment and pleasure! Also, respecting your cravings actually makes you less likely to restrict/diet and then binge as a result, meaning you can eat without the back of your mind screaming that the diet starts tomorrow or you’ll have to run/swim/whatever xxx miles to “make up for it.” The bottom line is that your motivation for nutrition has to come from a place of body respect – not an attempt to change your body.

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