The holidays are fast approaching and, in case you haven’t noticed, in their wake as the new year dawns, we will be assaulted by piles of guilt-inducing debris so vast and insidiously negative that we will most likely find ourselves mired in the rubbish. In this case, the rubbish, crafted by what many refer to as Diet Culture, will bring with it a generally-unproven but heartily accept belief that fatness is the worst that can happen to a human being while dieting is the cure. Further, Diet Culture implies that fat bodies are the result of laziness and other horrible personal attributes or lack of character that result in a host of disastrous circumstances, from personal ill health to societal economic hardship.
In contrast, throughout December we’ll be nudged toward temptingly sweet confections of every possible type, pushed into the arms of a loving and generous rotund chief elf (Santa Claus), and encouraged to partake in a significant amount of food- and alcohol-inspired jolliness. As January dawns, however, brace yourself! We’ll find ourselves clobbered with ads insisting our health and habits need significant retooling via some type of membership: gym, dance or other fitness center, diet centers (by whatever name they call themselves), food restricting programs, fasting, and ads running nearly nonstop hawking low-calorie options that hostesses in December would have considered an affront to their guests’ palates.
All this, based on solid science, right?
Uh, maybe not so much.
What’s a very fat, older woman to do? My plan: Practice self-care, educate myself, use joyful movement and gentle nutrition, and consciously avoid the media glut.
This year I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of the books I consider classics in this field: Intuitive Eating (I have the 3rd edition and the workbook; the 4th edition was released during 2020) and Health at Every Size. Other personal favorites include Body of Truth and The Diet Myth. I could list another half-dozen titles that I love because I began to take this self-care and self-education commitment seriously after decades of “successful” diets left me fatter. And fatter. And beating myself up. So much wasted time.
The book I’m focusing on today is one that hit the book sellers in December 2019. Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, written by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD.
The first part of the book focuses on Diet Culture itself, the $72 Billion a year selling machine that has a lot to gain by making people feel insecure enough to re-engage repeatedly with various hopefully-miraculous food restriction and/or workout regimens. This section also addresses fallacies about the effectiveness of weight-loss surgery and over-exercise as well as how restrictive eating impacts our glorious bodies as they work to keep us alive, even through self-inflicted famines (“diets”).
The second part of this well-written and intelligent book looks at a researched alternative: intuitive eating. (Please be cautious. Intuitive Eating is often twisted for resale into what is really a diet plan. Intuitive Eating is a multi-step process involving listening to our body and responding to our needs.)
Anti-Diet is a fresh 180-degree turn away from the diet-drivel that bombards us each year. Skip the published works hawking “new” (but oh-so-familiar) diets, food plans, lifestyle changes, and other terms that still mean restricting food in order to lose weight. Send that little rebel inside you to explore an alternative view and exercise your choice to look beyond the shameful and commonly accepted myths. I confess. I love those folks who dare to thoughtfully question the status quo (consider the work of a carpenter from Nazareth) and seek the truth (read about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment[i]), the ones who color outside the lines and inspire us to think differently (RIP RBG), if only for a moment.
Throughout Anti-Diet, rather than demonizing fat, the author addresses people in larger bodies and higher-weight people. As she points out, for most of human history we have been more concerned about getting enough to eat, but throughout history indications pop up that people in larger bodies received negative attention in some cultures while receiving acceptance in others.
In the US during the colonial period, those arriving in the Americas from Europe believed their way of eating superior to that of both the indigenous folks and the enslaved people brought from Africa. In a sense, diet culture seems born in ignorance to me. By the 1800s, when Europe moved away from enslaving people, Americans seemed to seek a rationale for retaining the economic advantage provided by the enslavement of human beings. Folks tapped into Darwin’s work, among others, to decide via their own mental manipulations that Anglo-Saxon northern European men were the most highly evolved of the human species, followed by northern European women, Southern Europeans (men first, of course), and other cultures progressively lower on the scale until they reached those they called savages: indigenous people and Africans. Fair-skinned, tall, naturally slender people were awarded what we might call today privilege, worth, or moral value. Their slender physiques became associated with goodness, strength, and intelligence. (See Chapter 1 for much more info and less of my interpretation.)
Of course, different body shapes have enjoyed moments of popularity, from full-figured Mae West to lean teenager Twiggy. In the general population, ideas about weight changed as well. Anti-Diet notes In the 1950s about 7% of men and 14% of women reported they were trying to lose weight. By the 1990s, 29% of men and 44% of women reported the same. Though the percentage of adults who dieted tripled, during that time the average weight changed little. Still, outrage grew in the 1980s and 1990s, centered on a set of numbers a task force that was funded by pharmaceutical companies came up with. As the author notes, “The “obesity epidemic” is really a moral panic that has a lot more to do with diet culture’s skewed beliefs about weight than with any actual threat to public health.” (Anti-Diet, page 47) Fatphobia and weight stigma, it seems, may contribute more to poor health outcomes than high weight. (Chapter 5 has an excellent explanation of this.)
What have scientists learned in the century of studies? **Large scale studies show intentional weight loss rarely succeeds long-term. For example, a 2015 study (278,000 people) showed 95% to 98% of participants regained all their lost weight within 5 years. (Page 89) **A review of data from weight loss studies in 2007 showed one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight gained back more weight than they lost. (Page 91) **What about allegedly-weak-willed dieters who end up in food binges? “And when you’re restricted or deprived of food, your body turns up the food-seeking signals because it wants you to survive.” (Page 95) That means binges following diets (remember, our bodies recognize these as famine) don’t mean we’re weak-willed. They mean our bodies are working hard to protect us.
What do we do about this Diet Culture that’s more about making money than helping people? The second part of the book dives into moving beyond diet culture and toward developing a different mindset about food (sorry, no more good vs. evil foods), intuitive eating, seeking health and body liberation, social justice, and relying on the power of a supportive community. In short, it’s all about what does work, with a focus on living fully and practicing excellent self-care…at any and every size.
The book wraps up with pages of citations supporting the material, a multi-page list of amazing resources, and, most importantly, a call toward reclaiming our lives, dismantling diet culture, and working toward social justice. Rather than include a sales pitch, author and registered dietician Christy Harrison[ii] challenges us to question the status quo and consider the cost of continuing to live in a culture that insists thin=good and fat=bad when the evidence does not support that judgment.
In my life, I’m still focused on the last of the IE principles (Movement-Feel the Difference and Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition)[iii] It’s tricky. Movement: Since my local happy place (the Y swimming pools) closed because of the pandemic, I have struggled to find a consistent joyful movement practice. I do some crank-up-the-tunes silly-dancing, some playing with my grandkids, enjoy a weekly online easy yoga class, and a periodic online karate warm-up I found (searching for a kata for the grandsons, I clicked on the wrong-right thing and there was a sensei in Texas via YouTube – can’t explain why I like it, but I do). However, nothing feels as blissful to me as time in the water. Nutrition: Lucky for me, I love fruits and vegetables, don’t particularly care for meat, and have a diagnosed digestive challenge that makes some foods (mostly ones I’ve grown to despise) poor choices for me. Don’t have any answers for anyone, though, and have grown to feel nauseous upon exposure to “food plans” of any sort, so I’m committed to adding more of the plants I love, listening to my body, and will see where it goes from here.
The book is a grand reminder that we all have a responsibility to challenge potentially dangerous beliefs – our own and those of others – and the best way to do that is often to start with some research and focus on ourselves.
Next week, back to a more general focus on self-care, though look for book reviews about once a month in the future.
Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iv] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[v] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.
Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020
[i] During WWII healthy men volunteered to reduce their normal daily calorie count from around 3,200 per day to approximately 1,550 per day. See the Wikipedia summary for more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment.
[iv] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .
[v] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.