I’ve been struggling with writing this blog post for a few weeks for a few reasons. First, I’m not an expert in fat-acceptance or body-neutrality. Second, I have privilege in this space. I’m white, not unattractive by many current cultural standards, and am able to comfortably wear most clothing brands. (This may sound like bragging; this is acknowledging privilege.) Because I have benefitted from my privilege, however, does not mean that I have not been harmed by the beauty and diet industries.
Many of my friends might be surprised to know that I flirted with an eating disorder during my senior year of high school and although I could blame the teen-girl magazines of the late 90’s and early aughts (RIP Jane), it was the director of our high school musical whose comments triggered my “need” to lose weight.
I had been cast as Mrs. Mullin in our school’s production of Carousel. The director was also head of the gifted and talented program of our school, of which I was a longstanding member, and I was aware that she’d had problematic interactions with many of my fellow students in the past. She chose a red dress that the head of the costume department, an adult volunteer, had found.
It ALMOST fit, but the zipper wouldn’t get past my waist, so I turned to the adults and said it was too small and wouldn’t work. The director’s response was along the lines of “This is the costume, so change yourself to make it fit.” I don’t remember how long I had between that try-on and the week of our performances, but that is when I first became conscious of what I was eating. I started drinking coffee and eating a half-sandwich most days for lunch, beginning with only a yogurt for breakfast. My slight shift in eating worked: I succeeded in zipping that red dress all the way with room to spare. I stopped trying to limit my calories when the performances were over and ate only when I was hungry, until I wasn’t anymore.
I was lucky to escape high school without that experience triggering a much larger issue, but those memories have always remained; I could get skinnier if I worked hard enough or if I was controlling enough…but, before I head down that road of disorder, I’m able to talk myself out of that way of being. My experience pales in comparison to others and knowing this makes me so mad. If someone like me had that experience, and felt pressure from adults in charge–custodians of my mental, educational, and physical well-being–it’s hard to imagine the experience of those who did not and do not have my privileges. I recognized the toxic standards to which I was being held and although it would have been better to not feel that pressure at all, it made me aware and gave me the fortitude to banish those thoughts and recognize messages I was receiving as unhealthy. The comments from my teacher/director harmed me but they also opened the door for me to recognize just how pervasive, and even accepted, “weight loss” culture is. I’m still consistently working against internalized fat phobia (just like I’m working against internalized white supremacy, ableism, victim-blaming, and capitalism). I will never tell a client they need to lose weight. Using my own personal experience as a jumping off point, there are several science-backed reasons why I don’t promote weight loss.
- The BMI is rooted in racism and not an accurate way to measure health. The Body Mass Index is a calculation based on height and weight that will supposedly give you a number which quantifies weight but does not take into account factors like frame size or age. Please go read this article for more details on the problems surrounding the BMI.
- The diet industry is just that: an industry. Companies recognize people’s insecurities, pain, and idealized standards are something to commodify and monetize. Television shows like Extreme Makeover or The Biggest Loser are some of the grossest displays of this. People are much more complex than simple calories in/calories out. I’m much more interested in the quality of food than calories. A Luna Bar has fewer calories than a grass-fed steak but I will always recommend steak as the more nutritionally dense protein option (except in the case of an allergy).
- The demonization of macronutrients is problematic. In the 1960’s research sponsored by the sugar industry, later debunked, pointed toward fat as the main driver of heart disease. Fast-forward to now, when people who desire quick and extreme weight loss go Keto (extremely low carbohydrate) without guidance and mess with their hormones. Almost all of us need a combination of all three macronutrients to survive and thrive, and ideal percentages will vary person to person. The details of how we determine what works best for an individual also vary between nutritionists. Here are factors I look at to determine a good starting place:
a) Genetic/ethnic background: traditional foods of your ancestors
b) Local/seasonal foods near where you live
c) Time of life: pregnant/breastfeeding; pre- or post- menopausal/andropausal, etc.
d) Activity levels: desk work or something more physical; do you train for marathons on the weekend or prefer yoga most weekdays?
e) Illness: recovering from an injury; living with an auto-immune disease or other chronic condition
- Weight alone is not an indication of poor health and more studies are coming out to prove this. If you go to a doctor for an issue and they say that you first need to lose weight, please find another doctor! Blood pressure, blood glucose, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, inflammation, and vitamin/mineral deficiencies (low Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, selenium, iodine, Vitamin D) are all things that can be addressed through nutritional adjustments. Sometimes when these other issues are addressed, people may lose weight.
- Focusing on losing weight and wanting to be thin does not provide a basis for long-term success. In my opinion, it is too shallow of a goal based on factors that we think will make us happy. Lasting nutritional changes must be motivated by a deeper desire: do you want to be able to keep up with your kids during playtime or have the energy to take your dog on those long walks they love? Most people who diet to lose weight fail and end up gaining more. If you’re trying to plan for yourself, all of the information can be overwhelming and contradictory. Professionals like me are trained to guide you, help you prioritize, and distill the science behind these studies to what is applicable to you.
If you come to me with weight-loss as a goal, I’m not going to turn you away. I will, however, dig deeper to help you reframe your goals. (I am not strictly anti-weight loss, but my job is to help you see your health journey as being about more than weight loss.) Working with a mental health professional is imperative to help you understand your own motivations, triggers, and insecurities and to place them within a larger context. While not a requirement, it is something I ask clients who come to me with weight-loss goals to incorporate into their lives.
Things I do promote: lowering your resting heart rate, getting deep and restorative sleep, tuning into your circadian rhythm, reducing anxiety and depression, increasing energy and focus, stabilizing blood sugar, reducing inflammation, balancing your hormones, reducing chronic and acute pain/discomfort, increasing immunity, and correcting nutritional deficiencies. You may lose weight when these other puzzle pieces fall into place. If you don’t, it’s important to be able to recognize your successes, victories, and value independently of your size.
Health At Every Size