Why I’m anti anti-diet culture

The anti-diet culture movement. It’s a tricky one to navigate as a nutritionist who helps people lose weight. Using a diet that creates a calorie deficit diet. I had a conversation with a couple of my close friends and colleagues this week who are in the same position. It seems that my personal IG feed is full of messages that we have wasted too much time striving to be a thinner version of ourselves and instead we should focus on doing what makes us feel happy, and be happy at a larger size. In essence, we should find peace and acceptance of our larger bodies, be confident and focus on what really matters. And it doesn’t matter what you eat, begin to enjoy those foods you’ve been depriving yourself of for all these years. Trust what your body tells you. If you’re hungry after eating, eat again. You can be intuitive with your eating if you give yourself the opportunity to do so.

I totally agree with part of this message.  We shouldn’t strive to be someone else’s vision of our best selves. We need to move on from being caught up in how society thinks we should look, or by the size that magazines and IG influencers suggest we should be. Not everyone was made to be a size 0, 2, 8, 10 [insert “perfect” size here].

However, I push back on a few of these concepts.

First, is that as humans, we are designed to forage and hunt food, gather, and eat food that is available in the very real possibility that food would be scarce again. We are wired to seek out that food and consume it and store it readily to allow us the buffer for when there would be ‘winter’ or periods of time where we could not find food. This was in our best interests. However, while our environment has changed over the last several hundreds of thousands of years, our body’s have not. We are still hard wired to store fat from excess available calories. This is the reason why we have an obesity and overweight issue. Food, however, is everywhere. Everywhere. It is in shops that wouldn’t have even considered selling food even 10 years ago (i.e., clothing stores). It is upsized and the price is downscaled. It is produced in such a way that we want it even if we are not hungry. Fat, sugar, starch, and salt are mixed together and created to produce products that speak to the feedback reward centre of our brain. ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop.’ The mantra of Pringles ring true for every type of junk food available.

Changing your diet does require willpower and discipline. The anti-diet movement appears to frown upon these concepts as being rigid, dogmatic and that willpower in particular isn’t real. That it is a concept sold by the diet industry. Absolutely, to rely on these to lose weight is basically impossible, so I totally agree with that. However, it is helpful to have some boundaries around foods that you eat to help you navigate a successful fat loss approach. Some stamina is also important as it isn’t going to happen overnight. For some, it is the unravelling of many, many years of diet habits that didn’t serve you and it isn’t something that happens by accident for most of us. Willpower, discipline and stamina – these are skills we develop over time and ultimately what we are focusing on becomes a habit. And outside of the diet culture realm these skills are revered because we recognise that those who have these skills are often those that succeed in what it is that they are doing. However, if you do something often enough, and that behaviour becomes a habit, then over time you don’t have to exert as much willpower. Discipline isn’t required because it just becomes second nature. You form that habit (much like brushing your teeth). These are not (both literally and metaphorically speaking) four-letter words and I don’t think it’s helpful to treat them as such.

Ultimately, I would never want someone to feel their body size is reflective of their moral virtue. To feel shame or guilt for eating a certain food, meal, or a certain way. However I speak to so many people who are eating in a way that can wreak havoc with their hormones, or that leaves them feeling wildly out of control around food. Or that places them risk of developing metabolic disturbances that, over time, increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This isn’t supposed to be a scaremongering statement from someone who sells dieting (because let’s face it, I have skin in the game! I literally sell diets!) This is the science of nutrition and metabolism.

Is weight loss a worthy enough goal to aim for? Is it for me (or anyone) to decide that it is or isn’t? No. I mean, I ultimately want people to feel like they are becoming a version of themselves that is fulfilling their own potential. I caution to write “better” as I wouldn’t want you to think that I equate “better” with “smaller”. And, as a person who is genuinely compassionate and empathetic, I just know I can help so many people improve how they feel about themselves when they figure out a way to eat that doesn’t make them feel terrible. That can give them energy, stamina, confidence, start to appreciate what their body can do as opposed to what it looks like (though that also improves also). People come to me for fat loss but for the most part we see real shifts in all these other things that the weight becomes secondary to how they feel. From this place, other parts of their lives change as the confidence from gaining energy and control here is transferred to other parts of their lives. Relationships, work situations, sports performance, new experiences someone might never have explored had they not gotten their foot in the door with this piece of the puzzle.

Yes, I hate the rubbish rhetoric that we see sold with the diet industry too. However, I don’t think some of the messages sold by the anti-diet movement are overly helpful. I feel that there is middle ground here and I, like many of my colleagues, are in that space.

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