We’re a week into the new year (and new decade), and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’ve probably been inundated with messages about becoming a “new you” in the new year. Maybe you’re a resolutions kind of person, or maybe you opt for focusing on intentions. Or maybe you’re sick of New Years all together! Wherever you fall on the spectrum of the January mania, you probably haven’t completely escaped the hype.
Changes to eating and exercising are probably some of the most popular resolutions to make in the new year. It always seems that come January, there’s something especially wrong with our bodies and a drastic change in our daily routines needs to happen NOW. The media will try to convince you that dieting is the answer. That counting every calorie, weighing yourself, and following a strict exercise regimen will give you the body and confidence you’ve always wanted.
But what you need to know is this: Dieting is a disordered eating behavior.
The same behaviors that are encouraged for intentional weight loss are discouraged and treated in the context of eating disorder recovery. Because we have now rebranded dieting as “wellness” or a “lifestyle change,” we normalize behaviors that for some people lead to a severely disordered relationship with food. And when we expect these behaviors to result in overt physical changes, we miss the people whose bodies and minds are suffering in ways that are less visible than extreme weight loss, subtly perpetuating the idea that weight loss and thinness are desirable at all costs. This is harmful for people in all bodies, and we aim to explain the mental and physical toll that diets take on an individual.
Kylie Mitchell, registered dietitian and founder of Imma Eat That, created a spectrum of how we eat, which is a helpful tool to understand just how sneaky yet potent diet culture is.
(Graphic by Kylie Mitchell, RD)
When we understand that dieting is perhaps the most common form of disordered eating, we see the gray area between normal eating and an eating disorder as this wide open space for a lot of murky waters … and that’s when our sneaky friend, diet culture, comes in.
Christy Harrison, registered dietitian and author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, defines diet culture as “…a system of beliefs that worships thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes and equates those things with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and ways of eating while elevating others and oppresses people who don’t match up with diet culture’s supposed picture of health.”
Diet culture teaches us to villainize hunger, fear the food in front of us, and hate our bodies. What it forgets to teach us is that our bodies are so much smarter than the diet we’re being sold. Our bodies are hardwired to maintain our weight within a set-point range; our hypothalamus orchestrates the fine balance of keeping our bodies in an appropriate fat to muscle mass ratio through regulating our hunger and fullness cues, among other things. When we restrict our intake below our body’s needs, we’re essentially telling our brains “hey, there’s not enough food around, so you might want to start storing extra resources in case this gets worse.” As we continue to restrict, our body compensates by lowering our Basal Metabolic Rate and holding onto any reserves it can. This helps to explain plateaus in weight loss programs; our bodies resist threats to the equilibrium. Furthermore, as our bodies sound the alarm of “famine!” we naturally will grow hungry. Restriction will lead to overeating to make up for the deficit, and then some. This back-and-forth cycle wrecks havoc not only on our minds and sanity, but also on our bodies.
Dieting truly affects every single organ system of the body–from hair, skin, and nails to reproductive functioning. When an individual isn’t getting adequate nutrition, his or her body will suffer in every possible way. However, medical complications look different from person to person (depending on each person’s unique genetic makeup). Two people may have similar maladaptive eating and exercise behaviors but display entirely different medical complications (or one person with none at all).
Some common physical side effects of dieting are the following: skin fragility, GI discomfort (i.e., nausea, gastroparesis, diarrhea), loss of skeletal muscle and muscle tone, cardiovascular irregularities, heightened risk for infection, poor cognition and ability to focus, changes in the menstrual cycle, and of course, hunger 😉.
You don’t exactly see these items marketed on that juice cleanse, now do you?
Of course not. Because that’s how diet culture works. It draws us in by feeding us the lie that we aren’t good enough as we are and that any dissatisfaction in our lives is because of our bodies; and they (the company, wellness blogger, etc.) has THE solution that will “fix” you.
It’s a giant money scam that will most likely rob you of your time, energy, relationships and, well, life.
Dieting also leads to a disordered relationship with our bodies. As we stop listening to our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues, we lose trust in our bodies’ ability to regulate itself. We are taught that our bodies are better when they are smaller, and that our weight is linked to our worth. This is a harmful message because when that diet undoubtedly becomes ineffective for long term weight loss, we are left feeling shame and body dissatisfaction, both of which can contribute towards the development of an eating disorder. Trusting our bodies and giving ourselves unconditional permission around food allows us to cultivate an honoring relationship with our body where it can support us to do big things in this world.
Dieting interrupts our relationships. If you hope to someday have kids, your children will learn to emulate the hatred and dissatisfaction you have with your own body by watching you. Dieting makes you miss out on moments and relationships with other people because we become so fixated on our bodies. Warm cookies baked by friends, birthday cakes, and holiday parties are not available to dieters, and these are the moments that make up a very full life. Not to mention, dieting makes us feel out of control around food, and is a predictor of binge eating. Dieting isn’t living; it is shrinking and succumbing to arbitrary societal standards of beauty.
Dieting doesn’t appreciate body diversity and inner beauty and the worth that is inherent in all of us. Did you know that most “lifestyle change” movements like the keto and paleo diets (yes, diets) were created by white men? It seems that diet culture is founded upon layers of privilege and the message that women ought to shrink themselves. We know that restriction leads to a reduction in brain volume and matter and a lack of adequate caloric intake leads to cognitive dysfunction. How are we supposed to fight the patriarchal male-dominated society we still live in today when many of us are malnourished? Dieting takes away from our ability to fight for what we believe in.
It tries to chip away at our inherent worth and value, and it leaves us in a cycle of restriction and bingeing; of never good enough.
Before you order that juice cleanse or try out the new WW program, remember that the diet industry is making bank out of your body hatred. Remember how this harms people in larger bodies by sending them the message that they are less than and need to shrink. Remember how this harms you as it contributes to weight cycling and weight stigma, both of which are predictors of negative health outcomes. Remember that you are worth oh so much more than a number, and that health is determined by behaviors much more than it is about weight. You do not have to have a flat tummy or a thigh gap; the people who truly love you will do so no matter what weight you fall at.
Ditch the diet in 2020 and embrace and take care of yourself just as you are, right now.
Mimi and Emily