Why Anti-Diet is Not Anti-health
But first — Why diets cause harm:
Diet culture has embedded into us that following a diet is what leads to better health. Yet, most diets are based on the pursuit of thinness and not health. That being said, it’s important to note that health is not a size. Health comes in all shapes and sizes despite our culture’s tendency to praise those in smaller bodies and misguidedly deem them as healthier. It’s important to recognize that there are both people living in smaller bodies who may not be metabolically healthy and there are people in larger bodies who have A+ bloodwork and blood pressure. You can’t assess an individual’s health based on their appearance or size alone.
Additionally, although diets may produce weight loss in the short-term this does not necessarily lead to sustainable weight loss or improved health in the long-term. In fact, most people end up gaining the weight they lose (and often more) back after dieting. This generally leads to yo-yo dieting tendencies also known as weight cycling. Research has found weight cycling to be more harmful to our physical and metabolic health than just remaining at a higher weight consistently over time.1
Not only does dieting prove to harm our physical health, but it also harms our mental health. Diets tend to negatively impact our relationship with food and our bodies. For example, when the weight is re-gained, the individual may feel like a failure for not losing enough weight or being unable to control their weight. Feelings of guilt and shame are common and can lead to disordered eating behaviors. Although dieting may not be the cause of eating disorders, it does put someone at risk for developing one. Additionally, a person with disordered eating behaviors may isolate themselves for fear of socializing in situations that involve food, and this isolation may contribute to low self-esteem and significant emotional distress as well.
None of this seems to be exactly health promoting then, right? For more detailed information please visit this prior blog post which discusses 3 ways dieting negatively impacts both our physical and mental health.
What is the anti-diet movement?
The anti-diet movement is not simply anti- fad diets and is certainly not anti- people on diets. Instead, it is about fighting and addressing the oppressive nature of diet culture at large. Diet culture demonizes food, promises quick fixes (spoiler alert: they don’t work), and equates your weight to your health. None of this supports health.
Not only does diet culture demonize food, but it’s also biased to those who don’t meet their standard of “health.” It marginalizes those in larger bodies and creates weight stigma making others feel like they are not worthy of health. The anti-diet movement is about dismantling diet culture and it’s oppressiveness in order to create a world that promotes equal care and respect for ALL bodies.
3 Top Reasons why Anti-Diet is not Anti-health and is actually PRO-HEALTH:
1. Promotes equal care and respect for ALL bodies: An anti-diet approach accepts and respects the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and rejects the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights. As a society we are constantly surrounded by messages and media that promote what health and fitness should look like. The anti-diet approach has made it to push this narrative and bring peace and inclusiveness for everyone. The size pants you wear, the number on the scale, and the type of exercise you enjoy does not define your worth or health. The messages that the media pushes often creates stigma and makes people believe they are not worthy of health. Rejecting diet culture helps us break through the stigma and promotes all around well-being. It’s not about trying to fit in your jeans from high school, but understanding that our bodies change and the most important thing is to make sure we are focused on self-care and overall health and happiness. This requires emphasis on self-compassion to recognize when we are talking negatively to ourselves. For those days where we feel like we fell off or didn’t eat the “best”, self-compassion can help shift our mindset towards body neautrality, gratitude and how to move forward in a constructive instead of shameful way.
2. Focuses on healthy habits, not weight loss. Again – health is not a size! Focusing on weight loss can be very short-term, make us run around in circles, and ultimately not help us feel our best. The goal is to focus on building habits versus checking the scale daily. Setting small and realistic goals to your lifestyle can bring life-long changes and support your health. Just by setting a goal of incorporating one extra vegetable to your dinner a week can positively impact your health. Building healthy habits does not need to be done all at once or drastic changes. Set goals you can commit to without it becoming a stressor in your life. If you’re beating yourself up everyday or constantly overthinking about your goal is it still a healthy goal?
3. Promotes eating for overall well-being & not for the purpose of “shrinking oneself”: The anti-diet approach advocates for flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control. A healthy diet (diet is defined as “the kinds of food that a person habitually eats”) should be something that is sustainable that works long term. It’s not a 30 day challenge or something you don’t see yourself following a year or two later. Food rules are dropped when letting go of diets and the diet mentality. All foods are allowed to be enjoyed. If you’re wanting dessert after a meal you allow yourself to have that dessert and move on! Think you won’t have control? That feeling stems from past restriction of certain foods (due to diets). If you give yourself permission to enjoy something, then you let go of that power that food had over you. This results in a better relationship with food which is part of being anti-diet. Diets often leave us scared of enjoying certain food groups or food all together. This mindset is no longer supporting health. If you have to miss out on enjoying your favorite foods you are no longer enjoying life and causing harm to your mental health. Food is a form of fuel and nourishment for our bodies but should always be satisfying in the end.
When considering health it is important to take a holistic (meaning looking at the WHOLE person — mind and body) perspective, everybody is different which means every body has different needs. This is why a cookie cutter meal plan or following the fad diet a friend told you about doesn’t work out for most individuals. Health in an anti-diet world is viewed by evidence based practices that are uniquely tailored to each individual to support their lifestyle. Learning to respect and reconnect with our bodies will help with rebuilding trust and understanding of our bodies. This includes honoring hunger/fullness cues and practicing gentle nutrition. Remember the goal is to make a sustainable lifestyle that supports our overall health in an enjoyable way that is rooted in self-care, not restriction.
- Rhee EJ. Weight Cycling and Its Cardiometabolic Impact. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2017;26(4):237-242. doi:10.7570/jomes.2017.26.4.237. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6489475/
Nutrition by RD’s fall 2020 intern, Jenny Fernandez, helped write this blog post. She is a student at Florida International University studying nutrition and dietetics. She became passionate about dietetics after being diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8. Her goal is to be a Registered Dietitian who is a Health at Every Size practitioner and teaches the principles of Intuitive Eating. She believes all foods fit and that diet culture is harmful to our health. She hopes to bring a more inclusive and holistic approach to nutrition, while also providing medical nutrition therapy in a non-diet approach to those living with diabetes.