14
May
2019

My Thoughts on Diet Culture, Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size

This might be a long post.

Some time ago if you’d asked me about the HAES movement, I would have parroted the thoughts of a podcaster I had been listening to at the time. He said something along the lines of the movement condoning (if not glorifying) obesity and that we shouldn’t have obese people on magazine covers because that celebrates and justifies unhealthy lifestyle choices. At the time I agreed fairly strongly. But having now done a lot more research into HAES I think I understand it a little better and feel like at least some of that condemnation might have been misplaced.

For a start, it’s Health at every size – not Healthy. I don’t think too many people associated with the movement would deny the fact that obesity is correlated with all sorts of negative health outcomes, and that in a perfect world nobody would be obese. I think the movement is intended to try and stamp out fat-shaming, and to encourage people to try and develop healthy lifestyle habits, regardless of where they’re starting from. I can’t fault either of these aims.

I guess where I do have an issue with it is telling people that all bodies are different and therefore you should be comfortable at whatever your natural weight is. Sure, all bodies are different – I’m cool with that idea. But if you’re a 5 foot tall woman weighing 100 kilograms is that really your natural weight? Or did you have to work a sedentary job, spend your evenings on the couch, and ignore a whole truckload of hunger and satiety cues over many years to get there? Not judging – I’ve been there (well, except for the woman part) but I’d bet that for most people, these lifestyle factors and overeating can be addressed with a little effort and the ‘natural’ weight you can sustainably maintain is somewhere well south of ‘dying young of a heart attack’ unhealthy. So I think we have to be careful in condoning people’s choices and telling them ‘it’s OK’ to be overweight especially when they are clearly unhappy about it.

On a related note – since I started really trying to fix my issues with food, I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of resources about intuitive eating and most of them are all very down on ‘diet culture’ – suggesting that it’s toxic and that dieting ‘doesn’t work’. Again, I have some sympathy with the viewpoint that slimness (women) or lean muscularity (men) is promoted as the ideal for everyone but we are all different and what is healthy (mentally and physically), sustainable and desirable is likewise going to vary. We would all do better to just focus on being the best version of ourselves that we can be rather than trying to compare ourselves with models and celebrities who have goodness knows what genetic, lifestyle and pharmaceutical advantages helping them to present those perfect bodies to the world on a pedestal. But again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good aspects of it and that we shouldn’t give people the tools to change their lifestyles and their bodies if that’s what they desire to do.

The fact is – diets DO work – assuming the aim of the diet is to lose weight. Statistics show that the vast majority of dieters do manage to lose significant weight, the problem is that most of them don’t maintain it in the long term. And I would argue that that’s probably because most people choose the wrong approach and treat the diet as a temporary thing, instead of making permanent, sustainable changes. In many cases this is because they were promised the world by some charlatan fitpro or celebrity and after successfully losing that weight they went back to the same old habits that got them overweight in the first place. And so the circle continues….

It’s such a shame that the industry is so full of these people, and they do make diet ‘culture’ a pretty toxic place to spend time. But that said, I have a hard time understanding why so many people get sucked into the rubbish these people are spruiking. The old adage ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ rings really true to me here, even when I was young and naive I don’t think I ever would have believed that eating that ‘one magic food’ or going on a 2 week juice cleanse would somehow magically make me lose weight and keep it off forever – I was always taught that nothing worth doing in life is ever easy. But yet every day people still get hoodwinked by all sort of scams and I think it comes down to the fact that so many of us are sad and lonely and just want to believe in something, even if it does seem a bit too easy. Unfortunately losing weight really isn’t – and it can be so overwhelming, especially if you have a lot to lose. But it’s like any major project, you just have to get started, and eat that elephant one bite at a time.

Which brings me to my final point, about intuitive eating. I’ve read the book, and I’m attempting to incorporate the principles into my lifestyle, because I believe that being a formerly obese person I need to utilise some sort of strategy to control my food intake and maintain a healthy weight for the rest of my life. In my heart I know that if I don’t, then I will continue to overconsume all the calorie dense foods that I love and will end up back where I started, fat and unhappy. However – I don’t necessarily agree with Intuitive Eating in the sense that it’s supposed to be entirely weight neutral and your body weight will settle where it does – I think true intuitive eating will result in a body that maintains a composition without excess fat. Sure, what constitutes ‘excess’ will be different for everyone, but as I said above I think in the vast majority of cases obesity occurs because we ignore the body’s signals and eat the wrong foods for the wrong reasons. I see no reason why most of us shouldn’t be able to maintain a body composition we’re happy with while eating intuitively, although this might also require some emotional deep diving to understand the reasons we eat foods outside of just hunger / needing fuel. And that takes work.

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