I've honestly been a little worried to write this.
Probably 90% of clients that approach me (or, you know, random people who find out I'm a dietitian) ask me about losing weight. And I get it. I'll soon be sharing a post that speaks directly to the soul of someone who has the desire for weight loss. Keep your eyes peeled.
I get a little pit in the bottom of my stomach every time someone tells me they're excited to lose weight with my coaching. Because here's the thing:
I don't offer weight loss services.
"... these approaches explore the idea that someone doesn't have to lose weight to be healthy. In fact, intentionally trying to lose weight may do more harm than good."
Don't take this post to mean I'm not willing to work with you if you desire weight loss. If you're already planning on tuning me out, closing out of this window, please read to the end! I'm not anti-weight loss, but it's important to know there's more to the never-ending journey of weight loss attempts than you may imagine.
First of all, I have worked at a weight loss clinic. It was my first job out of school, and at first, I loved it. But I had my own food issues. I was constantly and silently evaluating my body, my food choices, and my exercise habits. Most days were a 'failure' to me, whether that was because I ate 'too much' or the 'wrong' foods, I woke up late and didn't get to exercise, or I could feel a little too much of my love handles. I figured that working at a weight loss clinic was just the environment I needed in order to solve my problems around food.
Until I discovered Intuitive Eating. Health At Every Size. Weight-inclusive, non-diet approaches to health and wellness.
Summed up, these approaches explore the idea that someone doesn't have to lose weight to be healthy. In fact, intentionally trying to lose weight may do more harm than good.
It intrigued me, but didn't take hold. At least, not until I started to see it in my own patients. In myself. How weight loss attempts and the diet mentality did more to harm people in most cases than they did protect them.
They suddenly felt intense cravings around foods, like sweets, that they never experienced at that intensity before.
They constantly picked apart their body, saying, "If only my belly would be flat," or, "If only I could get rid of these things," while they grabbed their thighs. Their able, thick, strong thighs.
They expressed their intense fear of regaining the weight. Their weight loss had come with so many compliments from family, peers, and even acquaintances that were practically strangers.
The many patients that had regained the weight felt intense shame and anger.
The few patients that hadn't regained the weight had to constantly analyze their diet and make sacrifices in order to fit in their new, 'better' jeans.
Not everyone fit into these categories, but the vast majority did.
In fact, not to get all statistic-y on you, but within 5 years of losing weight, over 80% gain back the weight.
Let that sink in. Like, really sink in. Now compare that to how many people in the United States are trying to lose weight on a regular basis, whether by dieting 'formally', such as with Jenny Craig, or 'informally', like counting macros or cutting out sugar. According to the CDC, about half the United States population actively tried losing weight between the years 2013-2016. Now, the diet industry is worth a record-breaking 72 BILLION (not million, BILLION) dollars, however, there are less people dieting than there used to be, due to body positivity and acceptance movements.
I don't offer weight loss services, because your body isn't meant to be starved, and that's exactly what a diet is.
Now, I know what you're thinking. If the people who go on diets actually stuck to them, then we wouldn't have this obesity epidemic! Yup, that's what I thought too. But let's compare this to other industries for a minute.
Your car is getting a little... eh... so you decide that you would like to get a brand new, cool car. Of course you need it to be reliable - you don't have the kind of money where you can drop several thousand dollars every couple years, so you need it to last you.
The salesman from XYZ Car Company points you to Car A, and you buy it. Yeah, it's flippin' cool. You impress all your friends at work. You bring it to pick up your hot date on Saturday night. Your family is jealous, yet admiring, and asks, "Where did you get that car? I need to get that salesman's card!"
But after a little while, the car begins to deteriorate. The salesman told you the car would be reliable, yet you're noticing something's up. One day it has enough, and you're sitting at the side of the road with the engine smoking.
Where do you place the blame?
Yourself? Obviously not. You didn't realize that the salesman was lying to you!
The car? Heck no. The car wasn't designed for the wear and tear you put on it.
The salesman? Bingo. That jerk salesman told you that the car would last, when it obviously wasn't true. The salesman created more problems than you had before - you're now car-less, penniless, and you frankly miss your old "boring" car.
The exact same thing happens with diets. Some health coach or nutritionist tells you they've figured out the solution. You have to eat these foods, at this time of day, and do these exercises on these days. And what ever you do, don't eat this or that. If you have to "cave in", only eat this much and you'll be okay. If you follow these rules for the rest of your life, you'll lose weight and keep it off. And usually the tagline is one of my favorites: "It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle change." PSSST. Spoiler alert. It's a diet.
So you follow the rules and you drop the pounds. Your body is more toned and slim than ever. Friends ask you what you've done. Your significant other is complimenting you more. You get hit on by strangers. All is good.
But after a year or so, the pounds start creeping back on. You haven't changed your eating or exercise at all, but you just keep gaining. So you restrict yourself more, which works for maybe a month, but then you can't fit into your new, better jeans anymore. A year later, you're back to where you started before you lost the weight, or even heavier.
Where do you place the blame now?
Yourself? Sure. Maybe you should have restricted just a bit more. Maybe you didn't do the exercises right.
Your body? Yeah, a little. Why can't you just keep weight off? Why can't you just achieve that flat tummy?
The health coach who sold you the program? No. Never. It's not their fault you couldn't stick to it! It's YOUR fault!
See what I mean?
The diet industry wouldn't be so prolific if it worked. And somehow, the diet industry has managed to get the consumer to blame themselves when their product doesn't work! I'm sorry, but how fucked up is that?
When you lack food... your body is wired to preoccupy your thoughts with food so that you can find more.
This is why I refuse to be part of the ever-growing diet industry. A $72 billion industry would likely have me making a lot of money, which would be cool. But, ethically, I can't do it, because I know it doesn't work.
The question is, why doesn't it work? If you're in a calorie deficit (i.e. eating less calories than you expend every day), shouldn't you lose weight and be able to keep it off? Makes sense, but the body is a little more complicated than that for a number of reasons.
When Cavemen Get Chik-Fil-A
First, let's talk about cavemen. Oh, Tori, I know what you're going to say! We should all be on the Paleo diet because that's what cavemen ate! Nope, believe it or not, cavemen didn't eat almond butter cacao energy bites on a regular basis. Plus, if you want to truly mimic what your ancestor cavemen did, you should probably put on a loin cloth and start hunting mammoths (or something like that).
Because of this need to hunt and gather for food, there's a good chance a caveman's diet didn't consist of 3+ regular meals a day... especially not 3+ meals that feature a pound of steak. Since there were no Chik-fil-a restaurants nearby, their body became accustomed to compensating for an inevitable fasting period (before you say anything, NO, this is not leading to a discussion about intermittent fasting either). When they would go days at a time without eating, their metabolism would slow down so they wouldn't use up as much energy (aka: burn fat). Then, when they eventually did find a Chik-fil-a (okay, find some berries or kill a jaguar or whatever), their body would drive them to eat a lot to stock up for inevitable fasting later. This is called a "thrifty metabolism".*
Our bodies are smart, but they evolve slowly, and this protective mechanism is still in place. When you lack food (whether by lacking resources, like in poverty, OR purposely restricting yourself to lose weight), your body is wired to preoccupy your thoughts with food so that you can find more. In modern day, this doesn't look like going out for a hunt to find a rabbit to smoke over the fire. Here's how you may see this preoccupation manifest:
Constantly looking at recipes on Pinterest... some "healthy", some that are caramel-covered chocolate & cookies 'n' cream lasagna. I don't know, I'm sure it's a thing.
Counting calories. Finding foods that taste kind of like those forbidden foods that still fit into your calorie limits.
Bingeing on "cheat" days.
Not allowing foods in the house, like potato chips or Oreos, because you're afraid you'll eat the whole container.
Cavemen would have loved it. We call it the "obesity epidemic."
I don't offer weight loss services, because your body isn't meant to be starved, and that's exactly what a diet is.
*By the way, I believe it's important to note that much more research is need about this!
So, If Not Weight Loss, Then What?
Here's where a lot of people start feeling helpless. Because they want to feel good. They want to be healthy.
And I get that, too. Our healthcare system is very focused on weight, so when you walk into a doctor's office and the first thing she/he says is, "You need to lose weight," it's no wonder so many people think you HAVE to lose weight to be healthy.
Instead of fanning the flame of weight loss attempts in my clients, I choose to focus on actions and overall health.
Even if weight DOES influence your health, here's a few things to remember:
We don't have a reliable method for losing weight. Diets don't work, and even weight loss surgery isn't generally a long term solution as it was thought to be.
Most weight loss attempts result in gaining more weight than you originally lost, which would mean it only makes the "weight problem" worse.
There are MANY other factors that influence health, some even more so than "excess" weight. For example, physical inactivity is a more prominent risk factor for overall mortality (aka: dying) than "obesity". In other words, you're better off being fat and active than thin and inactive.
Long story short: instead of fanning the flame of weight loss attempts in my clients, I choose to focus on actions and overall health. Here's the approach I take:
First, we establish a healthy relationship with food and the body. If you don't RESPECT your body or ENJOY your food, you won't keep up any healthy behaviors, period.
We cultivate the idea that you have permission to eat ANY foods you want to have, in ANY amount. Because we are all cavemen at heart, even the idea of restricting any food is enough to cause you to binge on it later. Read more about that here.
We'd work to tune into the body's hunger and fullness signals, along with other ways your body tries to communicate with your conscious mind.
We'd establish a toolbox of ways to cope with your emotions, which can include eating food (emotional eating), AND other coping tools.
Lastly, we'd learn to fuel your body with a variety of foods so that you can feel good, physically, and prevent chronic disease.
This approach is fashioned after an Intuitive Eating approach. I live in rural Missouri where the idea of Intuitive Eating is practically unheard of, and when someone has heard of it, there's rarely an actual understanding of the topic.
So yeah, it's scary for me to promote Intuitive Eating, and to take a deep breath and tell someone I don't offer weight loss services. But I got into this field, not to simply make money and live my life, but to benefit people and help them be healthy. And I've realized that the never-ending pursuit of weight loss will not help them accomplish that.
I know that health is not the only reason people pursue weight loss. Some look to it for social acceptance, to be loved by others or respected, or to feel more confident. I have more to say on that subject, but that's for another day. If this is you, I hear you. I feel you and empathize with you. And always, I'm your ally.
Someday, if we can say definitively that being in a larger body is definitely unhealthy, and there is a reliable way to reduce the size of the body that doesn't cause negative responses (such as eating disorders), I may be revising my approach. But until then, I want to coach you in the best way our field knows how.
To work with me, fill out my contact form or e-mail me at email@example.com.