(Matt Chinworth for The Washington Post)
As someone who has suffered from and eventually escaped the diet roller coaster, and who has professionally been on a mission to help others get off it, too, it’s no surprise that I follow anti-diet voices on social media – many of whom are nutrition experts. I am usually all nods when scrolling through their posts, but a recent trend of messages unsettled me.
At first glance, they seemed to go beyond anti-diet and verge on anti-healthy. One post proclaimed that any attempt to lose weight is a diet. Think about that for a second. If we treat “diet” as a four-letter word, then the message is that trying to lose weight at all — even in a healthy way — is something to be condemned. It got me wondering whether the anti-diet movement has gone too far. Should people really be discouraged from pursuing weight loss, even on a sound lifestyle plan, when it could lead to better health — less knee pain, getting off blood sugar medications, reducing the risk of a heart attack and so on? To dig deeper, I spoke with several thought leaders on the issue and came to the conclusion that the post was onto something: Although weight matters when it comes to health, the true path to wellness may be to not try to lose weight at all.
“Overweight and obesity are serious threats to health,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If we really care about someone, we want them to be as close to a healthy weight as possible; there is absolutely no question.” But the number on the scale is only one indicator of wellness. “No matter what your weight is, you can improve your health by being physically active, eating a healthy diet and not smoking,” Willett says.
Actively trying to control weight may be an effective tactic for some people, but for others it can be downright destructive. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that about 20 percent of overweight people are successful at long-term weight loss. But what about all of the people who try but fail to lose weight at all or put it right back on? Many in that group (and possibly some “successful” weight losers, too) wind up perpetually struggling, constantly anxious about food and dissatisfied with their bodies. Some develop eating disorders. Many heal and become the anti-diet voices on my Instagram feed. Tied into the personal struggle is the pressure from our profoundly weight-biased society, where size discrimination is the norm.
It’s no wonder so many people are pushing back and essentially flipping the bird at our diet- and weight-obsessed culture. But although that stance may be necessary, a downside is that for some it has meant the rejection of any conversation about health, weight-related or not. “It’s almost like there is a wall where you can’t talk about healthy eating at all in fat-positivity communities,” Jessamyn Stanley, author of “Every Body Yoga,” told me. “It’s like you are creating an unsafe environment by talking about healthy eating.” She sees a solution to breaking down those walls in acceptance and self-care. “When you love yourself you want to fuel yourself well; you want to take that care for you.”
Rebecca Scritchfield, D.C. dietitian and author of “Body Kindness,” agrees: “If we broaden the view of health beyond weight or appearance, we will all be free to pursue health in our own individual way.”