People often express concern to me about the way intuitive eating, body positivity, and the fat acceptance movements “encourage people to stop trying to lose weight.”
I often hear criticism of these movements (and my own work) as being too extreme, “irresponsible and dangerous,” and “ignoring science.”
I’ve been trying to figure out how to tackle this criticism publicly. As you’ll see, it’s actually pretty tricky to talk about, which is why you might get the impression that every single health practitioner is in one of two extreme camps (anti-diet versus “anti-obesity”) and that both camps are being kind of ridiculous.
The mainstream camp of people “fighting obesity” includes a bunch of health coaches, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and other wellness professionals who talk about the dangers of being fat, conflate leanness/thinness with health, glorify obsessive and extreme habits around food/health/fitness, and seem to believe that everyone should strive to get as lean/thin as possible in order to “live their best life.”
On the other hand we’ve got people like me, who focus on health behaviors instead of weight, view health as mental-emotional-physical (instead of just physical), recognize that striving for intentional weight loss decreases health for most people, attempt to de-stigmatize fatness in service of health, and believe body acceptance and neutrality is healthier for most people than weight loss.
Many people in my camp subscribe pretty closely to the principles outlined in Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating (note: please read these books for yourself before making assumptions about them, as there is a ton of misinformation out there about them), which basically means we are anti-intentional weight loss. Instead of this being about saying “health doesn’t matter” or “people can be healthy no matter what they do” however, this methodology simply asserts that striving for intentional weight loss is *counter-productive* to the goals of getting healthier, happier, and more confident for most people.
That said, when I work with a private coaching client on body image, I meet them wherever they’re at.
I don’t judge, forbid, or condemn habits of intentional weight loss, because I know that’s the reality for where most people start. We approach everything like an experiment and go waaaay below the surface of what’s going on for them. I offer re-education around health, wellness, and weight-loss… but ultimately it’s always their body, their business. If someone wants to spend their life pursuing weight loss, they are welcome to.
I just want to make sure they’re super clear on what that means, since diet culture has lied to us all.
Here’s what I know: 95% of people who pursue intentional weight loss will see some success for a short amount of time (which makes them think their plan worked), but within two years the weight will have come back, and they will blame themselves for not being able to “keep it up.”
And 95% of intentional weight loss plans fail to be sustainable for two years or more, and in fact at the two year mark, around half of all people who set out with intentional weight loss as the goal will have gained more weight than they would have if they’d never tried to lose any.
This isn’t because 95% of people are weak, lazy, stupid, or anything like that. If a doctor kept recommending a surgery that cured only 95% of people, and actually made the condition worse in about half the people who got it, we wouldn’t blame the people, right? We’d sue that doctor for malpractice. But when it comes to weight, we have the false idea that it’s all so simple, that food and weight are within our control, that it’s a matter of willpower and moral strength whether someone succeeds or not at weight loss.
This idea reflects a massive misunderstanding of physiology and psychology.
Think of eating like breathing– in some ways our breathing is in our control, right? We can hold our breath, slow it down, speed it up, and practice all manner of meditative practices by exerting control over our breath. That said, people are physically unable to kill themselves by holding their breath, because at a certain point the automatic part of breathing will kick in and save you. So can you control what you breathe? Both yes and no.
The same thing is true with eating.
In the immediate short term, we can control what we eat, how much, and when. We can diet, and lose weight, for weeks and months by using our conscious mind and willpower. But eventually, if our safety seems to be endangered (as will eventually nearly always be the case when intentional weight loss is the goal) the automatic part of eating will kick in to “save” you. So do you control what you eat? Yes and no.
Oh, and a quick note about the 5% of people who succeed at keeping weight off after losing it intentionally– genetics aside, these tend to be folks who are willing to let intentional weight loss and weight maintenance completely dominate their lives, in what would easily qualify them for “disordered eating” or a full blown eating disorder.
Even if they call it a lifestyle.
Even if they seem happy.
Even me, when I was at my “fittest and healthiest.”
Even your personal trainer or spin class instructor or best friend, whose “dedication to health” is so inspirational.
To get a person’s weight below their natural set point range (aka the weight range they would hover around if they stopped trying to control their weight) requires a commitment to body-control that must become one of the person’s top priorities. Some people can do this, and it’s worth it to them.
Personally I did it for years before realizing that’s simply not how I want to spend my precious time on earth.
So, yes, I’m opposed to intentional weight loss, because:
It doesn’t work.
It has the opposite of the intended consequences for half of people who try it.
It leads to worse health outcomes (fun fact: regular weight loss and gain is worse for our health than just being stable at a higher weight) and I care about my clients’ health.
It leads to a lot of self-loathing, shame, guilt, and negative self-image for those who attempt (and fail) at it.
It leads to disordered eating, eating disorders, anxiety, obsession, and negative self-image for those who attempt (and succeed) at it.
I’d like to say again that being opposed to intentional weight loss doesn’t mean I’m opposed to health. It’s just that giving up intentional weight loss is positively correlated with increased health for most people.
Think about this:
You tell yourself you’ll join a gym to lose weight. At first you’re super motivated and “enjoy” it because you’re doing something good for yourself, and
find it easy to eat healthier and drink more water because you’re on a roll. You go regularly for a few weeks, then weigh yourself only to discover your weight is the same. Disappointed, you treat yourself to a big meal of everything you’ve been missing.
The day breaks momentum. You feel shame about being “too weak,” and frustration that it wasn’t working anyway, plus once you stop using willpower to control food, your appetite suddenly seems insatiable. As a result, you find yourself “too busy” to make it to the gym, you eat whatever the fuck you want, and you feel like a failure, guilty and ashamed you couldn’t do it.
Making healthy behavioral changes with weight loss as the goal makes it extremely difficult to stick with them in the long run, and far more likely to end in failure.
On the other hand, implementing healthy behaviors for reasons unrelated to weight loss makes them far more likely to last in the long term. Joining a gym to play racquetball with your best friend twice a week purely because it feels good and is a nice way to reconnect with her for example, is far more likely to be something you keep up long term. Likewise, choosing to eat more veggies or drink more water in an effort to avoid constipation is likely to be more sustainable long term than trying to do either thing to lose weight.
The intention with which you make a behavioral change matters.
Focusing on weight (and the self-image we attach to weight) has a way of bringing us on a roller coaster of unsustainable intense highs and lows, while focusing on things like enjoyment, connection, and feeling good is far more stable and motivating in the long term.
In short, focusing on weight loss is a very bad plan if your goal is better health. Instead, focusing on body neutrality, and improving healthy behaviors for other reasons, are very good strategies to improve health, even if they never impact weight at all.
OK but here’s the tricky part, and why it’s easy to get the impression that everyone who talks about this stuff is being ridiculously single-minded and stubborn and ignoring the other side’s perspective:
Focusing on improving healthy behaviors when weight loss isn’t the intended goal can also lead to weight loss.
Not for everyone, of course. Weight diversity is as natural and real as height diversity, and depending on where a person is on their journey, they may need to actually gain weight in order to achieve maximum overall health and happiness.
But people who have never tried to lose weight tend to be thinner than those who have tried extensively to lose weight, and people who spend a lot of time trying to control their weight with diet and exercise tend to fluctuate (yo-yo) through dramatic highs and lows, while people who don’t attempt to control it stabilize easily.
And this is where it becomes an ethical dilemma, as a coach with an online platform.
I’m happy to educate people on things like “intentional weight loss fails 95% of the time, and leads to worse health outcomes for those pursuing it.” I’m also happy to say “fuck fatphobia and thin supremacy, there is nothing inherently better (or healthier) about a small body compared to a large one.”
Because fighting fatphobia and weight stigma leads to less intentional weight loss attempts, more body neutrality, and more overall health for everyone.
That said, it’s a very tricky ethically to talk about how giving up the pursuit of weight loss can make weight loss easier, or that people who don’t attempt to lose weight generally weigh less than those who do.
Because, after all, we live in a society so deeply entrenched in the idea that fat is bad and thin is good, how could anyone ever hear that and be neutral about it? Nearly everyone in modern western culture is looking to lose weight, or at least to avoid gaining it. It’s pretty damn likely this kind of content would cause people to think that the key to losing weight is to stop wanting/trying to lose weight.
Which… I mean… sometimes it is.
Let’s consider the small percentage of people whose “healthy lifestyles” support them in attaining extreme leanness. Setting aside for a moment the likelihood that they qualify for disordered eating behaviors, odds are they don’t actually achieve their lean body by focusing on the outcome of “trying to lose/manage their weight,” but instead that they have come to focus on and enjoy the process for its own sake.
Maybe they’re passionate about lifting weights (or playing sports, running marathons, hiking/backpacking, or whatever), or maybe they love the process of researching, shopping, cooking, and prepping healthy food.
These people invariably have a super-strong “why” for doing these things every single day that has nothing to do with their weight or appearance.
Back in my own super-lean training days, my leanness was the result of my commitment to getting strong.
I was extremely driven to lift the heaviest weights possible, both because I was a personal trainer and wanted to prove myself in the world of strength and conditioning coaches, and also because I found it deeply empowering to buck traditional gender expectations by being strong as fuck. But getting strong is very hard work, and in order to continue improving my performance in the gym, I had to center my life around it.
I counted macros to make sure my lifting sessions were optimally fueled. I got as much sleep as I could, foam rolled and got body work done regularly, and took tons of supplements to support both my lifting and my recovery. In short, I treated myself like an athlete, and as a result I got the body of an athlete.
This was the counter-intuitive breakthrough I discovered: that the less I focused on how I looked, the leaner I got and the “better” I thought I looked.
But how can we talk about this? How can I say you need to focus on something other than how you look… in order to look “better”? How can I say you need to stop trying to lose weight… in order to lose weight?
I can’t, for two reasons.
Such a statement reinforces the idea that being thin/lean/small is better than being large/fat. Not only do I simply disagree with this idea, but the idea’s very existence is what drives the desire in people to lose weight and get smaller/leaner in the first place, leading to intentional weight loss, leading to so many negative outcomes. This would be counter-productive and off-brand (as someone who cares about my clients’ health, happiness, confidence, and self-acceptance) to ever put that message out into the world.
It is my priority to make sure everyone knows body weight/size is neutral, and therefore I can’t really talk about it from that perspective– and neither can anyone else who is promoting body positivity, body neutrality, fat liberation, health at every size, anti-diet culture, or intuitive eating.
Such a statement would lead the people down a path of failure and disappointment. Trying to stop caring how you look in order to magically look “better” will never work in the long run, because the driving desire is still to look “better.” Striving to lose weight by giving up weight loss will fail, because ultimately it’s still just an attempt at weight loss. It doesn’t work, and all the automatic mechanisms around weight will kick in eventually, just like the lungs will eventually kick in to make you breathe when you’ve held your breath too long.
Truly, the only way this whole thing can “work” is if the mindset and desire has actually changed, and the person genuinely no longer wants to lose weight or change the way they look. Which, first of all, is a huge accomplishment that takes years of work, re-education, courageous self-examination, and self-acceptance. (I would know, this is what I do with my clients.) And in some cases, it’s honestly not even possible. We live a world where a certain kind of body is celebrated and held up as good, and it’s not always possible to stop preferring or wanting that kind of body, even among those who choose not to let their behaviors act out that desire anymore.
Do you see the ethical dilemma here?
Presenting anti-weight-loss plans as a weight loss plan is unethical and impossible, even if there is some scientific evidence available to support the idea that a person is more likely to weight less if they stop trying to lose weight, and that people who succeed at “lifestyles” that support extreme leanness are the least focused on weight or appearance.
This is the weirdness you’ve probably picked up on, the seeming conflict between the two “sides” of the diet culture debate.
I’ve worked with many clients who were genuinely interested in loving and accepting themselves slamming into the door of the secret hope that once they loved and accepted themselves, they would finally be able to lose the weight.
I can’t tell you how heartbreaking those sessions are, when a client realizes they might need to be at their current weight forever, or even gain a little weight, in order to achieve maximum health, happiness, and freedom. I can hear the shuddering howls of their secret hope– that love and acceptance would bring them their dream body– clawing out of the depths of their subconscious, bringing absolute devastation.
It’s tricky business to discuss this stuff publicly, both ethically and practically, which is why I (and many other anti-diet practitioners you might see) appear to be sort of ignoring the “science” on the other side of this aisle.
With a private individual client it’s a lot easier to hear their specific story and help them sort out what’s going on with them bit by bit, but in my public content, this is the line we are all walking.
I hope this clears some things up, and addresses any conflict or confusion you may have felt on the topic. Please feel free to share it, if so!