5 tips to avoid diet traps
At this time of year it takes a huge amount of effort to avoid diet messages – they are everywhere!! People are going on meal plans, detoxes, exercise regimes, and plain old diets left right and centre. And this year the diet industry is laughing because not only do they have the usual ‘holiday weight gain’ to pull you in, they also have last year’s ‘lockdown weight increase’ to add to their arsenal of triggers. It really is falling all into their lap, which is already lined with people’s hard earned cash (it’s a $78ish billion industry, based on selling an ‘ideal' that isn’t achievable for 95%+ of people). Now just to clarify: I am very much against diet culture, but not against dieters. I have tons of compassion for everyone who wants to lose weight, because it's what we are all told we should do.
What is diet culture?
Christy Harrison describes this perfectly as ‘..a system of beliefs that worships certain body shapes and equates thinness with health and moral virtue’. In so doing, it makes you feel shame or guilt for not fitting into this ‘ideal’, and it makes you strive to shrink or shape your body to be ‘more acceptable’. It promotes weight loss as a virtuous goal which will elevate you to be ‘better’ and to achieve a higher social and economical status. (I am using a lot of quotation marks here because these terms are problematic and questionable).
But isn’t it unhealthy to be ‘overweight’?
Research and science have now clearly shown that intentional weight loss does not work for the majority of people (most people will gain the weight they lost back, and often more). But not only does it not work, it can be harmful by increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. This is particularly true for weight-cycling, also known as yo-yo dieting. On top of that, dieting can lead to obsessive food thoughts, bingeing, body dissatisfaction and low energy. There is also a lot of evidence that weight is not an indicator of health, you can be in a thin body and unhealthy, just as you can be in a large body and be healthy.
What is worrying is that despite all this evidence, the first advice of a person in a larger body usually gets is: lose weight! Weight stigma (which is the negative associations and attitudes that people in larger bodies have to endure) is a lot more damaging than weight itself. If we let go of the idea that ‘weight equals health’ we can focus on how we can improve our health and wellbeing, regardless of our weight. And then there is the question: is health a moral obligation? Check out my blog about health for more on that.
I don’t diet, I just do a detox
The messages we are bombarded with are often no longer very obviously relating to just weight-loss. Instead of using phrases such as ‘burn calories’, ‘lose that belly-fat’ or ‘get your bikini body ready’ (note: every body wearing a bikini is a bikini body, just saying..) you will now hear the diet industry use words and phrases such as ‘wellbeing’, ‘health’, ‘detox’, ‘cleanse’ and even ‘anti-diet’ and ‘intuitive eating’. Unfortunately this is fashionable at the moment (and many big brands have very well-paid and clever marketing experts at their disposal who are very happy to co-opt terminology that stems from a very different framework). If you see traffic lights, are told what’s healthy/not healthy, what to include and what to cut out, when and how often to eat, or if it is tied to counting calories/macros or losing weight, it is still a diet, just one in disguise.
So how can we protect ourselves against these diet messages?
Here are my 5 top tips to avoid diet industry traps and build some resilience against their messages:
· Critically evaluate your social media and media consumption – unfollow accounts that promote dieting or exercising for weight loss or show you before and after photos. Instead, check out accounts that promote a body positive and anti-diet message - check out who they follow and you will get a huge number of amazing people to follow! Have a look at my resources list for inspiration!
· Inform yourself! Get clued up about how diet mentality can be harmful, how the diet industry is making tons of money by using fear- and shame-inducing tactics, how they sneak up on you with language that disguises what they really are, and find out what alternative approaches there are to work on your health and wellbeing.
· If you find yourself in a conversation that turns to dieting (this will happen A LOT right now with everyone and their dog being on some fancy meal plan or weight loss programme), either step away or prepare something to say (e.g. ‘I am not in that space right now and am taking care of myself in a different way’ or ‘I know that dieting doesn’t work long-term so I would rather not spend my time thinking or talking about it’.) Or you could just change the subject to something else entirely!
· Try out some reframing: when a negative thought about your body or your eating behaviour pops into your head, try and reframe it by saying something kind and compassionate instead. Always think: would I say this to my friends? Most likely you will talk a lot more harshly to yourself than your friends, so try and give yourself the same respect you would give others. My blog on role modelling goes a bit deeper into how we talk about food and our bodies.
· Reflect on how dieting has interfered with your life in the past (think of physical, social, psychological and behavioural aspects) and whether you are willing to continue dealing with the consequences of dieting on your life.
The more people call out weight stigma and diet messages, and are aware of the sneaky ways of diet culture, the easier it will be for people in bodies of all sizes to live their life without guilt and shame and the overwhelming desire to change their body to achieve happiness. Everyone can be part of this movement, and we can all make a difference!