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Is the anti-diet movement leading us astray?

"Diet" doesn't have to be a four letter word.

by Samantha Cassetty, RD /  / Updated 
Nutrition experts on Instagram are posting everything from oversized bagels to pizza to burgers to monstrous ice cream cones and it may be sending the wrong message. Fedorovacz / Shutterstock
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As both a registered dietitian and someone who routinely reports on how to eat well and live more healthfully, I follow many of my fellow nutrition professionals on social media. Lately I’ve been disheartened by the anti-diet trend I’ve noticed on some of my colleagues’ feeds. One recurring theme: Diets don’t work.

I can’t say I totally agree with this and I wonder how it’s serving the 70% of Americans who are overweight or obese, a factor that is linked with type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and pain issues from carrying too much weight. Does anti-diet mean we’re against weight loss, even for those who might benefit from losing just 5% of their weight?

Does anti-diet mean we’re against weight loss, even for those who might benefit from losing just 5% of their weight?

Does anti-diet mean we’re against weight loss, even for those who might benefit from losing just 5% of their weight?

Taken at face value, the Merriam-Webster definition of the word diet simply means a food and drink regularly provided or consumed. What’s wrong with suggesting regularly consuming the foods and drinks that would promote a healthier weight?

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Intuitive Eating

Most anti-diet professionals are rooted in the concept of intuitive eating. In addition to ditching the dieting mentality, this practice involves honoring your own hunger and fullness cues, quieting your inner terrorist (that nagging voice in your head that shames you for eating fries) and making peace with your cravings. Certainly, I’m in favor of all these principles, but what concerns me is some of the social media sentiment that accompanies them: the notion that these foundations of self-compassion and respect are at odds with losing weight.

I’m a balance seeker and a healthy lifestyle enthusiast. I believe in nourishing your body through food and activity, managing stress, meditating, cultivating kindness towards your body and calling a truce with those voices in your head. And I call into question the extremes in the wellness sphere, be it restrictive eating, punitive exercise and more recently, the extremity of the anti-diet movement. Believe your feeds and you’ll think there’s just one way — the anti-diet way — to eat well and feel better in your body. Last I checked, there are multiple paths toward improving your health.

The Vicious Cycle of Dieting

I’m also uneasy about the cycle of dieting that I’ve seen depicted on my social media stream: diet/deprivation/weight loss/bingeing/shame/weight gain/repeat. Is there a possibility that you can make tweaks to your menu without entering this cycle of doom? Is there room for the idea that you can eat a cookie or have a slice of pizza and learn to quiet those inner voices while also looking to lose a few pounds? Does losing weight always lead to a binge-deprivation loop? Not necessarily.

I don’t agree that the desire to lose weight is always a sign of self-loathing as some anti-diet experts would have you believe. Perhaps for some, but for others the desire to shed some weight is an act of self-care and can be a positive experience. Consider that at the 5% weight-loss mark — about 8 ½ pounds for the average 168-pound woman and 10 pounds for the average 196-pound man — most risks of obesity are eliminated, and psychological wellbeing and binge eating are improved, according to one study.

I don’t agree that the desire to lose weight is always a sign of self-loathing as some anti-diet experts would have you believe.

I don’t agree that the desire to lose weight is always a sign of self-loathing as some anti-diet experts would have you believe.

A better message may be this: “Give up trying to control your body, make peace with yourself and make positive changes in your life that feel good to you and fit your needs and interests, find people who support you no matter what and stop measuring your appearance as health," says anti-diet and body-positive expert, Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness and Founder of the Spiral Up club.

She explains that eating well, moving and loving life are valuable and important markers of health improvement — whether you lose weight or not. Sometimes our bodies just settle where they want.

Where Does Food Porn Fit In?

On top of the anti-weight loss sentiment, I’ve also seen more food porn coming from my anti-diet friends. Everything from oversized bagels to pizza to burgers to monstrous ice cream cones. What gives?

“I dislike the dichotomy that you're either restricting and dieting severely or eating pizza, cupcakes and huge bowls of pasta without a care,” says dietitian Andy Bellatti, Strategic Director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. “I don’t support diets per say, but that doesn't mean I suggest people eat mindlessly,” he says. (It’s worth noting that eating mindfully is an important pillar of intuitive eating, but this doesn’t always shine through a short Instagram post promoting anti-diet services.) “The important part that is missing from all of this is the why. If you’re eating cupcakes and pizza (or restricting your food intake to an unhealthy degree) as a way to numb feelings or because you feel worthless, that is not healthy,” he explains.

I dislike the dichotomy that you're either restricting and dieting severely or eating pizza, cupcakes and huge bowls of pasta without a care.

I dislike the dichotomy that you're either restricting and dieting severely or eating pizza, cupcakes and huge bowls of pasta without a care.

I think there’s some context missing here, too. My hunch is that these foods are not every day norms for most of my friends in the nutrition sphere. I may be stepping out on a limb here, but I’d say most of us nourish our bodies with nutritious foods the majority of the time. What I call soul foods — the ones we eat out of pure pleasure because they nourish our souls — are eaten far less often. Just a guess! Where did all those kale salads go?

Scritchfield looks at it this way: “I don't eat cake for breakfast, but we are more harmed by the idea that something is wrong when we eat cake at all.” Fair enough, but I think the balance is often lost on Instagram, where the image of a gooey chocolate chip cookie gets lots of oohs, ahs and likes — especially when accompanied by “ditch the diet” language.

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Weight Loss in a Quick Fix World

Weight loss is complicated, but maybe it’s just the way diets are promoted and our culture that values thinness above all else that don’t work. The best-selling book “Metabolism Revolution,” which all but guarantees on the cover LOSE 14 POUNDS IN 14 DAYS AND KEEP IT OFF FOR LIFE is probably the very definition of overpromise and under deliver. “It is possible to completely overhaul your way of eating over the course of a year or two, but not in [14], 21 or 30 days,” says Bellatti. I think we can all agree there’s no magic bullet.

It’s accurate to say that among those who have lost weight, many go on to regain it, but hope is not lost! The National Weight Control Registry, a long-term study that began in 1994 analyzes the behaviors of those who have lost weight and kept it off for the long-haul. Success stories are diverse as are the amounts lost, showing yet again that no one method prevails, and there are many definitions of success.

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Yet for those who lost and kept it off, there are some common themes and good lessons. It takes a change in the way you eat. And you have to keep it up. A 2014 study on these folks found that the majority of members have maintained their weight loss for 10 years—something that required behavior change that lasted the same period of time. You probably won’t see long-term behavior change blasted on the cover of a weight loss book any time soon. Just saying.

When One Size Doesn’t Fit All

“People can lose weight on their own terms, but until they’re ready, it’s unlikely that any sort of convincing, education or positive reinforcement will do much,” says Billatti. As healthcare professionals, it’s not our job to force change, but to be empathetic to someone’s ambivalence while providing gentle guidance toward continual improvements, he explains. I think of it this way: We’re the cheerleaders; you’re the quarterbacks. You’re in charge of your body, where you want to take the weight loss conversation and what habits you want to work on. If weight loss is something you’re aiming for, part of the conversation may be adjusting the goal post to make your success more likely and sustainable. And at the end of the day, no matter where your weight winds up, it doesn’t change your inner awesomeness.

Scritchfield takes it a step further. “Rather than worry about weight, Body Kindness teaches people to think about well-being by taking care of the person you are now. This is hard in our culture that keeps pushing weight loss as the most important goal. I think the most important goal is to have some compassion for yourself,” she says. “We have to consider mental and physical health outside of appearance. What we should consider instead is being physically active, seeing the doctor to get our labs, eating well, socializing managing stress and sleeping.” Touché.

Weight-loss success stories (and tips to borrow)

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