If only I could meet my weight loss goals then I would finally be able to… My GP told me
Are these familiar thoughts for you? Do you immediately know how to fill in the blank?
What if there was a way to solve these problems without focusing on your body or working to lose weight?
I should probably start with full disclosure that I didn’t always have the stance I am about to lay out for you. Most of my early years as a dietitian were spent working in weight management to help people meet their weight loss goals. In fact, my first full-time job was working for the government on a phone coaching program with the goal of answering their questions about how to lose weight and providing weight loss tips. At the time I was conditioned to believe that it was beneficial to help people achieve weight loss success. That this was what most people needed to achieve good health and happiness. I didn’t realise at the time, but reflecting back now it’s easy to see how harmful it was to help people to lose weight.
Why there is no such thing as healthy weight loss
First and foremost, I no longer offer weight loss advice because I no longer wish to contribute to the idea that body weight is an indicator for health, wellness or beauty. This is very stigmatising. Weight stigma is a real issue in modern society, particularly the healthcare industry. Weight stigma involves rejecting and/or devaluing someone based on an inability to “comply” with the society’s idea of a “normal” body weight or shape. It blames and shames people for something outside of their control and demands they “fix it”.
Weight stigma is often used to extrinsically “motivate” people living in larger bodies to seek “health”. I use quotations here because health doesn’t come from achieving weight loss success, but also because this way of treating people has been shown to have the opposite effect. A study conducted in America in 2018 (1) found that people who experience weight stigma are more likely to eat higher amounts of food, have decreased self-regulation around food, increased stress hormones (cortisol), and reduced levels of physical activity. Isn’t this the opposite of what those people report to be trying to achieve?
Why it is possible to have a healthy lifestyle without pursuing weight loss
“But what about health?” A common argument from those looking to justify their stigmatising words or actions. Well, what about health? Did you know it is possible to pursue healthy behaviour change without focusing on body size or shape at all? In fact, the behaviours that contribute to the reduction of body size are more likely to be what is contributing to the health benefits of weight loss than the reduction of body size. A study conducted in 2012 (2) has shown a relationship between implementation of several healthy behaviour changes and decreased mortality REGARDLESS of body size. These healthy behaviour changes included:
- increased intake of fruits and vegetables
- increased movement of the body
- reduction of alcohol intake
- cessation of smoking
Sure, for some people making these changes will result in a change of body shape, but for a lot of people it will not and that is perfectly ok.
I guess now is a good time to add in that I am not of the view that everyone should be pursuing health. I understand that for a lot of people pursuing a healthy lifestyle cannot be a priority and that is also ok. However, as a dietitian, my job is to help people looking for advice on how to be healthy and to help them make changes.
My evidence based gentle nutrition approach
This article aims to outline MY role as a dietitian in that pursuing a healthy lifestyle WITHOUT focusing on changing one’s body size or shape.
The way I do this is to use much more gentle approaches to nutrition, such as a non-diet or an intuitive eating approach. These approaches are weight neutral, incorporate elements of self-compassion and have been shown to help people achieve the same health outcomes as those who are trying to achieve weight loss but with much lower overall risk.
Focusing all your time and attention on trying to reach weight loss goals can be time consuming, energy draining, stigmatising, harmful to your mental health and down right unnecessary. It is possible and actually more effective in the longer term to focus your time and energy on working towards the deeper goals you have. Working with a Dietitian who takes a weight neutral approach to care, can be a relief. You no longer have to justify why your body doesn’t meet unrealistic ideals or agree to fight tooth and nail to achieve it. You are also less likely to embed disordered eating patterns developed from years of being told what NOT to eat.
What you will get is an empathetic person, willing to listen to what you really want to achieve. You will learn about your own personal values, what your body wants or needs and what feels good for you. You will experience freedom. Freedom from the trap of being told your body size is the route of all your problems and that if it doesn’t change nothing else will. You will get gentle, compassionate care.
- How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. Tomiyama et al. BMC Medicine (2018) 16:123 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-018-1116-5
- Healthy Lifestyle Habits and Mortality in Overweight and Obese Individuals. Eric M. Matheson, Dana E. King and Charles J. Everett. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine January 2012, 25 (1) 9-15; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3122/jabfm.2012.01.110164