It’s that time of year when many overindulge at holiday parties or “stress eat.” After gaining weight or feelings of remorse, they vow to “lose weight” or “get in shape” as the New Year arrives. As we all know, these resolutions often do not last until February before we slide back into our old, comfortable patterns. However, we do not feel good about our perceived failure (yet again).
Recent research shows that repeated dieting not only does not result in maintained weight loss, but also contributes to weight gain, disordered eating patterns, depression, and poor body image.1 A poignant remark was made in our Psychology of Eating class. The idea was wondering what the impact of hating your body would have on your body. As we see by the results of research mentioned above, poor ones.
So, what if we could make a non-resolution by going on a non-diet? Non-diets strive to improve a variety of health indicators while taking the focus from weight loss and measurements.2 I know it is hard to imagine. But what if what we have been told about Body Mass Index (BMI) and losing weight are not accurate?3 At the very least, they do not solely represent a vision of health. Did you know that the BMI scale was lowered in 1998 against research suggesting it be increased?3 This meant an automatic increase in the number of people labeled as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’ Furthermore, this measure was not meant to be the diagnostic tool it has morphed into.3 It does not account for the wide variety of body types present in the human continuum.3
The non-diet movement goes against what fashion, society, and medicine focus on the most. It takes the emphasis off weight and onto health. While it will take some time and mental work to adjust to this new concept, imagine the freedom of making healthy changes without being measured by weight loss. As mentioned above, diets are ineffective in the long run. This ongoing “failure” impacts our feelings of self-worth.1,3 Fat people also are judged by friends, family, strangers, and medical professionals (everyone!). This is an additional “weight on their shoulders” and makes them feel worse. What do we do when we feel bad? We summon our coping skills, healthy or not, to comfort ourselves. On the other hand, if a person is empowered, they can develop healthier patterns. They can find enjoyable movement and increase fruits and vegetables, without the added stress of wearing a smaller size. Conscious behavior choices can lead to physiological changes that improve other health indicators, including cholesterol, increased physical activity, dietary composition, self-esteem, and quality of life.2
There are several non-diet or weight-neutral programs available for people who are ready to try a more psychologically healthy method than food restriction and weight loss.1 These include Mindful Eating, Intuitive Eating, and the Satter Eating Competence Model.1 I would like to focus in on the Health at Every Size (HAES) program.1 This program focuses on respecting that there is diversity in body shape and size.1 It seeks to end weight judgement and stigma and encourages eating and exercise considering the person’s hunger and satiety cues, nutritional needs, and pleasure.1 They also uphold wellness through a holistic design.1
Let’s delve into some of the details of the HAES philosophy. HAES focuses on the underlying feelings that lead people to desire to be thin. These include the need to feel loved and accepted.4 Humans also desire to be in good health and have vitality.4 We have been led to believe that weight loss provides these feelings, but does it really? What about the majority of people who cannot maintain weight loss or lose weight at physical and psychological costs?3 There is mounting evidence that fat is not where the focus should be, and that dieting causes more problems than it solves.4 Like many of our societal beliefs, weight-loss is a big money maker for numerous industries.4 It is disheartening to learn over and over that what we have been taught is a construct that benefits the few, but disempowers the many. It may even be difficult to wrap your head around being healthy in a larger body. But if this sparks your interest, I encourage you to consider these programs and seek out a health care provider or community to help you change these prevalent misconceptions.
HAES has several tenets that it’s members follow to change their perspective on weight. We know that everyone has their own unique DNA. We do not expect everyone to be the same height or have the same eye color, but we often expect people to fall within a narrow band of weights. Size diversity clarifies that a variety of weights and sizes for humans is normal and natural.3 There have always been fat people and the ability to store fat was crucial for your ancestors’ survival.3 These principles allow us to look at our bodies in a unique way. Our bodies are doing what has been beneficial in the past. I remember listening to a meditation years ago in which I was prompted to thank my body for all the work it is doing. I was taken aback that I had not thought of this on my own. We can learn to be grateful for our bodies’ wisdom and turn the fight against ourselves into self-acceptance. Acceptance of your size is another guiding principle of HAES.5 When we are accepting of our size and ourselves, we will have a better chance at accomplishing our goals.5 Fighting against ourselves tends to lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. And don’t we have enough to deal with in life without being our own worst enemy?
Learning to trust yourself and your body is another belief of HAES.5 Our bodies are finely tuned to keep our systems balanced and healthy.5 In the rush of everyday life, we may have lost touch with some of the signals our body is sending us. Reconnecting with our bodies can help us identify these lost indicators of hunger and satiety.5 Our body strives for its own ideal weight (not based on what societal or the medical establishment’s edicts).5 Through education and tuning in, these messages can be heard again.
Lastly, HAES promotes healthy lifestyle habits.5 This is more than exercising, although that is part of it. There is an emphasis on fulfilling “your social, emotional, and spiritual needs” through human connections.5 This is at the crux of the matter of why we are trying to use food to meet unmet human needs. Moving your body is important, but doing it in an enjoyable and perhaps social way are emphasized versus a taxing or isolating workout.5 There are also other ways to gain pleasure, including laughing and hugging.3 Have you ever heard of “Laughter Yoga.” It was started by Dr. Kataria in India, but now there are laughter clubs worldwide. It also provides a way to build community as over time you will continue to see friendly faces and form bonds with other group members. It is great for stress relief and the immune system too. There are many ways to get our needs met when we have the time and mental energy to focus on self-care rather than numbers on a scale or tape measure.
Healthy habits also involve learning to allow yourself to eat when you are hungry, and stopping when you are not. This reminds me of the Okinawan practice hara hachi: only eating until 80% full and staying naturally physically active.6 I learned about this concept when reading about the Blue Zones, areas of the world where there are a larger number of centenarians. Checking if we are no longer hungry is a different sensation than being “stuffed.” It is okay to seek out enjoyable and satisfying foods when you are learning to be in tune with your body (and later too). Food offers other nourishment than nutritional. Sometimes we need extra comfort. This will be a process and we need to grant ourselves the time and flexibility to understand this new philosophy and be gentle with ourselves through our transformation.
I hope this new perspective intrigues you as much as it did me and makes this holiday season more enjoyable and less regrettable. For more information about HAES, please review some of the references listed below. Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year!
1. Clifford D, Ozier A, Bundros J, Moore J, Kreiser A, Morris MN. Impact of Non-Diet Approaches on Attitudes, Behaviors, and Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2015;47(2). doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2014.12.002.
2. Mensinger JL, Calogero RM, Stranges S, Tylka TL. A weight-neutral versus weight-loss approach for health promotion in women with high BMI: A randomized-controlled trial. Appetite. 2016;105:364-374. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.06.006.
3. Nelson D. Non-Diet Approach to Nutrition. November 2017.
4. Bacon L. Health at every size: the surprising truth about your weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books; 2010.
5. What is Health at Every Size? National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-health-every-size. Accessed December 9, 2017.
6. Buettner D. The blue zones: lessons for living longer from the people who lived the longest. Washington, D.C.: Natlonal Geographic Society; 2009.