If you read my last blog post and still faithfully follow Diet Culture, you may have been left with the question: If Dieting for weight loss is “not, ultimately, ‘healthy’ in any way, at all” why do I FEEL so healthy and good when my weight has gone down? This is fair. Most people can justify holding on to the restricting and binging lifestyle that Diet Culture demands because when they “lose the weight” they do FEEL better. Luckily, this question is very easy to answer.
Because of Diet Culture, you are wrongly associating your lower weight with a healthier feeling. In actuality, your healthier feeling can easily be attributed to the exercise, sleep, water and nutritious food choices you likely had to make to lower your weight. If you think this is “6 in one/ half a dozen the other” you are incorrect. Focusing on the weight loss rather than the behavior changes is detrimental to your long-term health in a number of ways.
First, believing that you “feel healthier” just because you are thinner, perpetuates the Diet Culture lie that health and thinness are synonymous. They are not. Decades of research demonstrate that thinness, in itself, does not equate to health in any body. If you want to read that research for yourself, I strongly encourage you to read Health At Every Size by by Dr. Linda Bacon.
Second, you will eventually come to a plateau in your weight loss – a place where your body will refuse to give up any more of its mass because it is desperately trying to keep you alive. If you have focused on weight loss throughout your journey and believe the weight loss itself to be “the thing” that is making you healthy, this will be devastating. You will have a difficult time accepting the fact that your body simply refuses to be any smaller. This will lead to a decline in your mental and emotional health. This COULD (and frequently does) lead you to engage in disordered eating (if you weren’t already) and to developing an actual diagnosable eating disorder.
This weight plateau could also (and frequently does) lead you to simply give up – give up all of those healthy behaviors that were making you feel so great. “Giving up” will lead to binging and choosing all of those foods that you were restricting yourself from while you were dieting for weight loss. “Giving up” will lead you to stop exercising, stop getting enough sleep, stop drinking so much water. And what’s next? You won’t feel so great anymore. And you’ll tell yourself it’s because you gained weight – but if you could see that this entire journey had absolutely nothing to do with weight and EVERYTHING to do with the behavior you engage in, there would be no need to “give up,” there would be no frustration with your body when it decides to keep you alive by maintaining a weight that makes sense for YOUR unique body.
Third, IF your goal is better health, it is healthy behaviors that are going to give you that better health, NOT weight loss. Sometimes engaging in healthy behaviors and weight loss go hand in hand and sometimes they do not. Engaging in healthy behaviors – regardless of what happens to your weight – will give you better health.
One more time for the people in the back: ENGAGING IN HEALTHY BEHAVIORS – REGARDLESS OF WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR WEIGHT – WILL GIVE YOU BETTER HEALTH.
Know what that means? You can be healthy no matter what your size. You can choose healthy behaviors no matter what your body looks like. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. And if you can accept this truth and let your journey to better health be about the BEHAVIORS you are engaging in RATHER than your weight, you are 100% more likely to engage in those healthy behaviors for the rest of your life and not just when you can white-knuckle yourself down to the size that Diet Culture tells you is acceptable.
Why, you ask? Why is it easier to engage in these healthy behaviors for the rest of your life rather than dieting for weight loss for the rest of your life? If you accurately attribute your good feelings to your healthy behaviors, you are more likely to WANT to engage in these behaviors. You do not see engaging in these behaviors as a chore or a job or something you HAVE to do in order to be accepted or loved by society. You are doing these things because they feel good, right now, in the moment, in YOUR body. This creates a sense of autonomy, self-respect, and self-love which leads to excellent mental and emotional health. Correctly attributing the healthy behaviors you are engaging in as the source of your “healthy feelings” means that you are learning to respect your body, trust it, and know how it responds to different stimuli and behaviors. THIS is one of the major steps to Body Liberation. Body Liberation is a much more comfortable place to live in for the rest of our lives than the home of body-shame and self-hatred that life-long dieting for weight loss builds for us.
Finally, I just want to challenge the notion that dieting for weight loss makes you “feel good.” Listen, I’ve been there – I know what you mean when you say that – first hand. And if you really mean it – if you TRULY “feel good” in your body, the answer I’ve given above for why that is, fits. But, because I’ve been there, I will also say, sometimes that “good” feeling comes from a place of emotional and mental disorder. Sometimes that “good” feeling is the alleviation of the body-shame and self-hatred, imposed upon you by Diet Culture. Sometimes that “good” feeling comes from the actual punishment you put yourself through – the excessive exercising, the extreme restriction, the muscling your way past a craving or a desire to eat a food that Diet Culture has told you, you are not “allowed” to eat. Sometimes that “good” feeling comes from going to bed starving and waking up starving and obsessively zombie-ing your way through every day only thinking about food and the size of your body because FINALLY you are living in the exact space that Diet Culture has told you that you will live if you want to be a good girl or a worthy, lovable human being. IF these are the ways in which your weight loss is making you “feel good,” it is time to question your own definition of “good” and “healthy.”
Dieting for weight loss, while it CAN lead to feeling good – again, for the reasons I’ve outlined above – can also lead people to feeling lousy. Restricting food intake and excessively exercising when one’s body is not properly fueled can lead to fatigue, irritability, restless sleep, unexplained rage, panic, anxiety, depression and overall, LESS health. These are not “good” feelings. In my personal experience I can tell you that most periods of the truly healthy feelings brought on by the healthy behaviors one engages in to lose weight will be followed by THIS period of a rapid decline in mental, emotional and social health. And, again, this happens because we are focused on the scale rather than the behaviors that are making us feel good. We want to see that number go down so badly, we restrict our eating and increase our minutes and hours of exercise. We know – because Diet Culture has beaten it into us – that weight loss is about calories in and calories out. We take in less calories. We burn more. But our bodies are not machines so eventually, that extraordinarily simplistic equation is no longer working. Our bodies are organic systems designed to keep us alive. Fewer calories in and more calories out means that the system has to reset itself in a number of ways to make sure we stay alive. This leads to all the not so great feeling mentioned earlier.
Learning to accept, respect, nourish and move your body will lead to feeling great and to potentially better health. Dieting for weight loss will not. Body Liberation Training can give you the tools you need to learn to accept, respect, nourish and move your body in ways that make sense for you. If you want to “feel great” for the long run and not just while you can white knuckle your weight down to what Diet Culture has told you is acceptable, STOP dieting for weight loss and seek Body Liberation instead.
is an NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer; an ACE-Certified Group Fitness Instructor; a certified Yoga Teacher; a Certified Intuitive Eating Professional; and a degree-holding Health, Fitness Specialist. She lives in Frankfort, Michigan and owns Every. Body. Fitness and Yoga Studio.