I was 16 when I went on my first diet. Puberty hit, and I began gaining weight, prompting feelings of panic in my changing body.
Years later I learned that women naturally gain 40 to 50 pounds during puberty. While this is totally normal and expected, it’s not widely known or shared, and, as a result, many women begin dieting during adolescence. I joined a popular diet program and lost weight, which inspired me to switch my major to nutrition and become a dietitian. If I could lose weight and get “healthier,” I could help others do the same –or so I thought.
Training to be a dietitian, everything I was taught linked food behaviors to weight and weight to health. Someone has diabetes? Help them lower their blood sugar by losing weight. Heart disease? Prescribe a cardiac diet and weight-loss counseling.
At the time, I truly believed I was helping people. If only I could educate them about nutrition and calories, then they would lose weight and –because of this – be healthier. I mean, calories in/calories out, right? As it turns out, no. How wrong I – and our weight-centric education system – was.
Nowadays, it’s easy to assume that the link between health and weight has always existed. Certainly that’s what most health professionals teach and what’s disseminated through the media. But interestingly enough, the roots of people’s desire to lose weight predate any scientific “evidence” connecting weight and health. In fact, until the early 1900s, weight loss was not part of physician’s advice or public health recommendations. When the medical community started to advise weight loss – only beginning about 100 years ago or so – it wasn’t because there was any scientific evidence linking weight to health, but because our culture had already created a desire for thinness and a bias against fatness.
Our culture equates thinness to health, happiness, attractiveness and worthiness, a system of beliefs that is often referred to as diet culture. To be thin is to be deemed morally superior, whereas to be fat is to be seen as unhealthy, lazy and a failure. In this way, our culture promotes dieting and weight loss as a way to achieve a higher status and worthiness. We’re told that we have to eat a certain way and be a certain size to be “healthy.”
Therefore, certain foods and certain body types are inherently elevated, while others are vilified. These cultural beliefs about body size and morality, worthiness and even health didn’t come out of nowhere. They were specifically created to establish social hierarchies and control people.
The Biased Roots of the Cultural Desire to Lose Weight
For much of human history, people’s main concern was getting enough food. The more modern origins of the diet culture we know today are rooted in colonialism, racism, classism and sexism and were (and continue to be) used as a way to control groups of people. That might sound far-fetched, but stick with me – I promise you it’s not.
Colonialist and Racist Origins
Western culture was built upon the control of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, which allowed white people to rise to the top and hold the power. To establish social hierarchies where white people (especially white men) could remain at the top, white Europeans and Americans linked being Black and/or being fat to negative traits like greediness and laziness.
As Sabrina Strings, author of the book “Fearing the Black Body,” explains, “Two critical historical developments contributed to a fetish for svelteness and a phobia about fatness: the risk of the transatlantic slave trade and the spread of Protestantism. Racial scientific rhetoric about slavery linked fatness to ‘greedy’ Africans, and religious discourse suggested that overeating was ungodly…In the United States, fatness became stigmatized as both black and sinful. Slenderness served as a marker of moral, racial and national superiority.”
White men effectively created a societal “other,”marginalizing Black people and, in their efforts to do so, relegated fatness as something to fear and avoid. This fatphobia, rather than any concern of health or well-being, is what began our culture’s fixation on weight.
In addition to colonialism and racism, diet culture also has its roots in sexism and the desire for female obedience. We live in a patriarchal society, a social system in which men hold the majority of the power and have historically dominated leadership roles at every level of society. So, who benefits from women being preoccupied with dieting and conforming to body ideals? Men (white men in particular).
When we examine history, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each time women gained more power and advancement, society responded with the creation of more beauty and body ideals. As Naomi Wolf describes in her book “The Beauty Myth:” “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience … Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Once again, society’s emphasis on thinness is not about women’s health or well-being but about their submission and control.
Dieting as a Way to Belong
As our culture’s body and beauty ideas were created, conforming to them was not only a way to achieve status or worth but also a way to belong. The need to belong has a strong evolutionary benefit. Way back when, belonging to a group was essential for human survival. In modern times, this is not necessarily the case, but humans still have a strong desire to belong to a social group and be accepted by others.
In present-day society, fat people are “othered,” relegated to the outskirts of society. We are taught that we can avoid this marginalization if we make our bodies smaller – or at least try to make our bodies smaller. So belonging, for many people, requires dieting and attempting weight loss. Dieting can also be a way that BIPOC people assimilate into Western society. To protect themselves against oppression, they may seek weight loss or pursue other white beauty ideals. Much of the time, people are only fully accepted by society only when they are thin or when they are in the pursuit of thinness.
Having Weight Loss as a Goal Is Normal
All that said, it makes sense that people would want to lose weight. In doing so, we are promised acceptance, belonging, health and happiness. For the clients I work with, the idea of giving up the idea of losing weight can bring about the (legitimate) fear of being judged, disrespected, cast aside or worse.
This is why my anti-diet colleagues and I do not shame anyone who attempts to lose weight and conform to our society’s body ideals. Very real oppression exists for people who hold marginalized identities, including women, BIPOC people and fat folks, so it’s understandable that someone would want to protect themselves from this injustice by losing weight.
The Anti-Diet (or Non-Diet) Approach to Health
My anti-diet dietitian colleagues and I are not anti-weight loss, anti-nutrition, anti-health or anti-person who diets. Rather, we are anti-the oppressive diet culture that causes people to feel “less than” and to be made to feel like they need to use all their time, energy and money to shrink themselves in order to be healthy, loved and accepted.
It’s not about convincing people that they shouldn’t want to lose weight; it’s about freeing people – especially folks with marginalized identities such as women, fat folks and BIPOC people – from historically rooted systems of oppression. Everyone has body autonomy and has the right to pursue weight loss or a certain body size if that’s what they want to do. But I also believe in informed consent, meaning that we have got to talk about the societal forces that are involved in the desire for weight loss – as well as the dismal statistics about the efficacy of long-term weight loss, the laundry list of side effects that pursuing intentional weight loss can have and the evidence we have that weight and health are not actually linked.
This is why the intuitive eating framework is not meant to be used in conjunction with intentional weight loss because focusing on weight only serves to disconnect us from our body and doesn’t promote health.
The Truth About Weight and Health
Despite what you may have been taught or told, weight is not a good indicator of health. There is zero research that proves that higher amounts of weight or body fat cause diseases like heart disease, cancer or diabetes. While some of these health conditions are more common in people at higher weights, and there may be a correlation between weight and health, this is not the same thing as causation. Weight isn’t the underlying cause for poor health; it may simply be an effect of other variables that are the actual causes of disease, such as genetics, social and environmental factors, weight stigma and behaviors like diet and exercise. Yet in our weight-centric society, “weight loss” is often prescribed as the way to achieve health and well-being.
This belief is perpetuated despite extensive research that shows that in terms of modifiable health risks, our behaviors and socioeconomic factors – not weight – impact our health most. When a person has access to safe housing, good healthcare, doesn’t experience discrimination, eats a variety of nutritious foods, and is physically active, markers like blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure decrease. This improvement occurs even when a person doesn’t lose any weight, showing us that it is the behaviors that matter – not weight.
On top of that, research also has found that when weight-related feedback is given, people are less likely to make long-term health behavior changes. This is one of the many reasons why my anti-diet colleagues and I like to take the focus off of weight, as it’s not actually a good motivator for health and behavior changes.
Plus, when we focus only on a person’s weight or behaviors, we neglect to address the structural and systemic issues that contribute to the majority of health inequalities. Those of us who are lucky enough to be born into a family with secure housing and live in a safe neighborhood, have enough money to afford food and can get a good education have a huge leg up when it comes to our health outcomes.
If Not Weight, Then What?
Rather than weight, we can put the focus on our behaviors, including healthy eating, physical activity, smoking and stress management, and in finding compassionate ways to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally. When it comes to measuring physical health, health markers such as cholesterol, blood pressure or blood glucose predict physical health more accurately than weight.
Other ways you can measure health progress may include:
- More attunement to hunger and fullness cues.
- More energy.
- Better sleep.
- Better coping skills.
- Less bingeing.
- Less all-or-nothing thinking.
- Decreased food cravings.
- Improved flexibility, strength, and/or endurance.
If there’s still part of you that is unsure about all of this, that’s OK. At some point in your life, dieting and the pursuit of weight loss may have been something that served you. Perhaps it made you feel safe, accepted or in control.
I can’t and won’t ever tell someone what to do with their body. However, I can encourage you to unpack and dismantle the false beliefs about food and body size that society has programmed into you in order to find true physical, mental and emotional health – no matter what your body size.
This article includes excerpts from the author’s upcoming book, “Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life.”