Not ready to ditch the diet mentality? Or, totally clueless as to what that even means? I don’t blame you for your hesitancy. How many other ways can you be told what to eat or not eat? How many times will nutrition science fold in on itself and declare the opposite of what it once collectively thought was true? Why should anyone be quick to ditch the diet mentality when dieting has become the norm? Why are diets not okay now, but they used to be the key to health? How is the anti-diet movement any different than the movements before it?
Let’s be real: this is something we’re still figuring out.
In last weekend’s New York Times magazine, the feature piece is “Losing it in the Anti-Dieting Age”. First, I was excited, in the way only a nerdy anti-diet dietitian gets excited, to read the lengthy anti-diet coverage. Then, I was curious to see what a NYT journalist might have to say about the “anti-diet” movement, one less likely to serve as clickbait or a quick-fix. I was curious as to how the piece landed the coveted magazine feature. I was fascinated to learn how companies like Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine have struggled to keep up with the declining interest in watching one’s weight or eating “lean” frozen meals. (What is “modern eating” exactly?)
By the end of the time I spent reading and absorbing Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s words, I felt unsettled.
I write about aspects of intuitive eating often, but I focus a lot on the steps that come after we ditch the diet mentality. As I have learned intuitive eating, I have progressed past the diet mentality, so maybe I’ve forgotten how significant that first step is. I no longer follow food rules. I don’t stress about how much sugar I’ve had in a day, or whether my meals are balanced, or if I’m consuming too many calories. I spent years obsessing—the result of combining an eating disorder with a nutrition education. While I recovered from my diet mentality, I was still surrounded by nutrition information and nutrition news every day. So yeah, it took a while. And I shouldn’t discount that. If I’m being honest, it was years in the making.
When I work with clients, I start by asking about or searching or food rules.
We talk about their food philosophies, diets they’ve tried in the past, aspects of those attempts that linger. We talk about how dieting doesn’t work. The process it takes to ditch the diet mentality requires patience—and detachment from the desire to achieve results (i.e. weight loss).
The article chronicles Taffy’s own attempts at weight loss, including working with a nutritionist, and attending a mindful eating class, learning to eat a raisin mindfully. I’ve seen these tips and even read an entire article about this raisin exercise. The problem is that we can’t expect someone to mindfully eat a raisin when they’re wondering how many grams of sugar it has or many raisins they might have to eat or if they shouldn’t have had that snack before they came to class. (I don’t like raisins much, so this particular exercise sounds unpleasant to me anyway.)
Taffy, your article is a key part of this anti-dieting age. I was expecting to read about more companies that are trying to keep their profits high and their customers happy. I was expecting to add a deposit to my cynicism account and sit high on my anti-dietitian horse as I nodded along and thought, “Because none of these diets work! That’s the problem!” Science has told us this. There’s no doubting it. But you know and wrote this. You also presented a much more important issue.
The problem is how hard it is to ditch the diet mentality.
That “ditching the diet mentality” step is key to Intuitive Eating, but articles and Instagram posts are quick to focus in on hunger, fullness, and eating all the foods. The problem is that even in an anti-dieting age, I’m still here preaching about another way to eat (i.e. by definition, a diet).
As much as I believe in intuitive eating, I have to press pause and meet you right where you are: in the diet mentality that feels impossible to ditch. We are surrounded by this mentality EVERY DAY on every social media channel, even when companies and publications pretend to preach a different message (about a different non-diet). Even when friends or coworkers seem to not be on a diet, they can’t stop talking (or ranting) about what they’re eating or why, or the most recent thing about food they read. Food is a social and cultural connector. We literally thrive on it. It’s complicated.
As I immerse myself in the Intuitive Eating (IE) and Health at Every Size (HAES) worlds, I’m so cautious to even use the word “weight.” It’s almost entirely taboo. It’s not about weight! We are quick to remind clients and readers and friends and ourselves that in the anti-dieting age and with these philosophies, we are not focused on weight as a marker of health. But, what are we missing by dismissing it entirely? Taffy’s quote above made me stop, and reckon with how I’ve approached this work, with the ways in which I haven’t understood this struggle from a different perspective.
Every body can be healthy at any size, but that doesn’t mean every body IS healthy is at any size.
This means factoring in what health looks like for an individual, emotionally, physically, and biologically. It means remaining open minded, not approaching IE or HAES with a set of rules. That’s what we’re trying to get away from in the first place. I hope to always be clear that weight loss does not translate to health—and being thinner does not promise or imply good health—but health may be improved as someone’s lifestyle changes, and their body changes along with it. On the other hand, sometimes a body won’t change (visually) but health may improve. All of these things are possible. As Linda Bacon puts it in her pivotal Health at Every Size book, we are working to “let our weight fall where it will naturally.” As many anti-diet dietitians I admire will remind us: Weight loss may happen, but it cannot be the sole purpose of changing behaviors.
Intuitive eating is not possible until the diet mentality is gone.
Ditching the diet mentality may take weeks, months, or even years. Part of ditching the diet mentality is learning how to live without it. Learning what food rules you hold onto and why, letting go of them one step at a time, learning to trust that you can eat when you’re hungry without having to calculate anything. It’s a process of self-reflection and education; re-learning that food didn’t come with rules, we applied them on our own.
Another part of the process is addressing weight on a personal level, understanding what may or may not change. Once someone has fully learned to ditch the diet mentality, weight loss might happen, because the diet mentality may have been what caused (more) weight gain in the first place. But it’s not the goal. It can’t be the focus. The goal is monitor health and health risks (when that’s relevant), and learn to live in this world without a diet. It’s possible.
I also want to hear you, fully and clearly. I want us to talk about the diet mentality at length. I don’t want to place a raisin on the tip of your tongue and plead with you to sense its natural sweetness. I want to be real about the world we live in, the messages we have absorbed for decades, and how they haven’t helped us. I want to be real about what it will take for you to be healthy and what healthy means to you. I do think eating intuitively is the only way to do this, but that’s the next step.