life beyond dieting

The Life Thief

How diet culture steals your time, your energy, and your health—and how you can take them back.

 

As a dietitian who specializes in helping people make peace with food, I’ve seen the research on dieting, and I know that its track record is abysmal

Dieting—the act of changing your eating and exercise habits in an effort to lose weight and ostensibly improve your health—is a lot more likely to end in a whole host of other things, including rebound overeating, food obsession, and weight regain (Trigger Warning).

Not just regain, actually; as many as two-thirds of people who embark on weight-loss efforts end up gaining more weight than they lost (TW)

Meanwhile, the diet industry is now worth more than $66 billion, a record high. In recent years 68 percent of Americans have dieted for some length of time (TW), mostly making up their own weight-loss plans or “lifestyle changes” rather than following formal diets to the letter.

People are still dieting, even though it clearly doesn't work and actively causes harm. 

Why are we so wedded to dieting? Shouldn’t we know better by now?

In my work I’ve come to see that it’s not just an issue of knowledge, although that’s a part of it. It’s also an issue of culture. Specifically diet culture.

 

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that intentional weight loss fails more than 95% of the time.

  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

 

By and large, Western culture is diet culture. This way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society, in so many different forms, that it can be hard to recognize.

It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness.

It cloaks itself as connection.

Diet culture is why people bond over restrictive ways of eating. It’s why people get compliments for losing weight—even if the behaviors that led to the weight loss are killing them.

Diet culture is what makes some of my clients skip birthday parties out of fear that they’ll have to eat cake.

It’s what made some of their parents put them on diets before they were old enough to remember their birthday parties.   

Diet culture is consuming us. In the thousands of conversations I’ve had with people about their relationships with food and their bodies, I’ve seen the same themes emerge again and again: People have lost years of their lives to dieting and disordered eating. They’ve spent thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars on diet products and programs that didn't work and just left them more hopeless.

They’ve tried to lose weight or change their diet because they were told it would make them "healthier," only to end up sicker than they started out (and not having lost any weight in the long-term, either).

They haven’t really been there at weddings, funerals, graduations, honeymoons, and countless other important moments because their minds were distracted by thoughts of food and weight. 

Diet culture has stolen their lives. 

That’s what it does to everyone. It steals your joy, your spark, and your precious time on this planet. 

That’s why I call it The Life Thief. 

When you’re governed by diet culture’s rules, your life suffers. 

 

But here’s what I want you to know:

You DON’T have to spend all your time and energy worrying about food and your body. You CAN have more mental space to do great work, take care of yourself, spend time with your loved ones, and answer your calling.

Your life may have been stolen, but you have the power to take it back.

I’ve seen people do incredible things with the time and energy they’re able to reclaim when they stop dieting. Things like starting their own businesses, advocating for social justice and human rights, going back to school to pursue their dreams, finding supportive partners who love them just as they are, and raising their kids to feel good about their bodies and trust their instincts with food. 

Things that help build a better life for themselves and others.

I’ve also seen too many people miss out on these kinds of opportunities—or not even realize what kinds of opportunities they really want for themselves, what their true passions are—because their minds are completely occupied by the rules and restrictions of diet culture.  

It’s a life thief.

And it’s not your fault.

It’s really a systemic problem, a cultural problem—not an individual one. The fact that you’re preoccupied with concerns about eating, exercise, weight, and shape is a direct result of diet culture. It’s also exactly what The Life Thief wants.  

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf calls dieting a “political sedative,” basically a massive distraction from participating in public life. It keeps us from changing the status quo, from speaking out and rebelling against the things that don’t work for us, and from reshaping society in ways that align with our values. 

The Life Thief keeps us from recognizing our true power.  

It’s also stolen our well-being. It’s taken over the health and wellness fields and twisted them into its image, an unrealistic, exclusionary ideal that’s rooted in oppression.

Our culture’s version of health is laced with fatphobia, racism, ableism, and ageism—because with very few exceptions, the bodies that are held up as supposed “pictures of health” are all thin, white, able-bodied, and young.

This view of health and wellness isn’t actually about helping your well-being at all—it’s about reinforcing the status quo and making sure you keep chasing after an unattainable ideal so that you don’t notice all the things that are really harming your health. 

Things like trying to change the size and shape of your body, which diet culture tells you to do, but which actually leads to worse physical and mental-health outcomes than body acceptance. 

Things like internalized weight stigma, which has been shown to increase people’s risk of all the diseases that are typically blamed on weight itself. 

Dieting is against your best interests. It puts you at war with yourself and takes your energy away from fighting so many more important battles. 

It makes you doubt yourself and feel like you can’t trust your own instincts. It gaslights you into thinking that you’re the “failure” because you “couldn’t stick to” the diet du jour. Because you had the audacity to get hungry, to need nourishment and pleasure. 

To need the things we all need.

That’s abuse, and yet The Life Thief is an expert in getting us to perpetuate it on ourselves, again and again and again. 

 

The Social-Life Thief 

Here’s one of the things about The Life Thief I hear all the time from clients, online course students, and podcast listeners. I hear a version of this: 

“My social life is non-existent.”

Or this:

“I avoid going to parties, since I know there will be lots of food and alcohol around.”   

Or this:

“Whenever I get invited to a wedding, I start panicking about fitting into my dress and can’t enjoy myself for months.” 

Or around this time of year, it’s this:

“I can’t even enjoy the food at my family’s holiday meal because I’m so afraid of how it’ll affect my body.”

Because diet culture makes people so fearful of food and anxious about losing control that they can’t even participate in their lives.  

This hurts my heart. That anyone has to live like this is unconscionable—because it’s no way to live. It’s theft. 

The Life Thief steals your capacity for everyday joy. It keeps you from being present in all the big and small moments of your life. Moments like holiday dinners, birthday parties, weddings, or just lunch with a friend on a Tuesday.

The Life Thief literally keeps you from going out and participating in the world. 

Or if it does let you participate, it keeps you from really being there. It always holds a part of your mind hostage.        

If you had a romantic partner who did these things, we’d call it abuse and tell you to get the hell out of that relationship. And what The Life Thief does IS a form of abuse—but because it’s on such a massive, culture-wide level, we don’t recognize it as such.

There’s no reason except injustice that people should have to live with this level of restricted freedom and life possibilities. 

Here, I’m not even talking about your greatest fulfillment or your calling or realizing your potential (although diet culture restricts those things, too). I’m talking about your day-to-day human existence. Your ability to grab a spontaneous bite with a friend, enjoy a piece of cake at a birthday party, or eat at a drive-thru on a road trip. 

This is literally life theft at the moment-to-moment level—and you deserve so much better than that.

One of the main things we need to do to get our life back is to make peace with food.

Being at peace with food means not WORRYING so much about it. 

Being calm, on an even keel, with an inner sense of stillness and ease—not restricting yourself or feeling panicked by deprivation.

Being able to make food choices from a place of trusting your instincts and desires. A place of self-care and abundance, not self-control and deprivation. 

The Life Thief robs you of that ability. 

One of the key ways it does this is by keeping you swinging back and forth on what I call The Restriction Pendulum. 

The Restriction Pendulum is your body’s natural reaction to deprivation. When the pendulum swings over to the side of restriction—which diet culture frames as “success” and “being good”—inevitably there’s going to be a swing back in the other direction, because your body perceives restriction as dangerous.

To your body, diets (or “lifestyle changes,” or “eating plans,” or whatever they’re calling themselves now) feel like famine. 

Even the most seemingly “gentle” diet is a swing of the pendulum over to the side of restriction. 

When that happens, your body’s natural response is to have the pendulum swing over to the other side—to eating a LOT, feeling out of control with food, even bingeing. 

A pendulum can’t just stop in the middle when it’s been pulled over to one side. It HAS to swing the opposite direction with equal force. 

Your body is exactly the same. It won’t find stillness and peace until it’s responded to the restriction.     

Here’s what that looks like in our lives: we restrict, restrict, restrict (or “eat clean, eat clean, eat clean,” or whatever our restriction du jour is calling itself)...and then we end up eating to the point of discomfort. 

And then we think we have no self-discipline, we’re out of control, we simply can’t be trusted to eat certain foods, we’re uniquely broken while everyone else can just have a bowl of ice cream without polishing off the whole carton…

We get into a spin where we berate ourselves as though what happened was about our minds, our lack of willpower.

But it’s not.

It’s physiological, a survival impulse encoded into your body. When you get cold, you shiver. That’s how your body keeps you warm so you can survive. And when you’re restricted or deprived of food, your body turns up the food-seeking signals because it wants you to live.

This isn't a failure of your mind to control your body. This is your body taking care of you.

Here’s what I want you know: Your body is not broken. 

YOU ARE NOT BROKEN.

You haven’t irreparably damaged your hunger and fullness sensors. Your body is trying to protect you. This is a natural, predictable, automatic response to famine—and that’s what diets are.

It’s not you. It’s not a defect. 

The Restriction Pendulum is what allowed our species to survive, and we wouldn’t be here without it. 

But we don’t need to spend our lives swinging on that pendulum anymore. To reclaim our lives and reach our full potential, we need to stop The Restriction Pendulum. 

We need to stop the restriction. 

My online course, Intuitive Eating Fundamentals, re-teaches you how to attune to your body’s cues about hunger, fullness, and satisfaction—and that helps you achieve stillness and peace with food. On your own. Every day, all day. 

This can be life-changing. It’s the difference between bingeing every time you’re anywhere near a plate of cookies and forgetting about them after you eat a couple because you’re so engaged in conversation.

Here’s what happens when you stop the restriction:

YOU GET YOUR LIFE BACK.

And that’s everything.

It’s my mission. My big why. My life’s work. I dedicated my career to helping people reclaim their lives from dieting because I know what it's like to have your life stolen. I lost more than a decade of mine to dieting and disordered eating—and I was finally able to reclaim it by giving up the restriction and learning to trust my body again.

That kind of trust is what I want for you, what I want for all of us. 

I want you to have the freedom to let go of thoughts of food and your body, to engage in all the moments of your life—from the mundane to the magical.  

I want you to have your mind free to focus on the things that really matter to you. 

To pursue your purpose—and to have the mental space to figure out what that is. 

To trust your body’s cues and nourish yourself fully. 

To stop restricting and stop feeling out of control with food. 

To be present in the big, important moments as well as the small, everyday ones.

To OWN your life.

Because when you own your life, you thrive. All of us do. The world literally becomes a better place. 

Let’s get our lives back.

 

If you’re ready to reclaim your life alongside an incredible community of people who are on the same path, join my Intuitive Eating Fundamentals online course so you can learn how to give up dieting once and for all. You deserve to be fully present in your life, and to not have a single moment more stolen by The Life Thief. NO.MORE. Your life is YOURS.

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The Truth About Your Weight

Your body isn't meant to be at a weight that it can only sustain through restriction

Your body isn't meant to be at a weight that it can only sustain through restriction. 

Intentional weight loss was invented by diet culture, which I define as a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.

Not only is intentional weight loss a product of this toxic belief system, it also doesn’t actually jibe with how the human body *works.*

We’ve all heard that statistic that 95% (or more) of people who pursue intentional weight loss gain back all the weight they lost within five years, and the majority of those people will gain back *more* weight than they had initially lost—and that’s because our bodies were designed to protect us from famine. None of us would even BE here if it weren’t for this mechanism that kept our ancestors from dying when food was scarce.

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

So what about that other 5% (or less) of people who do seem to maintain intentional weight loss, you might ask? Unfortunately, the research indicates that they do so through disordered means that, if diet culture didn’t deem them "success" stories, could be diagnosed as an eating disorder.

They’re not meant to be weight-suppressed—none of us are. Our bodies aren't meant to live in perpetual restriction, which wreaks havoc on our mental and physical health.

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Diet Culture Is a Life Thief

Diet Culture Is a Life Thief

Diet culture is a life thief; when we’re caught up in it, food and body preoccupation take up so much real estate in our brains that pursuing any other life goal can feel nearly impossible.

Diet culture takes away our passion and drive.

It prevents us from being fully present in our relationships and our work, because thoughts of food and body are constantly humming in the background.

It keeps us from being social around food for fear of "falling off the wagon.”

Diet culture tells us we aren't good enough day in and day out, and sells us products to “fix” ourselves—products that research has demonstrated fail 95% or more of the time.

And yet somehow we still feel we’re the ones to blame. That's the most insidious thing about diet culture—making us feel like failures, when in reality the system is rigged so that no one ever actually “succeeds."

Diet culture drives us to passively restrict our eating and our pleasure, and can even push us into disordered eating and eating disorders.

Do we really want to spend our entire lives fighting against our bodies and trying to force them into a certain shape or size through restriction and deprivation?

Do we want dieting to steal any more of our precious time on this planet?

Do we want our life’s work to be the pursuit of weight loss?

Or do we have more important, fulfilling, and fun things to do with our time here?

From where I sit, the answer is clear. We all deserve SO much better than to have our lives stolen by diet culture.

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The Truth About That New “Fat But Fit” Study

I got an email this morning from a reporter at The Daily Meal, asking me to give my thoughts on a new study. News outlets are claiming this new research is evidence that "fat but fit is a myth" and "there's no such thing as metabolically healthy obesity." 

I won't link to the study or those articles here because they reinforce weight stigma, which is bad for your health (more on that below). But the study is called "Metabolically Healthy Obese and Incident Cardiovascular Disease Events Among 3.5 Million Men and Women," and it just came out this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (after being widely covered in the media before publication).

The Daily Meal reporter, Holly Van Hare, did a lovely job with the story, so be sure to check it out (trigger warning for this and all the study links below). But of course I have a lot more to say about this issue than could fit there, so here are my unabridged thoughts: 

 

Weight Stigma and Weight Cycling

First of all, the study didn’t control for two likely risk factors for heart disease, independent of body size: weight stigma and weight cycling.

People in larger bodies are more likely to be stigmatized for their size—bullied and shamed in school, at home, walking down the street, and in the doctor’s office, and paid lower salaries than their thin peers in the working world—and when people internalize weight stigma, it has profoundly negative effects on their mental health.

Experiencing this stigma also raises people’s risk of chronic diseases including heart disease—regardless of actual body size. What's more, weight stigma results in people delaying or avoiding going to the doctor, which can lead to poorer health outcomes down the line. 

People in larger bodies are also more likely to have weight cycled or “yo-yo dieted” in the past, and weight cycling has also been associated with a greater risk of heart disease.

Weight cycling tends to drive people’s weight up over time; up to 2/3 of people who embark on intentional weight loss actually end up heavier than when they started. (For more on these underreported aspects of weight science, see Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor’s great paper “Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift.”) 

Until weight science can control for weight cycling and weight stigma, we can't say that being at the higher end of the BMI spectrum causes any health conditions—even if higher weights are associated with these health conditions. Correlation does not equal causation, y'all.

Moreover, *even if* weight did have some causal effect on people’s health (which is possible, but again we can’t actually know until we control for weight stigma and weight cycling), we DON’T HAVE a known way for more than a tiny fraction of people to lose weight and keep it off permanently.

The success rate of intentional weight-loss efforts is 5% or less, by most researchers’ accounts. So for 95% or more of people, ALL diets are yo-yo diets.

And we know yo-yo diets negatively affect people’s health outcomes from the research I mentioned above!

So EVEN IF weight itself were partially to blame for the heart disease outcomes, medicine doesn’t actually have a known way for people to lose weight and keep it off. Prescribing weight loss just is NOT ethical healthcare. 

There has to be a better way. 

 

Health at Every Size and Health-Promoting Behaviors

That’s where Health at Every Size® (HAES) comes in. HAES is about engaging in health-promoting behaviors without pursuing weight loss, as well as working to change society to reduce weight stigma and other forms of social injustice that harm people's health. HAES approaches have been shown to have better health outcomes than the traditional weight paradigm. 

That's what I mean by ethical healthcare.

BTW, the new study also doesn’t say what the larger-bodied participants were doing or not doing to support their health during the follow-up period. The researchers only controlled for the potential confounding variables of "age, sex, self-reported smoking status, and social deprivation" (a measure of socioeconomic status, education, and employment).

The researchers didn’t determine whether the study participants were restricting their food intake and experiencing rebound bingeing during the study period, versus eating intuitively.

They didn’t determine whether participants were engaging in (and enjoying) physical activity, versus having lack of access to accommodating and welcoming spaces for movement. 

The researchers also didn’t control for whether the participants had access to compassionate healthcare providers who supported their *actual health* instead of focusing on their weight and reinforcing weight stigma.

And all three of those things can affect people’s health outcomes, again *independently of body size.*

A few other thoughts: study subjects who were in the underweight category with zero metabolic abnormalities also had greater heart-related risks (e.g. elevated risk of heart failure) than the people in the "normal-weight" BMI category. Why don’t those results get reported by the media? Why aren’t newspapers and websites trumpeting “the risks of underweight for cerebrovascular disease"? Weight bias much?!? 

The vast majority of media don’t report the nuances of these scientific studies because most reporters don’t actually know how to parse them—and I was one of them before I got a master’s in public health, so I know how it goes. Many reporters just use the press release or the abstract to report scientific studies, and others might give a cursory glance at the actual study but are just looking for confirmation of what they already believe it says.

I don’t know the exact stats, but I’m willing to bet a very small percentage of reporters who covered this story even SAW the study’s finding that people in the “underweight" category have a higher risk of heart failure than people in the “overweight” category, or that the study didn’t control for nutritional intake, physical activity level, weight stigma, or weight cycling. (I know Van Hare was one of this small percentage who did see the full study, which is awesome.) 

Mainstream health media needs to do better. But that's a story for another time. 

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Last updated April 2, 2019

The Truth about Intentional Weight Loss

As an anti-diet dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor, I'm committed to helping people make peace with food and their bodies. In my view, the ONLY way for healthcare providers to accomplish that is to practice a philosophy called Health at Every Size® (or HAES), which helps people focus on health-promoting behaviors rather than weight loss. 

The reason HAES takes weight loss out of the health equation is because intentional weight loss is not only unsustainable 95+ percent of the time (and most people actually gain back more weight than they lost), but pursuing weight loss also causes more harm than good to your physical and mental health. 

You've likely experienced this harm firsthand if you've ever done something to try to lose weight (a diet, an eating plan, a "lifestyle change"), because most people who pursue weight loss end up having negative reactions.  

Maybe for you it was following the diet or plan during the day (or during the week), and then eating large quantities of food and feeling out of control at night (or on weekends). 

Or maybe it was obsessively planning meals, tracking and logging everything you ate, and just thinking about food nonstop.

Maybe it was exercising in a compulsive, self-punishing way.   

Or maybe it spiraled into cutting more and more foods out of your diet and being afraid of the foods you used to love.

These are all incredibly common, completely normal reactions to the deprivation that people feel when pursuing weight loss.

And they're also not helping your health.

There is a better way to support both your physical and mental health, and that's where Health at Every Size comes in.

My guest on this week's episode of Food Psych is an expert on HAES, and she's also one of the smartest, most well-spoken people I know.  

Writer, speaker, and health coach Ragen Chastain explains why healthcare providers need to stop prescribing intentional weight loss, how weight stigma (not body size) is likely responsible for the health issues typically associated with higher weights, why weight loss doesn't actually improve physical performance, the true meaning of the word "health," and lots more. 

Tune in to this incredible episode to hear Ragen's wisdom, and join us in the Food Psych listener Facebook group to share your thoughts! 

xo, 
Christy

P.S. If you haven't seen my pal Isabel Foxen Duke's free video training series, Stop Fighting Food, be sure to check it out! I signed on to be an affiliate for Isabel's private coaching program this year because I love her work so much, so if you end up joining that you'll be supporting my work, too. But either way, check out the videos to get some great tips for making peace with food! 

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