On the biggest loser debacle

Hello,

Happy Friday!

I was really hoping to sit down this week and write a great post about some nutrition related thing, but it never happened. So I thought I’d take a quick moment and comment on the big hubbaloo that happened last week around the study on the biggest loser that came out.

First a couple links to great blog posts discussing it:

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff: http://www.vox.com/2016/5/10/11649210/biggest-loser-weight-loss

Regan Christian: https://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/the-biggest-losers-big-surprise/

Really I’m not sure I can add much more. To anyone who pays attention to research around weight loss, weight focused health or obesity research this is just one more study in a long list of studies affirming this one idea: long term extreme amounts of weight loss is not easy, very often not sustainable and in general not actually healthy.

I think Dr. Freedhoff says it best when he talks about being a runner as a metaphor for weight loss. If we considered only Boston Marathon qualifiers to be successful runners, we’d have a whole lot of not-real-runners out there.

The truth is the focus on weight, and thus weight loss, as a health measurement is a fallacy that keeps getting promoted as fact. There are a lot of companies, organizations and people dependent on this myth being taken as fact. The diet industry does not want you to win at weight loss because it would be a financial loss, they also don’t want you to stop trying because again financial loss. Even a lot of health and medical institutions have a large buy in to weight loss as a panache for all your health ailments; if they can promise you weight loss it’s a visible way for them to prove they’re improving your health, but sadly their promises fall short so often.

Tied into all this is of course some of our North American societal ideals: being thin is a desirable trait, a measurement of attractiveness, and don’t even get me started on the morality we have attached to food, nutrition, thin and fat bodies, and the constant hunt for “bettering” ourselves through health.

While I am all for people living healthy lives, health should support the best life you want (and like) living. You don’t owe health to anyone, and you certainly don’t owe anyone a constant battle for a thinner “better” you. 

One of the hardest parts with this is giving up the dream of the perfect body, and the perfect life it supposedly promises. With the amount of fat stigma, fat shaming, and fat discrimination that exists it is easy to see why many of my clients hesitate to give up dieting (until they’ve lost 10 more pounds, then they will!). This is one of the hardest pills to swallow. If I can leave you with one thing it’s that there is a lot of awesome people writing about just how they figured this shit out – you are not alone, and blogs like Dances with Fat (link above) and fabulous ladies like Virgie Tovar and many others are there to give words of wisdom on how they gave up dieting and embraced their bodies against the odds.

So I am going to leave this for now, before it becomes an epic rant – but you know I will be back to this topic sooner then later.

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Lifestyle Change Vs. Diet… a cheat sheet

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As we roll into the new year, you are probably being bombarded with commercials for all those “lifestyle changes”.

That’s awesome! You might be saying. No one is dieting anymore. Everyone is lifestyle changing!

Here’s the thing, remember that quote by Shakespeare about roses? It’s not the word rose that’s beautiful, a rose would be a rose whatever we called it.

And so would a diet.

The problem is that lifestyle changes are often actually just diets renamed, but guess what, they suck just as much.

So in case you’re wondering how exactly you can tell the difference here is a little cheat sheet for you.

How to tell if It’s a Diet

1. Asks you to cut out a food group, such as starchy carbohydrates

2. Focuses on avoiding hunger like it’s the devil

3. Talks about also never letting yourself get too full

4. Prescribes only X number of calories (often very low, and does not consider your age, gender, or activity level)

5. Talks about drinking water/eating vegetables/broth/something low calorie for the express reason of filling up or avoiding hunger (see #2)

6. Vilifies certain nutrients like sugar or fat (and tells you to Never Eat Them Again!)

7. Talks about “stages” or “phases” – as in cut out carbohydrates for 5 weeks then add it back.

8. Gets you to give yourself shots of hormones that mask your hunger

9. Describes you (the potential client) as “out of control around food”

10. Blames all your problems on either food, your eating or exercise habits or your weight

11. Talks in extremes; you are either dieting and healthy or not dieting and binging (Hint: these are actually different sides of the same coin)

12. Has you drink 2 shakes and eat one meal a day

13. Doesn’t ask what motivates your eating habits and how healthy habits around eating, exercising (and simply living) fit into your life

14. As continued from number nine – talks about how all your life problems will be fixed when your BMI is xyz

15. Describes itself with words like “detox” or “fast”

16. Asks (or requires) you to buy their special meal or supplement products

17. Promises amazing, unbelievable results (but has fine print saying results not typical – and yet still puts the blame on you if you don’t lose the weight/keep it off)

18. All the people in the commercial talk about their multiple failures… but THIS DIET is THE ONE and suddenly all their food issues are solved.

Or a Lifestyle Change

1. It talks about your life and what else might need to change other than your eating or exercise habits

2. Asks about how food, exercise, and health fit into your life – and how they can enhance your life.

3. Wonders if maybe your life problems are related to, well, your life and not your weight (ie working in a toxic environment that sends you right to a comforting bowl of ice cream or a calming glass of wine after work? Yeah dieting won’t fix that…)

 

I’m not against new years resolutions. I’m not against changing your health habits. But this year, instead of just aiming (again) to “lose those last 10lbs” consider what is really bothering you in your life… and make a lifestyle change in that area. If it turns out your health habits do really need an overhaul then that’s fine, go with it, but avoid the diets disguised as lifestyle changes if you can. And if you’re avoiding the real issues and trying to tame your life through food, then have a sit down and get honest with yourself. It’s not easy to really look at what’s bringing stress into your life, but it is the only way to truly bring permanent changes into your life.

The conversation that broke my heart

I hear a lot of stories that break my heart in the conversations I have with clients. The conversations people have around food can be a surprisingly vulnerable place.

But when you think about it, what better place for it all to come tumbling out? Food touches on every aspect of our lives; our personal history with the food we were raised on, what our culture ate, what our parents thought about food. It touches on our income and our “place” in society. It touches on the world economics, of international trades, of political power and policy, of who gets what and who doesn’t. Food is in fact simply something that can be tied in into any emotional, moral, or political conversation you want to have.

But I digress.

The conversation I want to write about today happened during a weight management course I was running. It was the response to the following question:

What situations make you uncomfortable around food?

For those not in the know, these type of courses are built around the idea of chronic dieting, and it’s cousin overeating. Often when people diet (aka starve themselves) this results in a physical (and psychological) backlash where they tend to overeat (not necessarily a binge, but often a feeling of no control around food arises).

So the expected response to the question “What situations make you feel uncomfortable around food” should be something like “I feel uncomfortable when we have Halloween candy in the house.” or “When I attend parties with buffets” or “when I’m with my frenemie who makes me feel two inches tall” etc.

But do you know what made these women (it was all women, and all of them felt this way) uncomfortable around food?

Eating with other people: their friends, their family, their loved ones.

These women, many of whom had been “big” their whole lives had had so many loved ones comment on what they were eating that eating with others was no longer something joyful.

For many people the idea of asking their dieting friend (or their “bigger” friend), “Are you really going to eat that?!” might seem the least bit harmful, but to be entirely honest it is. Can you imagine someone saying that to (accompanied by a LOOK) you (no matter what your size currently is)?

And as many of the women reminded me, as I sat listening to their confessions, they were constantly under eating, constantly dieting and trying to lose weight, and be “good” (when dieting = good is another story completely). “But,” one said sagely, “We’re only human too!”

The truth is comments like, “you don’t really need seconds” and “do you know how many calories are in that” or “you shouldn’t have dessert you know” often say a lot more about the person giving the comment than the person receiving the comment.

As a society we have been told over and over of the health risk factors excess weight provides, this has often led to the belief that any time someone is of a weight outside the BMI range they are unhealthy. This is a false assumption. Some people are unhealthy and overweight, and some people are unhealthy and skinny, yet we mostly just hear about the ill health affects related to excess body weight. So it’s understandable we might think saying these small things to a friend could be considered a helpful reminder, but mostly they’re just shaming. And shame is never the birthplace of true and lasting change. As one woman said, “When someone says that [above comments] to me I just want to go home and eat more!”

The truth is these shaming comments are part of a larger problem of weight stigma. And weight stigma is known to contribute more to ill health than weight itself.

I wish I had a better conclusion, something grand and poignant to say. Many other people have written about weight bias and stigma (great blogs such as Dances with Fat or the Fat Nutritionist have too many posts I could link to) , as well as organizations like Kelty Mental Health and even the BC PHSA has recommended a change in paradigm from weight to health focus. And courses like BalancedView are offered online for professionals wishing to learn more. What can I leave you with? Just be mindful of what you say; the language we use is much more powerful than we realize and the people we might hurt the most are the ones we care about the most.