Having grown up in a world that promotes weight loss, food restriction, and the life goal of being skinny, how can we break free from diet culture? How can we shift the focus away from how we look, what size we are, and what the number on the scale says to instead feeling happy and confident in our skin? You've listened to anti-diet podcasts, read books about intuitive eating, and followed body-positive Instagram accounts, but it's hard to make the shift, isn't it? How do we stop caring so much about our weight?
Reveal the Truth About How Weight Loss Affected You
Registered dietitian Brenna O'Malley, founder of The Wellful, agrees that it's challenging to shift away from a focus on weight and weight loss in a culture that continues to be obsessed with it. Her suggestion is to "start to reflect on the ways that focusing on weight and weight loss has been a disservice to your mental and physical health."
What ways did trying to lose weight prevent you from being present in social situations? In what ways did it contribute to feeling chaotic and obsessive around food? In what ways did it keep you fixated on food and your body? Thinking about the answers to these tough questions could help you see how dieting and pursuing weight loss has negatively affected your life.
Measure Your Health Without a Scale
"The fear of weight gain first comes from the idea that each individual has the ability to control and manipulate their weight to a certain specific number or range," Brenna explained. And even more, that it's a person's responsibility to do so; and not doing so or choosing not to is a personal failure. In reality: this is diet culture's failure, not yours.
Ask yourself where does your fear of weight gain come from? If we can put your desire for weight loss on the back (or side) burner, you can think about what you can do to take care of and support your body today, instead of constantly needing to wait to be size X first in order to live your life.
How can you make yourself feel more comfortable and confident today? If your behavior is centered around changing the size or look of your body, you can miss out on the many other benefits of healthy behaviors, like eating foods that nourish you and taste good and moving in a way you enjoy. Brenna added that engaging in healthy behaviors has benefits regardless of your weight, so "by shifting your focus from seeing success or progress only in terms of weight, you can measure your success without using a scale."
You can prioritize your physical and mental health simply by turning away from diet culture and its harmful ideas of weight and wellness and turning toward intuitive eating, suggested Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, an anti-diet registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, host of the Food Psych Podcast, and author of Anti-Diet.
Christy explained that people who eat intuitively have been shown to have better health outcomes on an impressive array of measures, including lower cardiovascular risk, decreased triglyceride levels, and more favorable levels of HDL cholesterol. She added that they are more likely to have lower rates of disordered eating (including binge eating disorder), less likelihood of feeling out of control with food, less food-related anxiety, and the best part — greater enjoyment of food.
Christy has learned with her intuitive eating clients that they also experience less internalization of the thin ideal, lower levels of body dissatisfaction and shame, and increased body appreciation. She added that by eating intuitively, you'll be improving your overall physical and emotional health, and that means a hell of a lot more than some number on a scale.
Find Ways to Cope With Your Emotions
Recognize that a strong, obsessive desire for changing the size and shape of your body is often the result of feeling a lack of control in other areas of your life. Kirsten Ackerman, MS, RD, CDN, who hosts the Intuitive Bites podcast and identifies as a fat-positive dietitian, explained that we try to control our food intake and body size so we can gain the control we feel we are lacking elsewhere in our lives. She said to consider that a strong desire for weight loss may be a red flag to some deeper emotion you are experiencing.
It'll be easier to make this shift toward supporting physical and mental health if you're connected with others who understand the harms of diet culture. Kirsten said that it can feel very isolating to do this work without that connection. Aside from talking openly with friends and family members, seek out professional help from someone well-versed in anti-dieting, intuitive eating, HAES (Health at Every Size), and body positivity. Check out this list for a HAES expert near you.
Support Your Body Now
Remember that the goal is not necessarily eliminating a desire for weight loss or being smaller. This is a monumental feat when we continue to exist in a culture that praises those goals. Kirsten said, "the goal is to choose to support your here and now body to the best of your ability despite those thoughts."