Our Healthy Weight Obsession: Why Sizeism is a Problem

 

THE ISSUE WITH THE WEIGHT ISSUE

I’m just going to go ahead and call out the elephant in the room: I have an issue with the weight issue. 

Since about birth, we — especially women — are told we must be thin. And secondly, we must always be dieting. Non-fat yogurt dessert commercials featuring lithe, lovely women tell us this. “What will you gain if you lose?” asks Special K, as the company encourages us to eat the fortified cereal twice per day to lose unwanted pounds. Instead of eating chocolate — real, dark, amazing chocolate — we are encouraged to opt for “slims”, and because we can’t control ourselves around food and should monitor our portions, we can choose from a dazzling array of colourful 100-calorie snack pack options. 

As Evelyn Tribole smartly pointed out during a podcast with RD and intuitive eating counsellor Christy Harrison, women’s first taste of power emerged accompanied by Twiggy’s rise to the top. Not only should women aim for invisibility, to whittle ourselves down to matchsticks, but if we’re interested in success, achievement, and Prince Charming — since only thin women can kiss the frog, Hollywood is quick to remind us — we better second think our penchant for seconds. 

And though correlations exist between weight and health, none of these show causation, which is what we’re really after if we’re going to take an evidence-based, scientific approach to health (the one I’m most interested in), the one so many claim to adhere to yet don't professionally espouse.

FAT, THIN, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: HEALTH COMES AT EVERY SIZE 

In Body Respect, Linda Bacon overturns seven myths related to fatness (and yes, the term ‘fat’ is preferred because overweight is an arbitrary and meaningless term, and the etymology of the word obesity implies a large appetite is the root cause.)

These myths include:

a) fatness leads to decreased longevity (false)

b) BMI is a valuable and accurate health measure (false)

c) fat plays a substantive role in causing disease (false)

d) exercise and dietary restriction are effective weight-loss techniques (false)

e) we actually have evidence of weight loss improving health (false)

f) health is largely determined by health behaviours (false)

g) science is value-free (false). 

So why all of the focus on size? Why encourage women to stay or become teeny tiny? Why are so many dismissive of women who choose to strengthen their bodies and add muscle through weight training? Or on the opposite end, what about all of those voices out there asking us why we're not Shape magazine shredded with those fertility killing six-pack-abs and biceps that pop? As a friend of mine mentioned in passing, we’re either not small enough or not big enough, so you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. And basically, you’re not allowed to ever like your body, or ever say you like your body, because where would we be if we didn’t hate ourselves? 

Here is the truth: each one of us has a different frame. Some of us are genetically programmed for thinness, while others are bigger. Some of us carry large rib cages, have booties our mammas gave us, or hips that don’t lie. Some of us are short and some of us are tall. Some of us are blonde and blue-eyed, or dark-haired with dark features. Racism, homophobia, sexism — these forms of prejudice horrify a large percentage of us. But sizeism? How often have we considered this? How often do shameful things emerge from our mouths, born more from conditioning and history than reality and "science"? 

Why do we feel the need to shame others at all?

THE MOVE TOWARD NON-DIET DIETING

Many people tell me they are not on a diet. They eschew gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, conventionally grown produce, tap water, grains, most beans, canned goods, processed foods, and foods high on the glycemic index. 

I tell them this sounds like a diet. 

“It’s not, though, it’s a lifestyle change.”

I ask how their lifestyles have actually changed. How’s your sleep? Is it better? Are you falling asleep easily? Waking up throughout the night? Feeling well-rested when you awaken, ready to bounce out of bed and get on with the day? Do you spend more or less time with friends? Are you happy? Are you supplementing consistently? Are you taking time out for self-care, for hobbies and interests? Do you move for fun? 

It’s not a lifestyle change if nothing about your lifestyle actually changes — if you are just subbing new rules for old rules. The problem isn’t with the food. It’s with the rules. The problem with non-diet diets is this: while many health pros promote them for their health-promoting benefits, these eating styles are often discussed in terms of their weight loss potential, not their ability to positively affect long-term health. We can't remove weight loss from the equation because size is still so engrained in health, even though the two are scientifically unrelated. 

CLEAN EATING AND DIRTY LIVING 

The problem is not with cookies. Cookies are benign little things sold at coffee shops. But if you never eat cookies, deny yourself cookies, tell people you will never again eat a cookie, fear a single cookie will lead to a five pound weight gain, and have no sense of ownership around cookies — well, this is a problem. 

Macaroni and cheese, pizza, bacon cheeseburgers, salt and vinegar potato chips, chocolate cake, cheese, wine, and soda pop (yes, I went there) are not problems. These might be foods to enjoy more moderately, if moderation meant anything other than restriction, as Kelsey Miller points out here. But the problem, again, is not the food. “Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it,” we’re told, re-affirming, as Miller mentions, that nutrition is very much “a weapon to be used for or against yourself,” instead of a helpful tool for self-care and optimal wellness. A tool to keep us obsessed with being or achieving a so-called healthy weight, a term so amorphous I'm not sure where to begin. 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe vegetables, fruit, quality protein, good fats, and complex carbohydrates are deeply nourishing. I’ve built my career on this foundation. I’ve coached people using this foundation. I’ve given talks around health, discussing these very foods. But choosing health shouldn’t mean having lists of “yes” and “no” foods (unless they truly do not sit well with us -- allergies and food sensitivities do exist, after all).

Nutrition is about the act of nourishment. That's it. It shouldn’t mean hopping on Instagram to proclaim you’ll never eat pizza, or shaming your readership by asking rhetorical questions such as, “You’re not still eating potato chips, are you?” Not regularly, no, but if the mood strikes, why the heck not?

Why are we giving potato chips more power than we as women have ever given ourselves?

You will not die from a cookie, develop cancer from a serving of French fries, or experience a heart attack from a single cheeseburger (no relationship there either, if you're interested). Yes, eat your vegetables -- which might actually be more appealing when you give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever the frig you want -- but aim for balance. Relax. Listen to your body. Learn to connect with it. Get to know it. Acquaint yourself with its cues. And eat the cake (ideally sitting down, with a napkin, and slowly, so you can enjoy it fully.)

You will learn sometimes you are unfathomably hungry, so hungry you can’t stop eating, so hungry you can’t get full. You will mistake a hunger for love with a hunger for food, and that's okay, but try to recognize it when it happens. Sometimes you won’t have much of an appetite and a simple bowl of soup will do. Sometimes you will want a full brunch; other times, a coffee and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. This is all part of normal eating. 

You will learn you love salads because they energize you. You will learn you need more protein than you're eating (or not). You will learn all kinds of things about yourself when you trust yourself. 

WE ARE NOT PREPARED FOR NON-DIET DIETS

Another thing. Most of us aren’t ready for lifestyle changes, or non-diet diets. Many of us have been dieting for so long that the diet mentality informs all of our eating decisions. We may not count calories, but we know the amount in all of the foods we eat. We may know bananas are healthy, but worry about the sugar content. I’ve had Paleo clients who fear carbs, and chronic low-fat dieters who worry about eating a quarter of a large avocado or a serving of full-fat yogurt, girls who are scared of adding more protein for fear of unwanted weight gain or bulking up. 

I fully support anyone interested in improving their health, whatever that means to them, whatever avenue they may take. I understand the role non-diet dieting has played. I've recommended a Paleo autoimmune approach to numerous people, mostly because it offers an answer to some pretty serious health concerns. 

But until an individual amends the diet mentality — until an individual feels comfortable eating food, all food, and has developed a healthy, emotionally-neutral relationship with it — it is unethical to recommend an eating style or non-diet diet, because said individual will carry the same shame and ideology into it with them. They will carry their healthy weight obsession into it, like unrequited love or heartbreak or the shit people tell you that you'll spend years recovering from or running from or fighting unnecessary battles for. 

I know I did it. I was on Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, the Zone. Low-fat, no-fat, low-carb, ketosis. I went plant-based for ethical purposes, but also to lose weight. And then I decided to eat only foods grown within a 100 km radius of me while sticking to a plant-based approach, until I was left with almost nothing. I ate Paleo and later followed The Perfect Health Diet protocols, until I gained weight because my body — an active, fit, healthy body — happens to need more carbohydrate, imagine that, to function at its best. I've been there, done that, more times than I can count on my two child-like hands. 

Nutritionists and health enthusiasts alike are guilty of cherry picking from the cherry pickers, says Megan over at Health Bent. A phrase so amazing because it's so true. 

My advice? Get down with the research. Read opposing views. Consider them. And eat some cherries while you do it, because they’re delicious, especially when the juices run down your face. 

THE WEIGHT OBSESSION IS DRIVING DISORDERED EATING

Let’s take a break and examine another elephant. 

1) Eating disorders are on the rise. One of the issues: we believe there is a specific eating disorder body type, even though people of all shapes and sizes battle eating disorders. Underfat,  “normal” weight, fat. All types. Just because someone isn’t under 100lbs doesn’t mean they’re not struggling with an eating disorder (and just because someone is under 100lbs doesn’t mean they are.)

Who can forget the section in Unbearable Lightness where Portia de Rossi writes of eating tuna and crackers in such a performative manner? We would never not admit a cancer patient because they didn’t look sick enough, but that’s exactly how we treat eating disorders because weight or eating style are given precedence over eating psychology. 

2) Eating disorders are getting masked. Katie Daleabout has spoken and written about this a few times, but here’s the deal. Because eating “clean” and living a healthy lifestyle is encouraged and being very thin is valorized, many individuals go undiagnosed for years. As Katie mentions here, few people outside of her inner circle were aware of her disordered behaviour around food. 

By the way, I have no idea what eating clean means. All foods contain chemicals, and the last time I checked vegetables grew in the dirt. Clean eating = eating and having the common decency to wash your plate and silverware after you’re finished.  

SYMPTOMS OF DISORDERED EATING

But how do you know if your eating is disordered? How do you know if you must go back to the beginning? 

Here’s a few signs you're struggling with disordered eating: 

  • You have “yes” and “no” foods
  • You restrict and deprive yourself of foods you once enjoyed due to their “unhealthiness” instead of eating them and enjoying them when you feel like it
  • You’re on a strict 1200 calorie diet
  • You can’t stop thinking about food; if you were to really think about it, you’re always hungry or monitoring food intake in some way
  • You avoid carbs or fat, or say things like “there’s so many carbs in this!” or “this food is too high in fat”
  • You can’t stop at just one serving of a forbidden food, or won’t keep something in the house for fear of overeating it 
  • You won’t eat anything that isn’t "clean"
  • You are inflexible with your eating style, even when on vacation or at a friend’s house 
  • Obsessing over recipes and what to make next (see the Ancel Keys starvation study)
  • You fear weight gain, hate your body, or obsess over the scale/measurements 
  • Limiting portions based on what you should eat, instead of listening to your body and eating until you are full 
  • Knowing in your heart you have a shitty relationship with food
  • Following a plan, eating style, or diet for the main purpose of weight loss
  • Declining social outings for fear of eating “bad food”
  • Declining dinner parties for fear you will overeat or eat foods that are “not clean”
  • Choosing foods because you feel “you should” rather than because you want to
  • Filling up on diet soda and/or coffee to suppress appetite
  • Not exercising to avoid becoming hungry 
  • Not eating when hungry
  • Not eating because you feel as though you’ve already eaten enough, even though your stomach is still growling
  • Calorie counting or tracking 
  • Deciding whether to eat a food or not based on the calories 
  • Binging on food (eating a lot of food in one sitting, very rapidly, without regard for hunger) regardless of whether it’s bananas or cheeseburgers 
  • Purging 
  • Not eating or purposefully under-eating 
  • Being preoccupied with whether a food or food group is healthy 
  • Nixing an entire macronutrient category (ie. fat, carbs) for reasons unrelated to health, such as weight loss or social pressure  
  • Replacing meals with shakes or other liquid for weight loss-related purposes
  • Avoiding protein because you feel it makes you gain weight 
  • Food journaling over the long-term 
  • Going all day without eating to “save your calories” so you can binge on food later 
  • Exercising to punish yourself or because you need to “wear off the calories”

WHERE CAN WE GO FROM HERE? 

Please, please, please try to focus on something other than weight loss. Try to turn inward, to yourself and your values and the things you'd like to work through. It won't happen overnight. It may take months, years. But if we don't start to embrace health at every size and take a more inclusive approach to wellness, we have to accept we're condemning millions of people to shame, self-hatred, and disordered eating. 

Consume turmeric for the purpose of taming inflammation, or chia seeds to help digestion. Eat food because you love it. Eat food because it fuels you, because it’s good for you, because it makes you happy.

And here’s something few people will tell you, but I will, because I know going out there into the world with the body you were given, and loving it for what it is and isn’t, is brave: 

You are perfect. You are perfect, you are beautiful, and you are loved. You are a whole person just as you are. You are smart enough. You are gifted enough. Be kind. Choose compassion. Riot for empathy. Be good to people and speak good thoughts, especially to yourself. Love people. Tell them they are attractive. Help people to become more confident and less ashamed. Tell your story. Encourage others to tell theirs. Remind them we are all works in progress, exactly as it ought to be. Know that this is a process. It take months. Years. It doesn’t matter. Choose to follow the course. 

Good food is one of the highlights of the human experience. 

Let eating it light up your life.

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8