I’ve recently taken note of a new ad campaign by Healthy Choice stating, “Don’t diet. Live healthy.” Turns out the campaign isn’t actually that new since the New York Times covered it in September, 2012, but since I didn’t have television until recently, it’s new for me.
I liked this ad as a wellness educator and body image researcher, and as a former dieter and purchaser of SmartOnes Weight-Watchers-friendly frozen dinners, it made me laugh.
Yes, you heard right. I am a former dieter. At the end of 2012, after yet another frustrating year of failed attempts at dieting and weight loss, I made a serious decision. I decided to stop dieting, forever. I cancelled my Weight Watchers Online subscription for what will be the last and final time. It all started last year when I started researching body image and “fat talk” for my dissertation-equivalent Health Communication project. Conducting that research often and unintentionally became “mesearch,” forcing me to examine my own feelings and behaviors with the intensity of a laser beam. It was painful and I did not like what I found.
I learned that I was one of the 90% of students with body image concerns. I learned that body image disturbance, an umbrella term for body image dissatisfaction and distortion (believing you are bigger than you really are), is associated with depression and low self-esteem. I learned that I was one of the majority of women who engaged in “fat talk” — a term coined in 1994 to describe the specific way girls and women talk to each other about the size and shape of their bodies or diet and exercise regimens, typically in a negative or self-disparaging manner. “I’m so fat.” “You’re not fat! If you’re fat, what does that make me?”
After leaning that fat talk is associated with greater body image disturbance and thin-ideal internalization (the idea that skinny=pretty) and coming to understand the way it normalizes and reinforces body image concerns at the societal level, I started paying attention. It was staggering to realize how many of my conversations with other women were about dieting, exercise routines, the clothes we “could” or “couldn’t” wear, how much weight we wanted to lose, the reasons why we hadn’t been able to “commit” to our weight loss plans. I never realized how often I apologized for eating (“I’m sorry but I’m getting a big burrito tonight”) or made excuses for eating (“I ate like nothing all day today so I’m going to get fries”).
I started to learn more about dieting. I began to realize that all dieting is bad. Yes, ALL dieting is bad. Even if you really need to lose weight for medical reasons like heart disease or diabetes, dieting only helps in the short term. Dieting offers nothing that might help you stick to your diet. Dieting doesn’t help once you’ve reached your goal weight. Cleanses and fasts are even more stupid than diets. They’re like douching–completely unnecessary when you’re healthy, and potentially harmful when you’re not.
I have come to believe that dieting is unhealthy. Slowly but surely, I came round to the philosophy behind Health At Every Size. Believe me, it took a while.
I am overweight but not horribly so. I have been this way for most of my life. I have wanted to lose weight ever since I was 10 years old. That’s a long time to want something. So, making the decision to stop dieting and pursue health rather than weight loss is nothing short of worldview-shattering. A complete about face. A completely new paradigm positioned 180 degrees from my former belief system.
This kind of conversion doesn’t happen easily or quickly. I’ve sat and mulled and struggled with these feelings and developing beliefs for a year or two now. Even today I’m still often shocked by how radical they sound to my own ears. Deciding to stop dieting has been one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done, and I’ve just barely gotten started.
I created a plan for myself. Instead of dieting, I would:
- Get active for the right reasons. Find and embrace the pleasure in physical activity. Exercise because it feels good or to meet goals other than weight loss (do 30 push ups, hike that mountain, etc.).
- Learn to cook and eat take-out and prepared food less often
- Practice mindful eating, listen to my hunger signals, etc
- Practice good sleep hygiene (lack of sleep affects the hormones that regulate your appetite and feelings of satisfaction after eating, not to mention the myriad other physical and mental effects)
- Cut out “fat talk” entirely; if others around me are doing it I will not participate or change the subject
Truthfully, I started on number five about a year before I made the rest of my plan to stop dieting. Cutting out fat talk turned out be easier than I thought. At first it felt awkward and I didn’t know how how to act or react when friends and coworkers launched into the usual self-put downs and mutual reassurance tango. It turns out that simply not participating or changing the subject works pretty darn well. In a couple of instances, I talked with some close friends about it and my decision to stop. They were receptive and overtime less and less fat talk creeped into our conversations. Overall, I think I am happier for it. Now when I hear fat talk I’m struck by how annoying and insipid it is, and grateful that it’s no longer a part of my social repertoire It’s been harder, of course, to silence the fat talk that goes on inside my own head, but hey. One step at a time.
This January, I started the rest of the plan. The first week of diet-free living felt amazing. It was FREEDOM. I felt great to eat something “normal” (non-diet food) and even better to allow myself to NOT feel guilty afterwards. The elation didn’t last long, though, as my insecurities and doubts bounced back with a vengeance. They’re still with me today, louder than ever:
I doubt that I will be able to make any real measurable changes in my weight or my health without dieting. I doubt I will be able to stick to my 5 point plan. I doubt I will be able to be happy if I stay at my current weight, even if I’m super healthy and fit.
I doubt everything regularly, but I’m so committed to building sustainable, healthy habits that will last for the rest of my life that I can’t give up.
It turns out that quitting dieting is the easiest part of making this lifestyle change. A harder part is actually developing and maintaining my new, healthier, lifestyle and the hardest part of all is silencing the doubts and insecurities that make me want to give up or give in to the seeming futility of it all.
I appreciate the message behind Healthy Choice’s latest ad campaign: “Don’t diet. Live Healthy.” I believe it to be a healing message for both individuals and our sick culture. Of course, if it were easy to “live healthy” in America today we wouldn’t have turned to dieting in the first place. And as great as Healthy Choice products are (that is, marginally better than SmartOnes and other diet food), frozen dinners are not the answer.