For my exam reviews in the courses I teach, I motivate students using cupcakes as prizes for the winning team. I’ve noticed that fewer students have been taking cupcakes. They’re dieting or eating healthy or don’t eat cupcakes. When I try to gift them to other students in the hallway after class, I find the same unusual phenomenon. When I bake for events I’m attending, I’ve noticed a similar pattern. Fewer and fewer people are enjoying my baked goods. Are people just decreasing in their love of sugar and tasty treats over time? I doubt it. Often people will look longingly at the desserts before refusing them. So what is going on?
I’ve recently become aware of a movement called Intuitive Eating. One major observation that this movement has made is that of “Diet Culture.” We are living in diet culture. Magazines tell us to “lose the flab”, or “get ready for that beach bod.” Disturbingly skinny models are advertised everywhere. Diets are cropping up like weeds- paleo, keto, Adkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, and more. Each one is the “answer you need” and is “unlike other diets.” They all have the “solution” for your “problem.”
The terrifying part is that they work. Yesterday alone, I overheard at least a dozen diet- or eating-related comments. People refused the adorable (and delicious) Halloween cupcakes I baked because they were “on a diet” or “felt disgusting” for eating “bad food.” Another person looked longingly at photos of herself in an old Halloween costume, remarking “if I lost 10 pounds, I’d totally wear that again.”
We spend so much of our lives hyperfocused on food. Losing that last few pounds, getting “in shape for the big day,” preparing our “bikini bods”, and so many others. The problem is, diets don’t work. Yes, you heard me correctly. Diets do NOT work.
In the short term, you may lose a few (or even more than a few) pounds. You may have a support group (like in WW) cheering you on or giving you rewards for every few pounds you lose. People compliment or even clap and cheer at your weight loss. It feels exhilarating. But sure enough, months later, you’re back at the meetings. Why? Because the weight came right back on. And sometimes, with a vengeance- you weigh more than you did when you started the diet.
Our bodies react to diets like they do to starvation. Our metabolism decreases and we become hyper vigilant to any sign of food (See the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.) Restriction makes us binge- we gobble down that forbidden food because who knows when we might have the chance to do it again.
Research shows that diets fail for 90-95% of people. For the rest of us, we’ve just wasted weeks, months, years of our lives feeling guilty and depriving ourselves of our favorite foods. So why are we doing this?
Diet culture sends us messages that weight is equivalent with health. No surprise there, given that BMI is used as a universal indicator of health, despite the fact that it was NEVER designed to do so (10 Reasons why BMI is bogus.) In fact, the standards for BMI’s “normal,” “overweight,” “obese,” etc. are completely arbitrary. They were changed to be even lower in 1998 when insurance companies wanted to change the way they billed their clients. Even more interesting is the research showing that “overweight” and “obese” people (according to their BMIs) actually tend to live longer than those in the “normal” weight range. So if we aren’t losing weight to be healthy, what are we doing it for?
It certainly isn’t to feel good about ourselves- diets “work” based on making us feel guilty when we eat the foods we love. Then they don’t work by making us binge on those foods we crave.
I’ve been dieting for a long time. I’ve felt bad about being chubby since I was in middle school and have been actively restricting my eating with calorie counting, Noom, Weight Watchers, and more for 7 years. My weight has been up and down the whole time. I’ve always felt that there was something wrong with me for not being able to succeed on these diets. I’ve felt I didn’t have the willpower, I wasn’t good enough, I was addicted to sugar, the problem was me. But no longer.
I’m working on trying to eat intuitively. To eat when my body says its hungry, and to eat what it wants me to eat- even if that is french fries and chocolate and ice cream and donuts. Even if that is salad and vegetables and chicken breast and fruit. I’m terrified of letting go of the control I’ve grasped for years. I’m afraid I’ll gain tons of weight and everyone will look at me differently.
But I also feel so relieved. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not addicted to sugar. I don’t have a problem. I just like food. And that’s okay.
If you’re interested in reading more about this movement, I highly recommend the books “Intuitive Eating” and “The Fuck It Diet.” You can also find websites and Facebook groups about these topics.