I know, I hear you: who’d have thought we’d ever see “contentment” in a piece about weight management. But, in a world of confusing mixed messages, it is possible to find your happy weight.
We live in interesting times. Much of what we thought we knew has changed, particularly in the health and weight management arena. In recent years, as we understand more about the impact of “dieting” on health, many nutrition professionals have moved away from restrictive calorie-counting towards a more “weight neutral” perspective. This shift started with the creation of the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement with compassionate body acceptance at its heart.
As someone who has had her share of weight and body image issues, I liked the removal of negative emotions, judgement, and the potential for stigmatisation based on a person’s weight.
I embraced the philosophy so fully, I stopped writing ‘weight management diets’ for my clients, preferring to guide them towards a non-diet strategy that incorporated food freedom, eating for health, and nutritional nurturing. Rather than removing foods from an eating plan, I focused on introducing more.
More nutrient-dense foods.
The idea was that, by adding more good stuff, the less-good stuff might be dislodged. And generally, that approach worked.
I trained in the anti-diet Intuitive Eating (IE) approach that encourages a connection with our body’s physical sensations, eating when hungry and stopping when full (yes, even if there’s food left on your plate), irrespective of the time of day or what else you’ve eaten, or what your family, friends or colleagues are eating.
Over time, this kinder approach may enable the body’s natural wisdom around eating to re-emerge, encouraging achievement of the natural set-point weight for the individual. And because we’re not thinking about food or calories or macros all. of. the. blooming. time. we can get on with the business of living and doing those things that brings us pleasure and joy. I imagine that’s the main reason why IE has been linked to better psychological wellbeing, more nutritious ways of eating, and weight stability.
But, although I connected with the anti-diet concept, I had reservations. I never felt as though one single philosophy was congruent with my beliefs and values, and that made me uncomfortable.
For all of their failings, diets provide a comfortable framework of rules of what to eat and avoid, and “being on a diet” is a way of signalling to the watching world that we’re doing something about our weight, even if we step off it from time to time.
And, although there’s no guarantee of weight loss on any diet, the outcome of anti-diet approaches such as HAES or IE is unpredictable. An individual may lose, or even gain, weight, or experience weight stability as their relationship with their body and food adjusts.
And that, for me, is a problem, in part because an anti-diet approach just replaces one way of doing something with another. It’s still prescriptive (“do this”) and proscriptive (“don’t do that”), directing a course of action that transfers the practitioner’s professional perspective onto the client.
I may have thought I was being kinder, more compassionate and enabling. In (my client’s) ‘reality’, I was simply replacing food restrictions with philosophical restrictions. In choosing a perfectly valid model of IE and self-compassion, I was working in an evidence-based way, but forgetting to ask the client how they wanted to approach their health goals.
Every single client has their own goals for their body, mind, and health. They choose their vehicle that takes them through Life. It is my job to hear their goals, check their outcomes are well-formed, and collaborate with them on a healthy, sustainable way forward that builds self-efficacy. Those goals doesn’t have to involve weight; health is more than a number on a scale at any given time and there are plenty of ways to work on feeling better.
But I am older now and possibly wiser, and have more understanding of the world in which we move. The bias towards obesity and overweight remains firmly in place. Excess weight is still heavily stigmatised. Yes, we have made great strides forward in body acceptance and positivity, but heavy people still attract judgement and horrible commentary. Yes, even if it’s not spoken aloud it can be reflected in our body language and attitude.
Now some people quite rightly don’t give a stuff about other people’s opinions and perceptions, but others are wounded by them, even if those judgements come from ourselves as internal self-talk. You may embrace the concept of diversity – but in others, not yourself. You may intend to talk compassionately to yourself, but your emotional armour hasn’t been fastened in place properly or has those irritating little chinks that allow the hurtful arrows of jibes and snide remarks, or looks, to penetrate. And contentment cannot be found in a weight-neutral approach. At least not yet.
It is often far quicker and simpler to address weight and body shape rather than waiting for society’s biases to correct.
You have a fundamental right to watch what you eat, whatever your size, without commentary or discussion.
Your goal may be to manage a health condition that is made worse by being heavier, such as dodgy knees or hips. Maybe your goal is to have a flexible approach to food, to eat in a way that supports health and fits into Life – maybe walking through those golden arches isn’t particularly ‘healthy’ but it’s the only option, for whatever reason (and don’t get me started on food politics or social inequality). Or maybe your personal taste preferences are for salad…or water…or maybe sugary things are simply too sweet.
My job is to hear you: your concerns, your hopes. And yes, your fears. You can live a perfectly happy life in a body whatever its weight, but you cannot deny that there are potential health risks associated with a body at either end of the weight spectrum, whether too heavy or too light.
If you summon up the courage and motivation to choose to work with me than it is my professional duty of care to present effective, evidence-based solutions to help you move towards achieving your goals.
If our conversation involves “weight” then great; we can consider weight-neutral approaches such as IE but, if you decide that your best way forward involves a “diet” then actually, if that is something you want to commit to trying, it is my role to support you.
We work together to ensure that any “restrictions” work to support your sense of self and your wellbeing, not just for the arbitrary “number on a scale” outcome, but for longer-term, wider considerations of health. After all, “restrictions” can take many forms, not just the reductionist “calorie counting” or food combining of certain programmes, and some restrictions, such as Time Restricted Eating, can be healthy.
So my role involves identifying and constructing the most appropriate eating plan for you, as an individual; there’s every chance that it won’t be the same plan your friend follows, or the latest social media guru is paid to recommend: it’ll be a plan that considers your unique nutritional needs whilst incorporating behavioural updating to protect against post-diet weight regain, weight “cycling” or potential damage to self-belief or self-esteem.
And I do that, not because I am in collusion with the “diet industry” or because I want my clients to lose weight then regain it all, securing a consistent business stream through my clinic doors. No, I do it because, in adopting without question the anti-diet approach, I could unwittingly compel that person to remain overweight with unseen consequences, now or in the future.
I do it because that balanced, considered approach can help lead you, and me, through the mire of mixed, confusing or downright wrong messages towards a sense of peace, of contentment, around food and eating.