Last week I got a message from a private client asking me to essentially help her "diet without dieting". She said her doctor is concerned about her blood pressure and how quickly she has gained weight.
By now you all know that I am against dieting, so how am I supposed to handle situations like this? Is dieting acceptable if it's "for health"? Is there a way to even "diet without dieting"?
Before I can answer these questions, I need to break a common misconception:
Weight and health are not inextricably linked.
An above-average weight does not equate to bad health, and you are not ensured good health just because you have a socially acceptable relationship between gravity and the earth. The "obesity epidemic" itself is a myth; it is socially constructed according to society's ideas of a "good" body, and it deeply affects our understandings of weight and health.
Obesity correlates with bad health, yes. But it does not cause bad health. Overall, weight and BMIs are very poor indicators of health. Things like blood pressure and the degree to which one's life is sedentary or active are much better indicators. You can be skinny with an unhealthy blood pressure, and you can be fat with a healthy, active lifestyle.
We know this, scientifically, yet we have trouble accepting it because our culture tells us otherwise.
Next time you see health/fitness/diet industries and politicians waving around statistics about the impending social and economic dangers of obesity, I urge you to see them critically. I am a very active individual, an athlete and performer, and a vegetarian. But I am overweight, according to BMI standards. Athletes like myself often reveal a fatal flaw of the BMI system (as we tend to weigh more due to muscle), yet this is the system by which all those obesity statistics are calculated. Next time you read "60% of American adults are overweight or obese", remember that I'm included in that category.
The fact that fit people are included in obesity statistics is not the only thing wrong with our current system, though. The real problem is that healthy people, thin or not, are included in the very statistics that try to show us how unhealthy we are. That's because these stats are based on weight and height even though size does not dictate health.
For the sake of all that is good and holy, please understand this: You absolutely cannot tell a person's health by their appearances. It simply is not possible. Contrary to societal belief, there are plenty of unhealthy skinny people and healthy fat people walking this earth as we speak. So we must separate weight from health.
We must decouple aesthetics from health. Period.
You have been raised to connect "health" to "thin" and "thin" to "pretty", but these are only false binaries. The problem with these social constructions of weight, health, and beauty is that they produce real consequences: If we're being honest, we're all either living in terror of being fat or we're actually fat and living in stigma. And we justify this absurd behavior by claiming concern for "health", even though size does not determine health, whatsoever. And that's why diets exist. But diets don't work, and I hope you choose a healthier, safer, more effective, and more sustainable way to secure your health.
So to answer the previous questions posed by my client: no, dieting is not the answer, not even "for health".
Since as a culture we've come to equate health with thinness, dieting is inevitably motivated by weight loss. The ultimate goal of any diet is to change one's body, despite the fact that there is no scientifically proven way for dieting and weight loss to be effective long-term.
We must break the common misconception that not dieting means that you don't care about your health. In today's world, dieting is what we believe we do to get healthy, so it's so hard to get rid of that mentality. We believe we have to either diet or we're "letting ourselves go"-- it's yet another false binary, to be honest. In reality, you aren't letting yourself go if you give up dieting. You're simply letting yourself be (controversial, I know).
But before you go discounting me, check out Linda Bacon, Ph.D, the woman who developed the Health At Every Size (HAES) approach in order to challenge weight myths and help women find true health (like physically, mentally, and emotionally). Simply put, HAES is the truth that you can be healthy no matter what body you're in; i.e., you can take care of yourself healthfully at every size.
So, then, what do you do if you want to get healthier but dieting is not the answer? What are people, like my client, supposed to do when weight-related problems seem to threaten their health?
In the spirit of anti-diet nutrition, I referred my client to this (last week's) article of mine. I refuse to recommend dieting because, with current scientific knowledge, it's no longer ethical for doctors, nutrition, and diet professionals to recommend weight loss because weight and health are much more independent than was previously thought.