Are you unhappy with how your body looks?

Trying to change your body is usually not the answer.

Whether it be through diet changes, exercise, or both, focusing on changing your body to reduce fat, measurements or change shape rarely leads to the desired result. You might see changes initially and start to feel more positive toward your body, but what happens when the changes stop? Are you completely happy with your body? 

For most people the answer here is no, once the honeymoon phase of change has worn off and the compliments stop, you start to feel dissatisfied again and you want to see more change. This usually means more food restriction and more exercise. Even if you don’t up the anti, at some point it all gets too hard, or just impossible to stick too when other life problems arise, you go on holiday, or a special occasion pops up. 

When any of these happen, which inevitably they do, you revert back to your previous eating and exercise patterns and nearly always regain the weight – I must STRESS that it not the individual that is at fault here, it is a pattern or eating and exercise that is simply NOT maintainable. How does this leave you feeling? Awful, discouraged, shameful, disappointed, angry, resentful, bitter and HATING your body even more.

And what if you put all that effort in with eating and exercise and don’t see any change, or not what you expected to see? You end up feeling much the same, disliking your body even more. 

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Unfortunately the messages fed to us by our culture and (sometimes) well meaning health and exercise professionals, is if we just lost a little weight, or toned up, we’d feel better about ourselves (and be healthier). The ironic thing is of course, we often end up hating ourselves more and are less healthy from an emotional and psychological point of view. Physical health can also suffer with food restriction, binging, extreme exercise and weight cycling (yo-yoing).

It’s a vicious circle that is so easy to get caught up in. The weight loss dream, or “better body” dream is so incredibly seductive, it’s like the high from a drug when you first start and it can become addictive. You think this one will be the one that works, despite having crashed many times before.

Combine this seductive lure of the “better body” dream with the image of the “ideal” body plastered everywhere we look, with people selling you “the dream”, and with the health message that fat equals death, and it’s not hard to see why that vicious circle exists for so many people.

So what would happen if you didn’t try to change your body, but instead worked on changing your relationship to your body? By this I mean changing how to view your body and learning how to be more accepting of the body you currently have. This is something I do with my clients and it’s amazing how when people start to change how they feel about their bodies, they start to engage in better self-care, including more sleep, not taking on too much, improved eating behaviours, being more physically and socially active and so on. These behaviour changes are what lead to feeling better about your body.

I am not suggesting this is easy or straight forward, it’s often not, and many people will require help from a health professional skilled in the work of body acceptance, I would recommend HAES® (Health At Every Size) professional. But if this different approach and extra effort gets you out of the viscous diet/exercise/body hate cycle, then it is so worth it!

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We don’t have an obesity crisis, but rather a body image crisis.

Yes there are people with high BMIs whose weight has an impact on their health, but there are also people with high BMIs who are perfectly healthy from a metabolic and physical standpoint.

We must also acknowledge there are people with low BMIs who are unhealthy and that the risk of premature death is actually greater* for people in the underweight BMI category compared with people in the “overweight” or “obese” BMI ranges.

Amongst the millions of metabolically healthy people with BMIs above 25, there are many people for whom mental and emotional health is damaged by our culture’s weight stigma and obsession with thinness. Through the process of trying to lose weight, because that’s what our culture says is necessary for health and acceptance, these otherwise healthy people develop disordered eating behaviours, preoccupation with food, psychological damage and poor body image. Some develop eating disorders which seriously erode a person’s physical and mental health. In all of these instances, the pursuit of weight loss actually worsens health.

I am not saying all people with high BMIs are perfectly healthy and that they should not worry about their health, the decision to take care of the health of our body should be independent of our size. This is precisely what the HAES (Heath At Every Size) movement is advocating.

In my practice, one of the biggest road blocks for many people in terms of managing their eating and health, is body image. How we feel about our bodies is tied up in how we feel about ourselves.

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There are many reasons people feel unhappy in themselves, such as issues with work, relationships, financial situation etc. It’s not unusual for people to feel they have no or little control over these factors, while there is a perception that we can control or change our bodies. This leads many people to focus on the one thing they are led to believe they can control, their body size and shape, as a goal to feel better in themselves. Unfortunately we have much less control over our body shape and size than we are led to believe.

Added to this is our culture’s weight stigma and weight bias where thin is seen as “good” and fat is seen as “bad”. This adds up to a strong message that we must lose weight or be thinner to be happy, healthy and acceptable. This message continues to fuel our diet culture and keep people in the trap of dieting.

Dieting has now been shown to be a strong predictor of weight gain**. Let’s agree for a moment that we do have an obesity crisis, if the advice is lose weight and this leads to dieting (which it inevitably does), and dieting increases the risk of weight gain, mental health issues and eating disorders, then focusing on obesity as the issue is a fast track to nowhere and ill-health. There is another way.

Instead of focusing on obesity as a health issue, I would like to see more dietitians and other health professionals addressing body image and the drivers behind why so many people are so deeply unhappy with their bodies. This would require shifting our cultures strong beliefs around weight and changing the messages fed to us daily by various industries around what it means to be an acceptable human. As per Dr Brene Brown’s work, we must also acknowledge our human vulnerability that leaves us feeling we are never enough or never have enough – no small feat but one that is being addressed by HAES practitioners and various other people and organisations across the world.

*www.medicaldaily.com/being-severely-obese-healthier-being-underweight-241247
**www.intuitiveeating.com/content/warning-dieting-increases-your-risk-gaining-more-weight-update

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We need to stop praising thinness

We need to stop praising thinness because as long as we do, women will continue to feel that being thin is necessary to feel worthy or happy in themselves.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being thin, I am thin, but this doesn’t make me more worthy of love, respect, happiness or success. I image some people will probably think “well that’s easy for to say, you’re thin.” And in part, they’re right, but in the past I too wanted to be thinner.

It’s also completely fine to praise or acknowledge appearance, but when appearance is the main or only thing we praise, or it’s always about body size and shape, that’s when things start to get distorted.

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I am also not saying that it’s wrong to want to be thin. What’s wrong is our culture’s belief that thinner is better, more attractive and more successful, and how this drives our want to be thin. But this is only the cultural belief of our time, a belief that has been shaped and that is constantly pushed by the many industries that make money off our insecurities and desire to be thinner.

It hasn’t always been like this, in the past bigger women were seen as more beautiful, and today, larger bodies are still celebrated in other cultures that haven’t been consumed by the “thin ideal”.

So no, thinner does not equal better, more attractive or more successful, or even healthier* for that matter. However it’s not hard to see why so many women (and increasingly men) feel this is so. In addition to the constant messages we receive from our thin obsessed culture, if one of the most successful, celebrated and powerful women in the world (Oprah) still doesn’t feel she’s enough unless she’s thinner, what message is that sending to the rest of us?

*While people’s health can improve along with the behaviour change that influences weight loss, it is the behaviour change rather than the weight loss that should be praised. Not everyone who loses weight through behaviour change experiences an increase in health, there are many cases where dietary changes and increased exercise have led to disordered eating patterns, eating disorders, body image disorders and decreased physical and psychological health. This is happening much too often.

Every time we praise someone for weight loss or thinness, we validate this idea that thinner is better or healthier and that we should all strive to achieve this at whatever cost.

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Will losing weight really make you feel better?

Listening to a program on suicide and mental health issues, I was reminded how easily we get caught up with various problems and worries that perhaps aren’t as bad as we think.
 
If your quality of life is being affected by your pattern of eating or not enough physical activity, then it’s probably a good idea to look at what you can change in your lifestyle to improve your health. In doing so, some people will lose weight, but others may not. If you are already nourishing your body well and active, or if you have already dropped around 10% of your heaviest body weight, then losing weight may not be so important for your overall health, or even possible.
 
If by eating well and staying active, you can shift weight without too much difficulty, then go for it. If you are being very careful with your eating and doing plenty of exercise but not seeing any weight change, this is where you may need to reassess the need for weight loss.
 
A question that I sometimes ask my clients is, “If I had a magic wand and 5-10kg disappeared, how would this enhance your life?” More often than not, the response is related to happiness, confidence, how people look and the clothes they could wear, rather than health or fitness.
 
do you really need to lose weight?
If at your current weight, you are still able to do all the things you love and your health is not compromised, and the main reason you are unhappy with your current size and shape, is that you are unhappy with how you feel about yourself, then weight loss may not be the answer. This is especially true if the pursuit of looking and feeling better is actually serving to make you even unhappier with yourself through restrictive dieting and failed weight loss attempts.
 
In my 12 years as a dietitian, I have seen hundreds of people who despite losing weight, are still desperately unhappy with themselves and their bodies. Often, it is only when people let go of their desire to lose weight and instead focus on improving their relationship with food and their bodies, that health improves and they start to feel happy within themselves.
 
We live in a weight and diet obsessed world where success and happiness is often equated with thinness and beauty. This is not the real world; this is the world of glossy magazines, TV, Hollywood and increasingly, touched up social media.
 
Again, if by eating well and staying active, you can shift weight without too much difficulty, then go for it. If not, remind yourself of all the good things in your life, how lucky you are to live in a war free country, to be able to come home each day to a safe house, good shelter and enough food to eat. If you don’t suffer from mental illness or other disability, be happy that you have good mental and physical health. 
 
It is so easy to take for granted all the positive aspects of life and get caught up with what we are not happy with. Next time you’re feeling down about yourself, stop for a moment and remember all the good things you have.
 
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Health is not just a matter of weight loss

No, I am not anti-weight loss and yes, weight loss can be a positive thing.

If through focusing on your health, nourishing your body well, being physically active and socially engaged, you naturally lose weight, then that is what is right for your body.

The issue is, that by constantly promoting weight loss as necessary for health, this has the effect of placing the focus of improving a person’s health almost entirely on weight loss.

When you focus on weight loss, these things tend to happen and they actually damage your health:

  • You go on a diet, or restrict your calorie intake (aka dieting).
  • You feel great, perhaps even virtuous initially, but this rarely lasts…
  • You start exercising. But many people go to0 hard initially in an attempt to burn calories and fat and end up hating exercise because it’s painful, they get injured and they simply don’t enjoy it.
  • You become preoccupied with food and for many this can lead to increased anxiety and emotional distress around food and eating.
  • You become preoccupied with your body and this can lead to becoming anxious, distressed and unhappy with your body.
  • You start resenting trying to eat well or being healthy, because dieting is restrictive (and boring) and the weight isn’t falling of your body like promised and even if you are losing weight, it’s not as much as you hoped.
  • You probably lose weight initially only to regain that weight in 1-5 years, often gaining more weight.
  • You spend a good part of your life yo-yo dieting and trying to keep your weight down.
  • Your risk of developing disordered eating or an eating disorder increases.
  • Somewhere along the way, the focus on losing weight over-shadows what it really means to be a healthy happy human.
  • You stop dieting and blame yourself for failing, rather than blaming the ineffective method.

While this may seem a very bleak picture to paint, it is the experience myself and other dietitians hear over and over from people when they come to see us. It is also well documented in research

Note: these things do not happen to everyone, but they happen to a large number of people who try to manage their health by dieting to lose weight.

Intuitive Eating dietitians

How would things look different if we took the emphasis off losing weight?

  • You can stop dieting in an attempt to lose weight.
  • Instead you could take a more gentle approach where you learn to become the expert of your body and you decide the best way to manage your eating.
  • You could try a Non-Diet Approach where you learn to eat intuitively again (summary of IE research)
  • Intuitive eaters have been found to have a more positive relationship with food and their bodies.
  • Intuitive eaters are less likely to overeat or binge eat.
  • Intuitive eaters tend to eat a variety of nourishing food.
  • With no foods being seen as “bad” or needing to be avoided, the desire to over-eat certain foods starts to lessen and eventually disappears.
  • Intuitive Eating has recently been found by this study to be inversely associated with body weight.
  • You can find ways to move your body that you truly enjoy as you no longer tie exercise to working hard in order to burn calories and fat.
  • Through finding ways to move your body that you truly enjoy, you’re more likely to maintain the activity long-term.
  • Through improved eating habits, being more physically active and generally feeling better within yourself, you will be doing your best to manage any risk factors for diet-related diseases.
  • You finally find a way to manage your health that you can not only maintain long-term, but that you actually enjoy!

I have only addressed eating and activity in this piece, of course health is much more than just what we eat and how active we are. Other factors that strongly influence our health are, but not limited to, sleep, stress levels, work, relationships, mental health, disability and social engagement.

Note: I would also like to acknowledge that for many people, improving health is much more complex than what I have outlined here. The capacity to improve health is too often limited by socio-economic factors, lack of finances, access to food and education. 

Thanks for reading!

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Please, please, please, let’s focus on fitness and health, not weight loss.

I am writing this in response to reading about another study just published that shows significant health improvements in obese people with just a 5% weight loss. While I do not argue with the studies findings and what lies behind the finding is positive, I would like to point out some serious issues with attributing the health improvements to the weight loss itself, rather than the behaviours changes that the change in weight was a by-product of. 

Why are we so fixated on weight loss being the reason for improved health when research shows us health can improve independent of weight loss? In addition, we now know the pursuit of weight loss often causes more long-term damage, both physiologically and psychologically, and even leads to weight gain.

Continuing to place the emphasis on weight loss, as many studies and health strategies do, serves to fuel our culture’s obsession with weight and looking a certain way in order to be physically fit. As shown in studies by Gaesser and explored in his book “Big Fat Lies”; physical fitness can be achieved independent of a person’s size, shape or weight. 

Thinner is not what is better, fitter is what is better.

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By continuing to focus on weight, we run the risk of more people turning to dieting in an attempt to lose weight, and as discussed in the weight gain link above, this can actually harm people’s health. Any dietary change that involves calorie restriction in an attempt to lose weight or change appearance is a form of dieting. We also run the risk of losing those people who could benefit from increased fitness but who give up on being more active or managing their eating better as they don’t see the “promised” weight loss that is “supposed” to come with increased exercise or improved eating habits. 

Then there are the serious, and too often over-looked, issues around body image and eating disorders that accompany dieting and the desire to lose weight or be thinner. This is such a huge topic and too complex to give justice to in this article, other than to acknowledge that there is a strong link between the desire to lose weight, dieting, poor body image and eating disorders. 

I am not, nor is the HAES movement, anti-weight loss. If people see a change in their weight as a by-product of sustainable behaviour change, and this weight change benefits the individual, then I’m all for it. Many people will see a 5% loss in weight when they start changing health behaviours, but some will not, often due to years of dieting. But, how many of those who achieve the 5% loss will be satisfied with that? Although they have seen a significant improvement to their metabolic function, many will want to lose more weight because that what our culture says is right, in terms of health and appearance. This will encourage people to do more to lose more weight, be that more exercise or dietary change. Many people would automatically assume this would be a positive thing, but if those changes involve focusing on calories, whether restricting or burning calories, or both, then this is dieting.  As discussed, dieting does not produce long-term weight loss or health improvements, with most people regaining the weight within 1-5 years and many ending up heavier and less healthy.

What is so important to understand, is that dieting to lose weight is not some innocuous behaviour that in ineffective long-term, dieting actually causes damage physiologically through weight cycling and psychologically through decreased self worth and increased body image dissatisfaction, emotional distress, anxiety and disordered eating (read more on this).

Please share this article to help spread the message that fitness is much more important than weight!

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