It’s month six of your new diet, and the plateau hit last week. Until then, you’d been working hard, eating right and steadily losing weight. And since then, you’ve been trying harder than ever, but the scale stubbornly refuses to move by a single pound.
The last two times you tried dieting, the same thing happened. And pound by pound, inch by inch, the weight came back, despite your best efforts.
What went wrong, yet again?
Do diets really make us healthier?
Every day we see ads and commercials and viral videos about dramatic weight loss that encourage us to “take charge of our health” and “make lifestyle changes” to lose weight and be healthier. Usually there’s a smiling person in the ad who’s lost a huge amount of weight, too, to inspire us to do the same.
But are those claims realistic or accurate? Not really. In fact, decades of science have shown that only about 5% of people are able to lose weight and keep it off for over a year. And if you look closely at all those ads, you’ll notice the fine print that says “results not typical.”
Even worse, science also tells us that losing weight won’t make us healthier, either. In fact, being in a larger body is correlated with a number of health conditions, but science has yet to prove that being in that larger body causes those conditions.
Given that weight loss fails most of the time, focusing on body size as a measure of health is not only pointless, but harmful, because it encourages us as a culture to stigmatize people in larger bodies and assume that they’re unhealthy.
So what can we do instead if we want to be healthy, fit and happy?
We know that it’s rare and difficult for someone to successfully make their body smaller, but everyone can pursue behaviors to improve their health without worrying about weight. The truth is that health is possible at ANY size.
How can I pursue health at my current body size?
There’s an entire framework built around pursuing health without worrying about weight loss or gain, and it’s called Health at Every Size, or HAES for short.
HAES is based on five interwoven principles:
1. Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
2. Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
3. Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
4. Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
5. Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.
If you’ve heard of the increasingly-popular body positive movement, HAES fits right in with the concept of loving our bodies no matter the skin we’re in. Both HAES and body positivity are based on the concept of “size diversity.” Humans come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and all of those wonderful variations are equally valuable and worthy.
Can HAES help me lose weight?
Every human body has what’s called a set-point range, a weight range where your body is comfortable and wants to stay. In fact, one of the reasons that diets don’t often work is that your body will fight to return to its set point, erasing your efforts.
Depending on how and what you’ve been eating in the past, practicing HAES and intuitive eating may cause your body to gain weight, lose weight or stay the same. I don’t recommend that you go into it expecting to lose weight, because that’s a great way to get stuck in the dieting mindset. Instead, the goal is to focus on health. It’s a huge shift in thinking, but it’s very freeing.
If diets don’t work, what should I eat?
By using HAES, we’re already shifting how we eat — see that fourth principle above — but what does that actually mean? Most of us are coming from a long, long background of other people (or diet books) telling us what we should be eating and when. If we don’t have a guide written by an expert, how on earth are we supposed to know what to eat?
It’s radical, but hear me out: Our bodies can tell us what to eat and when, if we just trust them.
There’s a second framework that fits into HAES like a puzzle piece: intuitive eating. The core of intuitive eating is the belief that our bodies are so wise that they’re the best guides. That’s a pretty wild concept in a world full of counting calories and Eat This, Not That, but it’s helpful for many people.
Like health at every size, intuitive eating is based on a few different principles:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Feel your fullness
- Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Respect the body
- Movement — feel the difference
- Honor your health — gentle nutrition
One of the most frequent questions people have when I talk about intuitive eating is, “Won’t I just want to eat nothing but junk food all day every day from now on? How can that be healthy?”
When you start eating intuitively, it may certainly feel like all you eat is junk food! That’s because we spend our lives avoiding and restricting the foods we call “junk.” By placing them off-limits, we create our own obsession with them.
When you stop considering foods to be “good” or “bad” and eat what you want when you want it, those “forbidden” foods will lose their power over you. Eventually you’ll find yourself craving “healthy” foods again, too.
You can read more about intuitive eating principles here, and I’m happy to discuss with you whether intuitive eating might work for you at our free consultation (see below).
How HAES made a difference for me
I began my eating disorder work at a treatment center, where we mostly treated anorexia and bulimia. Most of my education in the eating disorder field had been focused on these subgroups.
Binge Eating Disorder had just recently been recognized as an eating disorder (added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition). Wanting to learn more about it, I decided to attend the Binge Eating Disorder Association conference. It was a life-changing experience. I learned research-backed techniques to help people struggling specifically with binge eating and overeating. And none of the recommendations focused on weight loss! Even more eye-opening, the speakers shared research supporting the idea that we can be healthy at any size, shape, and weight. This is Health at Every Size.
Learning about HAES has brought peace to my own relationship with food and my body. Especially now, as a middle-aged woman, I enthusiastically embrace the idea that being healthy is about doing healthy things for my body and my mind. Because I now truly believe that health has nothing to do with a number on a scale, I can love my body by just treating it with love and not based on whether my jeans from college still fit.
How HAES makes a difference for my clients
Though I don’t require my clients to use a HAES approach in their lives, of course, I’ve found that incorporating elements of HAES has helped many clients find peace with their bodies faster and even improved their physical health.
Clients typically report that the HAES approach leads to a more enjoyable relationship with exercise. What once felt like a chore and a requirement to “burn off” the calories eaten, now feels like a way to treat their bodies with kindness. One client shared that she now chooses activities that she enjoys and that make her feel good physically and emotionally. She quit running because it hurt her knees and she hated every minute of it. She realized the only reason she did it was for the high calorie burn. Now she engages in physical activity more consistently.
My eating disorder therapy clients who embrace HAES and intuitive eating also experience improved relationships with food. As with physical exercise, feeding oneself begins to feels like a way to treat yourself well. You begin to rediscover your body’s natural ability to tell you what food it needs. This includes eating foods for pleasure and sustenance.
If you’re managing a health condition or recovering from an eating disorder, you can still practice intuitive eating! It might just require some adapting.
Is Health at Every Size right for you?
For many of us, approaching our lives with a health at every size viewpoint can be pretty daunting after a lifetime of addressing our health by dieting and restricting food.
If you’re curious whether HAES might work for you and your body, I’d love to help! If you’re looking for eating disorder counseling in Plano, Texas or just want to make peace with your body, contact me at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.