I made the HAES Pledge. That means I consider myself a “health at ever size” dietitian, someone who refuses to focus on weight and body size, honors diversity and promotes a healthy, sane lifestyle that includes fun movement and intuitive eating. I would love to pretend that everyone cares about their health and not just their weight, however I know this is not true. It does not mean I will ever promote weight loss for the sake of weight loss alone, but I often feel uncomfortable when those around me are doing everything they can to lose weight. Although I know through my experience with patients as well as reading the research on weight loss (there’s lots there) that strict dieting is not the way to go in the long run, I am not one who discounts another’s feelings and goals. That just means that if you tell me you want to lose weight and you are starting a diet, I am not going to lecture you, or tell you to stop wasting your time and to focus on your health instead (and that you are beautiful no matter what your weight or body size). If you are a loving, kind, good, nice person, of course I feel you are perfect the way you are. But you may not feel that way (just because you don’t like your body since you have gained that weight). And although I wish I could make you see the light (that focusing on being healthy is the way to go), I know I can’t.
So although you won’t find me trying to convince people they should not feel the way they do, you won’t catch me advising people on how to lose weight. It goes against my principles. You WILL find me trying to educate dieters though, because I have seen it all, I have been affected by what I have seen and I will do whatever it takes to prevent the bad things that can happen from dieting. And that is what this post is about. If you insist on dieting to lose weight then I want you to be safe, stay healthy and aware of what you are doing. I want you to avoid the typical traps that dieting often sets. I want you to recognize dieting for what it is: a temporary answer. But mostly, I want you to never give up trying to learn what the permanent answer is to your weight and body concerns. And that is different for everyone.
The fact is that some people gain weight and although they may not like it, it is completely natural and does not affect their health. There are others, however, who do gain weight resulting from some unhealthy lifestyle changes or other issues and the weight gain is not normal for them. Even for these individuals, focusing on dieting and losing weight typically is not the answer. Actually, lots of people gain weight just as a result of their dieting. Either way, I like to believe there is a “normal, healthy weight range” that a BMI or weight chart can’t predict. It is the weight your body is happiest at, the weight you tend to fall at when you are living a relatively healthy lifestyle, sleeping well, enjoying regular enjoyable physical activity, eating regular meals, eating healthy foods as well as other foods when you want them (not starving, not binge eating, not feeling excessively full all the time, or walking around hungry half the time). My goal for you, and the true answer as to how to be the weight you are supposed to be is to do some reflecting and learning. Here is my advice to keep you healthy, safe and alive and hopefully, in touch with reality when it comes to your weight and health.
- Find the REAL answer. What is the actual story about your weight? I find people fall into 2 categories: those who gain weight because they are supposed to and it is normal, and those who gain weight in a sneaky way because they have fallen into a lifestyle that is not supportive of their health or feeling good. An example of the first group is the high school/college athlete who used to run 70 miles a week in order to compete at a high level on the cross country team. After college, they get their dream job and now barely have time to exercise (or maybe they now take a walk every day, you know, normal life exercise) and gain several pounds over time. Their new weight settles in a stable range, yet they can’t fit into their old clothes. Not wanting to buy new clothes in a larger size, they start to diet. This has all kinds of negative repercussions (such as making them preoccupied with food, binge eating, etc). In this case, the weight gain is completely normal with no affect on health, and actually trying to lose weight is the last thing they should be doing as far as health OR weight is concerned. Even though they gained weight, they needed to. After all, running 70 miles a week is not the norm. Who wants to do that forever? Unless you are someone who truly loves running, well, that is different. I believe we all need to do what we love and if competing in road races, running long distance, biking 100 miles is something that makes you happy, then go knock yourself out. But if you are doing it only to prevent weight gain, hating every minute, well, that is no way to live. Or maybe you can’t relate to this at all, and when you look back and truly reflect on your life, you realize some things have changed. This is the second type of person who has gained weight over time. I can share some stories I have heard from others. Maybe they started a new job after college and now that they are making money they start going out to eat more often. Dinner used to be whatever mom made, but now it is the favorite pizza joint (and they throw in a free 2 liter bottle of Coke, can’t beat that). Or maybe they got married and their entire lifestyle changed. Lots of baking for the new husband who loves his cookies, watching movies together with drinks and popcorn. He is a couch potato kind of guy, so you join him (you miss the gym, but this is fun, too). Over time, you notice your clothes getting tighter, you don’t sleep as well, you get a bit more indigestion than you used to. In this case, the weight gain resulted from some changes in lifestyle that were not conducive to health, and actually contributed to feeling less than great. Figuring out why your weight changed and if it is normal for you, or not, is important. Because then, it gives you a focus. A diet is not the answer. Getting back into your healthier habits is. And it has nothing to do with the weight, but everything to do with how you are living (and feeling).
- If you insist on dieting, be aware of the “all-or-nothing” trap. Just because you “fall off” your diet by eating a cookie you then go on to finish the box. If you were needing a cookie, it just means your diet plan likely does not provide enough of what the cookie has. Is your diet low fat, low carb? Then guess what? THAT is what you will crave! a cookie. Or chips, pizza, ice cream….carbs and fat. Who craves grilled fish when they are dieting? Instead, try to take it as a lesson. Learn to listen to these cravings and enjoy what you want in moderation. Instead of binge eating or saying “what the heck” (actually referred to as the “what the hell” effect) and eating everything in sight because “tomorrow you will be back on track”-meaning back on “the diet”, eating some of what you want actually makes the craving go away. You feel better. In fact, when you hopefully go off the dumb diet (sorry, I mean the diet) this will have taught you that you can enjoy both those foods defined as healthy as well as those other foods, and nothing bad will happen. You won’t gain weight. You will just be a normal eater.
- Don’t skip meals. You have heard this before. Just today I had a patient come back for a follow up visit. I saw her a week ago because she could not stop herself from excessive snacking at night. Come to find out, she had been skipping lunch and breakfast. By evening, she was out of control. She simply started eating a typical breakfast and lunch (plate of meat, potato, veggie, water, cookie) and then dinner, and lo and behold….no more excessive snacking. Plus, she said, she felt “so much better”. Yes, getting some nutrition during the day does have an impact on your energy level. If you find yourself dragging and exhausted by early afternoon, maybe you aren’t eating enough. And, skipping meals lowers your metabolism and encourages weight gain (but you knew that). Finally, skipping meals really does affect your brain and your thinking. For some, skipping meals a can trigger even more disordered eating. There is no way to know who is at risk, but I don’t want it to be you.
- Get enough sleep. You have heard me say it before, I believe in listening to your body and food cravings, but when you don’t get to bed before midnight, and don’t get enough sleep (7-9 hours for adults, it varies) your levels of ghrelin will be elevated and this messenger makes you excessively hungry, and also causes you to crave fat and sugar. It is really hard to eat healthy when this is going on. Not to mention all of the other benefits of a good night’s sleep (feeling better, having energy, fighting illness). Napping doesn’t count, and actually can make sleeping at night even more difficult. Yeah, don’t nap if you can help it..
- Stay hydrated. I worry about people who diet because they are at more risk of dehydration as well as hurting their kidneys. When you diet too strictly, you actually break down muscle,which is protein which has nitrogen that needs to be excreted through your kidneys. So water is essential so as not to damage your kidneys. Your pee should be light yellow and you should need to use the bathroom every 3 hours or so. The minimum for most adults is 8 cups of water a day, usually 9 or 10. If you feel dizzy sometimes, this can be a sign of dehydration. The other (less scary) issue with dehydration is that your metabolism will not be working at its best if you are dehydrated. Hopefully, that motivates you to drink that water!
- PLEASE don’t connect dieting with exercise. We all need to move, be active because moving in ways we really enjoy is so important to our health. We can prevent heart disease, keep our bones strong, help us sleep, improve our mood, make our muscles strong, help prevent us from falling (especially as we age) and all kinds of other good things, both mentally and physically. Often, when the diet ends, so does the exercise. This does not make sense! Although, if you have the mindset that exercise is only to help you lose weight, then I guess it does make sense. But, in the long run, the real answer? Keeping fun and consistent movement in your life has nothing to do with dieting and everything to do with your mission to have the healthiest body you can have. So when this diet ends, keep on moving.
The reality is that any single diet that tricks you somehow into taking in a lot less calories than you were eating is going to result in weight loss. The problem is that nobody can sustain any particular diet because it is too hard, too boring and just simply not a normal way to live. Instead, the answer is to reflect on the reality of your weight. Have you been at a stable weight and have a healthy lifestyle, but just want to be thinner? Then, I am guessing your body will fight you every inch of the way, and focusing on being as healthy as you can is the sane way to go. If, on the other hand, you have fallen into some really unhealthy habits, have given up some of your past healthier habits (that also made you happy and feel good), then figuring out how to move back into a more balanced lifestyle would be more helpful than another diet (which basically just puts off the inevitable). It is never about some magical number on the scale. There will never be one diet that works better than they all work. But it is about feeling good. There is just something about sleeping well, having energy, feeling good that really helps you feel better about the body you were born with.
In the meantime, if you are on a diet to lose weight, I hope you stay safe, listen to your body signals (they are smarter than we are!), maybe learn to cook some healthy meals while you are doing this, discover some new vegetables or fruits you like. But mostly, I hope you take the time to learn about YOU. When the diet ends, that is when your story really begins.