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After having my joy, my self-esteem, my time, my money, and my cognitive resources sucked by years of diet after diet, I finally gave up dieting a decade ago. It was one of the best choices I ever made, and now, I’m healthier than ever.
But before I finally committed to giving up dieting, I spent a long time convincing myself that I wasn’t dieting after all—that I was just “making healthy choices.”
Now, I coach clients on ditching diets and instead, adopting a true pursuit of health, and this is a lie that I see people all too often tell themselves.
In order for us to be able to lead healthy lives, we must be willing to be real with ourselves about whether we’re truly “being healthy,” or just plain old dieting. And in order to do that—one must understand the difference between dieting and making healthy choices.
Dieting (it literally has the word “die” right smack in the middle of it) has to do with any attempt to kill off some aspect or part of ourselves. This can be an attempt to silence the part of ourselves that desires sugar, or this can be an attempt to remove the fat from our body. Either way, it comes from the belief that there is something wrong with how we are.
The first big difference between dieting and being healthy is that dieting is focused on weight loss, whereas truly pursuing health is weight neutral.
Research shows that the indicators of true health have everything to do with the absence or presence of health promoting behaviors, and little to do with weight itself.
Health-promoting behaviors, like eating more fruits and vegetables, getting your heart rate up, and drinking more water are a means of increasing mental, emotional, and physical well-being. According to many studies like this one, health-promoting behaviors prevent diseases, decrease morbidity, and improve the quality of life, regardless of changes in weight.
Weight loss itself does not reliably do any of these things. This study that analyzed data from 21 different randomized controlled trials for weight loss diets, “uncovered no clear relationship between weight loss and health outcomes related to hypertension, diabetes, or cholesterol, calling into question whether weight change per se had any causal role in the few effects of the diets. The findings are in-line with a recent meta-analysis (Flegal, Kit, Orpana, & Graubard, 2013) that found that overweight and class I obesity were not associated with higher all-cause mortality.” That’s not exactly the story we’re told by the news or medical field.
Most attempts at weight loss are temporary, often leading to gaining back all of the weight and, in some cases, more. This means that dieting is a predictor of future weight gain, not sustained weight loss. This yo-yoing of weight causes damage to our metabolism, as well as our self-esteem.
Not only does weight loss not actually promote physical health, but an emphasis on weight loss reduces holistic health to bodily appearance.
It inadvertently incentivizes individuals to prioritize weight loss over (and often at the expense of) their mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health and well-being.
In fact, according to NEDA (The National Eating Disorders Association), “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.” Without the social rewards of being thinner, weight loss would not be the primary focus of so many people’s health pursuits, which often leads to a decrease in overall health.
Someone who is stressed about needing to lose (or keep off) weight is not healthy.
Dieting has everything to do with restriction, deprivation, and punishment. Dieting asks the question: “What do I need to take away from myself?” When we are dieting, we cut out food groups, we restrict relaxation and pleasure, and we punish ourselves for slipups by promising ourselves that we’ll “work out extra hard tomorrow” or “be really good with eating.”
Any form of dieting comes from dualistic thinking: believing that fat bodies are bad and thin bodies are good, that sugar and carbs are bad (for example) and salads and protein are good, and that we, ourselves, are bad when we eat “too much” and good when we don’t eat “too much.”
Diet mentality also creates dualism between self and body: me versus my body. For example, dieting is rooted in the belief that we need to control or dominate or manipulate our bodies into submission. From diet mentality, we think of our bodies as an “it.”
The pursuit of true health is not dualistic. It is holistic. Embedded right smack in the middle of the word “health” is the word “heal”: to unify; to bring together.
When we are pursuing true health, we are not trying to destroy or kill off any aspect of our bodies or minds. Rather, we are reintegrating all parts of ourselves back into wholeness.
We understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with desiring sugar or carbs or with having fat or being fat. We have compassion and acceptance for the aspect of ourselves that desires to seek emotional support through food. We achieve food neutrality and no longer evaluate food or ourselves as being “bad” or “good.”
True health has nothing to do with depriving or punishing. Rather, when we are pursuing true health, we ask ourselves: “What does my body want more of?” We treat our bodies as if they were a beloved child that we want to take the best possible care of.
Does she want more deep breaths? More sunshine? More water? More probiotics? More leafy greens? More fruit? More vitamins? More dancing? More walks?
Health-promoting behaviors are a gift we give ourselves because we love our bodies so much, rather than a punishment that we inflict on ourselves.
When we are pursuing true health, weight-neutral health, we do not objectify our bodies. We relate to our bodies as a consciousness—a subject rather than an object. We see ourselves as being at one with our bodies, rather than against them.
And we never sacrifice our mental, emotional, or spiritual health to attain some physical goal. We see all aspects of health as interdependent and do not hierarchize physical health over any other aspect of health.
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