A few months have already passed since the famous New Year’s resolutions have been put into action. Many people are committed to taking care of their health and for most, this means going on a diet and watching their weight. This is understandable; everything around us sends us the message that being thin is better for our health and well-being. What most people don’t know is that behind all of these claims lies a lucrative diet industry (worth $72 billion in 2019), which ultimately leaves people with high levels of body dissatisfaction and a disordered relationship with food¹.
In recent years, a positive movement has grown in response to diet culture, known as the anti-diet approach. It is becoming increasingly popular and is gaining visibility on social networks and in the media. But what is it really? What does it mean to be “anti-diet” and how can an anti-diet approach benefit each of us?
What is a diet?
A diet can be defined as a temporary way of eating that favors, excludes and limits certain foods with the aim of losing weight or changing one’s lifestyle. A key characteristic often present in a diet is caloric restriction (limiting intake) and/or cognitive restriction (create rules or set conditions for eating). An example of this can be refraining from eating chocolate during the week or avoiding all foods containing added sugar.
Because the majority of diets are restrictive, it is difficult to maintain these habits in the long term. Moreover, because the body loves balance, it tends to slow down the metabolism and modify the signals of hunger and satiety to counter weight loss. This means that the vast majority of people will regain the lost weight in the following years².
What is diet culture?
In short, diet culture worships thinness and equates it with being healthy. It also promotes weight loss as a way to achieve better social status and value in society. Diet culture demonizes certain ways of eating while admiring others and fosters stereotypes about people living in larger bodies. It can be recognized almost everywhere: from weight loss recommendations in magazines to the glorification of disordered eating behaviors, such as normalizing counting calories or skipping meals. The problem with diet culture is that it robs us of our time, our money, our well-being and our happiness.
The relationship between weight and health
Weight is determined by our genes in the same way other physical traits are, like height. The “set point theory” and the “dual intervention point model” explain that our weight varies throughout our lives within a certain weight interval³. When there is a change in lifestyle, stress or environment, the weight increases or decreases within this range. On the other hand, if the weight goes outside of this interval, the body’s mechanisms will work to ensure that it can return back within it, especially if weight has been lost. These theories attempt to explain weight variations, but unfortunately there are still many unknowns present in weight-related science to this day.
With that said, it isn’t so simple to change our weight in the long term and any attempt at voluntary weight loss ends more often than not in failure. More and more clinicians are looking into this question and coming to the conclusion that weight is not necessarily a modifiable risk factor as previously thought. Rather, it would act as a non-modifiable risk factor in the same way age or ethnic origin does.
What is the anti-diet approach?
Knowing this information, it’s clear we don’t have as much impact on the number appearing on the scale as we once thought; so, how can we improve our health without focusing on weight? The anti-diet approach advocates a focus on lifestyle habits rather than weight. This approach therefore aims to support people who want to improve their health by looking at their level of movement, their relationship with food, their diet, their stress levels, etc.
Studies have shown that by changing our lifestyle habits, there is a greater improvement in our health regardless of weight(4). Intuitive eating is an anti-diet approach most commonly used in order to better understand the body and its relationship with food. Rather than relying on rules from diets to nourish ourselves, intuitive eating allows us to let go of the rules imposed by diets and trust our intuition when it comes to eating.
Contrary to popular belief, the dietitians who use an anti-diet approach are not against weight loss; they question the relevance of weight loss for improving one’s health. Most dietitians are open to discussing the desire for weight loss while exploring why it feels important and what the reasons are behind the desire. After this exploration, the dietitian may suggest they try the anti-diet approach or redirect them to a service that will allow them to meet their needs/goals.
As mentioned, health can be improved with lifestyle changes independent of weight loss. This is what anti-diet dietitians rely on! They will look at the relationship with the food that people have as well as the frequency, content, quantity and quality of their food intake. They can also help people revisit the way they deal with their emotions through the principles of intuitive eating(5). The ultimate goal is to help people find a way to eat that works for them and that is aligned with their needs, medical conditions, goals and values.
By: Fannie Dancose, Registered Dietitian
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- Simard, V., & Clerc, J. (2022, February 23). The pandemic, a blow to body acceptance. LaPresse.ca. Retrieved March 8, 2022, from https://www.lapresse.ca/societe/2022-02-23/la-pandemie-coup-dur-pour-l-acceptation-corporelle.php
- Mann, T., Tomiyama, AJ , Westling, E., Lew, AM, Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. The American Psychologist, 62(3), 220–233. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220
- Müller, MJ, Geisler, C., Heymsfield, SB, & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2018). Recent advances in understanding body weight homeostasis in humans. F1000Research, 7, F1000 Faculty Rev-1025. https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.14151.1
- Gaesser, GA, & Angadi, SS (2021). Obesity treatment: Weight loss versus increasing fitness and physical activity for reducing health risks. iScience, 24(10), 102995. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2021.102995
- 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. (nd). Intuitive Eating. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/