Maybe You Don't Need to Lose Weight
As the anti-diet and HAES movements continue to gain traction there's a lot more heated conversation going on among health practitioners, and among dietitians specifically. I'm over here wanting everyone to get along, but also recognize that we are all practicing from a lens of our experience. This can lead to heated debate, which should be a good thing, but can go awry when everyone's caught up in right-fighting.
In an attempt to clear the air and offer up some clarification about this important movement, I must start by acknowledging that I do lean toward the anti-diet and intuitive eating side. I attempt to take a neutral stance in discussion, however I'm constantly frustrated by the misunderstandings that circulate among HAES advocates and among those who don't understand it.
The foundation of the movement is driven by the fact that our research on weight being a predictor of health outcomes is weak at best. Studies show correlation, but we don't have much evidence on causation. A popular circulating analogy goes something like this: Smoking causes a yellowing of the teeth. But yellow teeth do not cause lung cancer. In the same regard, dietary choices can lead to weight gain, but that weight gain may not be the cause of health problems commonly linked to weight.
Additionally, many people who identify as living in a higher weight body live vibrant, healthy, and energetic lives and do not show any concerning biomarkers of ill health (Goddess Jessamyn Stanley anyone?). However, doctors and dietitians will often encourage weight loss based solely on BMI, even if the individual has not expressed a desire to lose weight and does not have any presenting health concerns. HAES is bringing attention to this toxic and often damaging jump to conclusions.
HAES is also doing important work to dismantle diet culture and weight shaming that even well-meaning folks do not realize they're engaging in. I still check myself on a regular basis and catch myself falling prey to the assumptions and bias that have been so deeply hard-wired by our cultural norms and messaging. Living in a higher weight body doesn't mean one is lazy, ill, or unconcerned with their health. It shouldn't limit the clothes you wear, the jobs you work, or activities you're allowed to do. We place judgment on body size and type based on unfounded biases and false beliefs about what it means to be heavier.
There are definitely people who take an extreme stance and unfortunately perpetuate the judgment of others that they're trying to dismantle. However, anti-diet and HAES advocates are not promoting ill health. Very much the opposite. We/they are simply advocating for a focus on health parameters while leaving weight loss out of it. Sometimes this still leads to weight loss, but sometimes it doesn't. And that's ok...
Focusing on weight loss as the problem to address simply doesn't work and it often causes more damage and drives further dysfunction with food. The intuitive eating approach is considered the gold-standard alternative to traditional forced dieting attempts at weight loss as it promotes deeper sense of self, body positivity and acceptance, and a more healing and natural relationship with food and eating. From there, the body will reach its natural healthful weight if in fact it needs to change at all. There's simply no need to focus on the weight as it all too often leads to chronic dieting patterns and cycles of restriction and overeating or binge eating.
I think where the HAES movement is often misunderstood lies in the false belief that they are demonizing nutrient dense foods. The whole idea is for all foods to be on equal ground. But it's much more effective to encourage increased consumption of more nutrient dense foods in a gentle way using an "add what's missing" approach, than to over-emphasize that other foods are inherently bad or damaging. Not because it isn't sometimes true, but because it's not helpful. Nutrition should not be thrown out completely, but in the context of chronic dieting and eating disorders, individuals will be much more open to eating more nutritious foods if they perceive that they're eating them because it makes their body feel good. Not because those foods are good, healthy, whole, real, better, safer, lower in calories, free of toxins, or grown locally and organic. Again, not because this isn't sometimes true.... but because it often isn't helpful.
Lastly, this movement is about teaching people to honor and respect where they are now. Teaching them the healing power of presence and allowing them to cultivate compassion for their journey and how their body is physically manifesting as a result of that journey. Allowing them to feel for a moment that their weight is ok. That it's right and that it's safe and that they're safe. Giving them some sense of peace that they don't always have to be in "change" or "fix" myself mode. That it's ok to breathe and just be in their body, as it is, right now.
I encourage all health practitioners to continue to educate themselves on different styles and approaches and keep an open mind when it comes to what different people find helpful. There is no one way. If a client sees an anti-diet practitioner and it doesn't help them, they may then reach out to an ancestral or paleo diet advocate and get what they need. And if someone isn't helped by a dietitian who encourages certain foods and discourages other foods, then they might later find an anti-diet practitioner who is able to help them find the peace they deserve. In this way we help each other and we serve humanity by honoring differences and individuality.