I have tried a lot of diets in my life. Atkins, vegan, Weight Watchers, counting calories, Weigh Down Workshops, Paleo, Zone, South Beach, food logs. I’ve worked with nutritionists and therapists. I’ve done the shakes, the herbal supplements, the cleanses. I’ve spent hours in the gym, I’ve trained for races, I’ve done CrossFit, I’ve lifted weights. I’ve tried a lot of things. I’ve spent thousands of dollars. None of these efforts (and concentrated, years-spanning efforts many of them were) have succeeded to get me thin in the long term.

I finally got fed up, and about two years ago, and decided that instead of going on another diet, I would start doing some research about why nothing was working for me. I got my thyroid tested, my bloodwork done, I talked to different doctors, I consulted with many nutrition and health experts. Nobody had any answers for me. Then I got my hands on a book called Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. I learned that dieting almost never works. That losing and gaining weight repeatedly was unhealthy. That I didn’t have to be thin to be healthy. I started to do more research. I read more books, I visited blogs, I investigated health journals and read papers and published research. I became more and more curious.

Curiosity killed the cat negative self-talk

One day, I started asking the question, “why”? Why did I think that being thin was necessary? Why do we all want to lose 20 pounds? Why do we want to have less cellulite, have blemish-free skin, silky hair, fashionable clothes, a bigger house, a toned yoga butt? This simple question “why” blew my whole world apart one day after a yoga teacher training session.

A comment made during class caught me off guard. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. My mind cranked into overdrive – a whirlwind spiral of negative thoughts about myself started spinning out of control, right there on the spot: I talk too much, I am too eager, too loud, too annoying, ever since I was a kid people have been telling me to be quiet, give others a chance, sit down, calm down. Then I caught my reflection in the mirror at the back of the room and it got worse. I’m ugly, I’m fat, my body is so huge compared to everyone in this room. I don’t belong here at all, I’m almost 30 – my pretty years are over, and I’ve wasted them being fat. I’m so ugly. It went on and on. That night was just awful. I hadn’t felt so low in a long time.

The next day I was journaling about the experience and thinking, why did I let this one statement trigger me so much? And then the “why” crept in and I had a breakthrough moment! From my journal:

Why does it even matter if I’m ugly? Let’s objectively say that I am ugly, whether it is “true” or not. Who cares? I have a supportive partner who loves me and thinks I’m beautiful. I have friends who love me. I have people who say they admire me, and men and women who have told me I am beautiful. I have a home, independence, a decent income, freedom to make whatever choices I want. What possible advantage could come from me being more attractive? I don’t need to “catch a man” or get a promotion or win friends. I am pretty much okay. It’s possible that am enough just as I am, today. What others think of me is really none of my business.

And that one little journal entry was the beginning of my steps toward accepting myself for who I am, and who I am becoming. Awareness was key to me. I got into my body and I started listening to it. This body awareness developed in tandem with the research I was doing about dieting and weight loss. Here’s some of what I found out.

The evidence says dieting doesn’t work

The evidence we have says that nearly everyone regains the weight within 5 years no matter how they lost it. Almost anyone can lose weight in the short term, whatever diet they try. However, there is absolutely no cold, hard evidence to support that the majority of fat people can get thin and maintain it for the long term. Less than 5% of people who lose weight keep it off for more than 5 years. I am part of this statistic. I lost a significant amount of weight and regained it within the 5 year term, despite during those five years exercising regularly, becoming a CrossFitter, running several races including a 10K, eating a diet primarily comprised of whole, unprocessed foods, etc.

Dieting also makes us unhealthier. Weight loss is often prescribed as a health intervention, but according to research,

Concern has arisen that this weight focus is not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but may also have unintended consequences, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatization and discrimination.

Dieting not only leads to all these other negative health consequences, dieting also makes us fatter. Repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain (weight cycling)  has also been shown to lead to increased cardiovascular risks. Regardless of body size, people who lost and regained weight ended up being at higher risk for heart problems.

Dieting fuels disordered eating

Not only does research support this, I know that it’s absolutely true in my case. I have had a history of disordered eating since my teen years. The first thing that happens when I begin dieting – when I stop trusting my body’s hunger signals and depend on someone else’s outside set of rules about what I should eat – is that my brain and my body start to freak out. I begin to obsess over food. It’s all I think about. I become preoccupied with food, with the shape of my body, with what I’m eating or not eating, with whatever OTHER people are eating. When I stop trusting my body to tell me what and when and how much to eat, I turn into a very unpleasant person.

Weight loss does not equal health

A great deal of evidence (Matheson et. al., Wei et. althe Cooper Institute etc.) points to the conclusion that healthy habits make healthy bodies in a wide variety of sizes. Choosing healthy habits such as eating 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables, participating in moderate activity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, not smoking, consuming alcohol in moderation, and other notably healthy choices can mitigate every single risk factor associated with being overweight. Watch this video for more about that study, and about how just a moderate amount of moving your body can totally transform your health.

Health At Every Size

As I learned more and more, I decided that I would choose healthy habits instead of trying to keep fighting my body. Instead of basing my truth and my reality off someone else’s standards for who they think I should be, I started checking in with myself. I started practicing something every time I would get triggered, or feel insecure or ashamed because of my appearance. Instead of trying to change my body’s appearance to others by slumping over, holding something in front of my stomach, sucking in my stomach, or adjusting my clothing, I would focus on the sensations inside my body and how I was feeling. I would actually go into my body, and start a simple breathing exercise to stay present. Yoga has taught me to inhabit my body, to get out of my head, and to be aware of what I was feeling. I knew what breath in my belly felt like, how to articulate my spine, how to ground my femur head into my hip socket, how to close my eyes and stay, instead of escaping into thoughts, fantasy, or panic. Yoga helped me learn to listen to my body.

Through the mindfulness yoga has taught me, and the techniques I’ve practiced through my work with Michelle Allison’s Learn to Eat program (which I will write more about in another post), I have tried countless experiments since then to find out what foods make me feel good, what foods make me feel bad, how much movement is right for me, things like that. Here’s what my wellness looks like these days:

  • I listen to my body. I let hunger and fullness signals determine when to start and stop eating. I practice mindfulness during meals. I notice food – I savor it, notice the texture, the flavor, the temperature.
  • I eat few processed foods. Instead I choose vegetables, meat, fruit, nuts, and seeds. Occasionally I have a treat, if it’s what I’m craving. My body is very good at telling me what it wants, if I listen. When I don’t listen, or I’m not mindful as I’m eating – I realize the consequences (a tummyache, a bad headache, sore and inflamed joints).
  • I make time to plan meals, prepare food, and keep healthy options around. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t freak out (the occasional Taco Bell visit on a road trip isn’t going to kill me), but I make healthy eating a priority. It’s not the only priority, but it’s one important part of my life.
  • I move my body. I strive for at least 150 minutes of activity per week. I only choose activity that feels fun to me – this can be anything from yoga (often), to hiking (often), walking my dog, working on our farm property (cutting brush, gardening, moving rocks around to rebuild a wall), doing pushups, situps, and squats, and more.
  • I get 8-9 hours of sleep per night in a pitch black room. When this does not happen, things come unhinged quickly.
  • I get some sun every day to keep my vitamin D levels up. This combined with activity makes certain that my brain chemistry is going to stay on the up and up.

I do not:

  • Count calories, points, or assign numbers to foods
  • Follow a list of “good” and “bad” food
  • Assign moral value (good or bad) to foods
  • Punish myself with restriction or exercise when I eat something “I shouldn’t”
  • Skip meals
  • Cut out entire macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein)
  • Feel guilty when I eat something that is high in calories
  • Talk about dieting
  • Comment on other people’s body size

Weight loss does not equal happiness

an image of meThe research says that less than 5% of people who lose weight can maintain that weight loss. If I equate being thin with being happy, that means I have a less than 5% chance of being happy. I don’t accept that statistic! I am a very determined person. Even before I stopped dieting, even while I was still making an extremely concerted effort to lose weight, I decided to just do it now. Whatever “it” was: training for and running 5 & 10Ks, deadlifting 300 pounds, kicking just about everyone’s ass at Just Dance! for the Wii, becoming a certified yoga teacher, hiking 13 miles in one day, climbing Spy Rock, Humpback Rocks, Sharp Top, and countless other difficult hikes. I decided to stop postponing my life until I lost weight. I decided to take chances, try new things, and choose healthy habits. And stop dieting.

My story isn’t the only one out there – check out these 33 real women, of all shapes, sizes, and walks of life, who also said, “I quit!” to dieting.

If you’re curious about the Health At Every Size approach, or how to start chasing healthy habits (without chasing thinness as your end goal), stop by the Fit Fatties Forum and join in the conversation. Or, check out one of these books or blogs.

Books

Blogs & Sites