Today I want to share with you my own journey with diet culture and some of the lessons I have learned along the way.
Did you ever have to write your own obituary?
I thought it was weird then, but now I understand why I had to write my obituary as an essay for admission to college some 43 years ago! Trying to imagine – from a 17-year-old’s perspective – how we would like to be remembered in our lives could have been very different from how we actually went about living our lives.
But in my case, I remember the theme of my obituary very well! I wrote that my life’s purpose had been about helping others. Helping others. It is ironic that now, at this last stage of my career, and as I turn 60 years old this week, I am indeed helping others as an eating disorder and non-diet dietitian who practices from a Health at Every Size® perspective.
This was not always the case, as I reflect on my career thinking I helped others, but more often than not, I actually participated in the $66 billion weight loss industry that causes people to blame themselves for their weight and body image problems, rather than the diet culture being the problem.
Today I wanted to share with you my own journey with diet culture and some of the lessons I have learned along the way. They are lessons we all need to learn because together we can all turn the world of diet culture on its end and move into a body positive mindset and make changes that stick with us for the long-term.
I was part of the diet culture problem… but that has changed!
I truly mean it when I say that I was part of the $66 billion weight loss industry that causes people to blame themselves for their weight and body image problems, rather than the diet culture being the problem. (1,2,3)
The Multibillion Dollar Dieting Industry
Every year, people in the US spend $66 billion on products and services related to weight loss. This includes commercial weight loss programs, low-calorie foods, diet sodas, artificial sweeteners, diet cookbooks and medical procedures including bariatric surgery. These industries have a lot to gain from an increased focus on weight loss. Weight loss failures only means repeat customers. (2)
What are some of the jobs I did? How did I participate in something that I no longer support?
I sold fake sugar and the Optifast® low-calorie program.
Ambitious and eager to make my mark on the nutrition world, one of my first jobs after college was in sales and marketing for a public relations firm promoting artificial sweeteners. As the dietitian/spokesperson for a new fake sugar, I traveled the country touting the weight loss benefits of this product. I also wrote stories about the marvels of Optifast®, the very low-calorie diet program that helped Oprah Winfrey lose a bunch of weight. In fact, she famously appeared on television in 1988 wearing her “skinny” jeans and wheeling a red cart of her “lost weight” across a stage. We all know what happened to Oprah’s weight since that time. The same thing that happens to most people – you end up back where you started or beyond, and you beat yourself up over it. You blame yourself.
People Are Blamed, and Blame Themselves, for Weight Loss Failures
Given the ubiquity of ads and commercials about successful diets, it is not surprising that people take personal responsibility when their own weight loss attempts fail. (2,3)
Eager to continue helping people get healthier, I also started something new… pushing them to just move more, and eat less!
I created a private practice after my kids were born so I could work around their schedules. I became a certified personal trainer and used my nutrition knowledge to help adults, kids and families to “shape” up. In other words, for many years, I saw families with kids referred to me by their pediatricians because their BMI charts indicated they were either “at risk” of becoming “overweight” or actually were considered to be “overweight” or “obese” by BMI standards.
In actuality, BMI is total nonsense. (3,4)
It is not meant to be used as an assessment tool for individuals, but was created as an arcane mathematical concept having nothing to do with actual health markers. (3)
Today, we now know that the words “Obesity and Overweight” do terrible harm to individuals.
They pathologize people in larger bodies, creating a climate of weight stigma that causes people to want to make their bodies smaller – a dangerous prospect since diets often lead to disordered eating and eating disorders. There are normal variations in weight seen in populations, where some people come in smaller, and some in larger, bodies.
“The person who dreamed up the BMI said explicitly that it could not and should not be used to indicate the level of fatness in an individual.” (3)
My journey continued… I moved on to a different job where I was still helping people. I helped them feel comfortable in their bodies and improve eating and activity habits.
I worked with people in all sized bodies to feel more confident and worked with a psychologist as part of my “Shapedown” program. The goal of this program was to help families grow closer to one another, despite their seemingly “problematic” weights. And I weighed people – adults, kids and teens – weekly on my large, in-office scale.
Here’s what ultimately happened with this job:
Some of the kids and teens I had worked with when they were younger, actually developed disordered eating; in fact, some developed serious eating disorders. I do believe that a constant emphasis on looks and body weight, as well as the trauma of weekly weighing, contributed to this problem. I believe that weighing anybody weekly, in an effort to create a calorie deficit, backfires gloriously! Our bodies are not calculators, and our metabolisms are far more nuanced than just eating more and moving less to create weight loss.
So, eventually, I stopped.
I stopped pushing weight loss.
I stopped weighing my clients, unless it was a medical necessity.
I started looking at my clients as whole, embodied people, who just happened to come in all different shapes and sizes. I “met them” where they were.
For some, choosing healthier behaviors was not possible yet. So I promoted healthy behaviors when a person was ready – behaviors such as moving their bodies for pleasure rather than punishment.
I promoted “normal” eating, which meant eating for hunger as well as pleasure and satisfaction.
Eventually, I learned about the Health at Every Size® movement and Intuitive Eating.
I have found a community with other health professionals who truly care about the phrase, “Do No Harm,” because DIETS and pushing intentional weight loss, is harmful.
A Health at Every Size® approach is associated with clinically significant and positive measures, including improved blood pressure, lipids and health behaviors, such as diet and exercise habits. It also promotes improved self-esteem and body image, without a focus on body weight. (5)
As I reflect back on my 60 years, on my life and career since the time when I wrote my “obituary,” I feel truly blessed to have had a wide range of interesting nutrition jobs. And I still feel very strongly about “helping people,” but now I help them in a more positive way. I teach them how to learn to be at peace with food and their bodies.
I work with clients one-on-one to counsel them with their eating disorders and disordered eating. I also work with clients in my group programs and offer online self-study programs too.
All of these were developed to continue my lifelong goal and path of “helping others” and in the way they need the support.
If you’ve had enough of diets, enough of restricting yourself from certain foods, enough of binge eating on foods that seem to call your name and letting a number on the scales determine your worth and your value; if you want to change all this, then I want you to think about joining one of my Intuitive Eating programs. Let me help you get started on your journey to making peace with your food and your body.
Don’t get trapped in the diet culture world. You can be part of a Health at Every Size® world where you love your body and yourself! Start today! You CAN change your life!
If you aren’t sure if the program is right for you or you have questions, feel free to book a no obligation call. We will simply discuss where you are at when it comes to food, and what program might be best for you to show you the steps to make peace with food and your body image.
Remember, you can choose healthier behaviors and make changes.
You just might need a little support on the way.
- Huffington Post: Everything you know about obesity is wrong
- Archives of Scientific Psychology: Slim chance for permanent weight loss
- Psychology Today: Is Permanent Weight Loss a Myth?
- npr: Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus
- Nutrition Journal: Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
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