I wrote a post on intuitive eating and weight loss back in April. This post is a second part to that post.
As we go into the New Year where talk about weight loss resolutions is as frequent as conversations about the weather…I hope this post helps release the pressure and expectation to change your body in 2018.
Before we begin, I want to recognize that I am a woman with thin privilege. And because of that, I don’t know what it’s like to be stigmatized and shamed because of my weight. I realize that. My heart completely empathizes with those of you who experience weight stigma and shame. Your journey with Health At Every Size (HAES) and intuitive eating (IE) will present more challenges than my journey because of our diet culture and fat phobic society and I hate that for you. What I do know is that I have devoted my career to the HAES mission and I’m continually advocating on your behalf.
A few weeks ago, a reader emailed me asking, “What if you are clinically obese and have gained weight trying IE in the past? Even if I try to accept how my body looks, I want to lose weight for my health and I don’t know how to do that when IE led to weight gain. The only times I have ever lost weight (and then maintained the loss for a long time) was a result of structured, clean eating.”
This is a whole other post, but the word “obese” is a word that needs to die. It needs to be taken out of the medical dictionary and out of our ICD-10 diagnostic codes. Obese is a pathological term. It indicates a person’s weight is an illness. And the term has the high potential to create a ton of shame and stigma that research shows actually contributes to worse health outcomes. A weight and height that puts your BMI (which is irrelevant anyways) above 30 does not directly indicate you have an illness or unhealthy condition. This deserves a post in and of itself, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
I think the question being asked is, “How do I lose weight without dieting?”
But before that question can be addressed, I think coming to a place of acceptance with two things has to happen first.
- Can I accept that my healthy set point could be different than my ideal set point?
- Can I let go of the pursuit of weight loss? Can I choose to learn behaviors that help me honor my health instead of behaviors that manipulate my body size?
Let’s work through the first question. I like to think of Health At Every Size as the umbrella. And intuitive eating can be one of the skills that falls under the HAES philosophy. HAES puts a focus on healthy behaviors and allows the body to settle into whatever size it needs to be. Weight loss focuses on manipulating body size by eating inadequate amounts of energy so the body consumes itself and becomes smaller. HAES focuses on developing healthy behaviors as a way to health. Weight loss focuses on changing behaviors that manipulate body size as a path to health. Weight loss does not equal health. Weight loss does not equal health.
The word “every” in Health at Every Size does not imply that there is no such thing as an unhealthy weight. HAES acknowledges that being severely under your body’s genetic set point or severely above your body’s genetic set point can cause problems for a person’s health and wellbeing. But a person’s weight does not paint the full picture – we hyper focus so much on a few numbers and we totally miss the big picture. There are multiple other factors that contribute to a peron’s health – behaviors, the resources available to them, support systems, socioeconomic status and many other life circumstances. HAES implies that health and wellbeing are a dynamic system of intersecting factors, weight being possibly one of them. HAES is based on overwhelming research showing behaviors are a much better predictor of health outcomes than body size. And that people with all kinds of different body sizes have similar health outcomes.
Now that we have established a person can be healthy at a variety of sizes, we can also conclude that it isn’t weight itself that leads to chronic disease or health conditions. It is mainly behaviors. Behaviors that define our relationships with food, movement, sleep, stress, other people, etc etc. There are also factors that we cannot control like socioeconomic factors, genetics and life circumstances. We also know diets don’t work. I have yet to find one statistically significant study that shows otherwise (if you have, please email it to me.) There is a lack of evidence showing successful intentional weight loss, and a lack of evidence that long term weight loss leads to better health. Knowing that, it doesn’t make sense to pursue weight loss if we want to better our health. It makes sense to change our behaviors to improve our health.
Can weight loss be a possible outcome of changing behaviors? Sure. But I believe in order to pursue health you cannot also pursue weight loss. And improving your health does not mean simply losing weight. I believe pursuing weight loss dissociates you from your body. Almost always, the focus is on eating less and moving more, not on honoring your body’s hunger + cravings, moving in a way that feels good, and caring for yourself in all other realms of health. I believe in order to find true health, you have to come to a place where you can accept your body at any size it chooses to be when you are honoring your body and health with nourishment, enjoyable movement and self care.
Like we illustrated in the beginning of this post, HAES is the umbrella. Intuitive eating is a learned skill that falls under that umbrella to help you achieve better overall health. Some people will gain weight with intuitive eating, some people will stay the same weight and some people will lose weight. Neither you nor I can predict what will happen, but over time as you develop skills in becoming a competent intuitive eater, your body will settle into it’s natural set point – which is a range of about 10 to 20 lbs, not a particular number.
Intuitive eating and weight loss are mutually exclusive. If you are trying to lose weight with intuitive eating, that’s called a diet. If you believe you are genuinely above your body’s natural set point, I think it’s important to note that as you begin your intuitive eating journey, you might initially gain weight before your body finds its natural set point. Because the beginning steps of intuitive eating include 1) making peace with food and 2) challenging the food police.
Making peace with food means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Challenging the food police means dismantling judgment and morality from food and seeing all foods as neutral. If you’ve been in a diet mentality for some time, giving yourself permission to eat any and all foods at any and all times in any and all amounts without judgment might mean you eat energy dense, highly palatable food more often in the beginning. Be patient. Give yourself time. Eating all the foods that were “off limits” or “bad” as often and as much as you’d like until those food truly have no power over you is part of the process. It won’t last forever. For some people, this phase of the IE journey might cause weight gain. That’s okay. This is your body figuring itself out.
Dieting doesn’t allow you to feel more capable around highly palatable foods. Dieting teaches you how to deprive yourself of these foods which likely works… until your primal drive to eat takes over and you find yourself in a chaotic, stressful eating experience. Becoming an intuitive eater allows you to eat these highly palatable foods in a nourishing amount, in a mindful way, when you are craving them. You will crave them all the time until you give yourself full permission to eat them whenever you want in whatever amount you want.
Intuitive eating isn’t a quick fix. It’s a marathon that has no finish line. You never arrive because life is always changing. You are always learning how best to nourish yourself given different life circumstances. If you gained weight in the initial stages (which can be months or years) of your intuitive eating journey, that is part of your body finding it’s natural set point. If your body’s set point is below that initial weight gain (or your starting weight) over time (which can be months to years) your body will find it’s healthy set point. Because when you get to a place where there are no rules around eating and exercise and no morality tied to food and exercise, you are better able to tune into your body’s hunger, fullness and cravings. If you find it hard to not control your weight, the question to ask yourself might be, “Can I accept that my healthy set point could be different than my ideal set point?”
We all have a food story. And that story shapes our relationship to food. Maybe controlling food was a way you survived an out of control, abusive childhood. Perhaps manipulating your body by controlling food is a how you feel valuable, successful or worthy. Maybe keeping your body a certain size is how you’ve protected yourself from intimacy. Perhaps the comfort of food and knowing it is always there is a way you feel safe and loved. Food is a way we cope with internal struggles. It’s rarely about the food itself.
So perhaps you didn’t fail with intuitive eating. But maybe you were treating intuitive eating like a diet, and therefore like all other diets, the diet failed you. You didn’t fail.
There are so many components to uncover as you learn the skills to become an intuitive eater. Think of it as an onion. An onion that has one layer at a time peeled back in a very slow way. Finding your healthy set point and true health involves so much more than intuitive eating. It’s learning how to care for yourself in all realms of health – emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. And also accepting there are things we cannot control that affect our health. It’s a long journey. Give yourself a lot of time and patience and compassion. But it’s worth it, not only for your mental health and happiness but for your long term physical health.
And know that the journey to body acceptance and intuitive eating is anything but linear. It’s an ebb and flow and a continual learning process. We never arrive. I’m on my own path with you too.
Sharing our paths with others, I think makes us feel less alone. If you want, share where you’re at in your IE/HAES journey in the comments!