Forty-five million Americans diet every year, and though they might see short-term success, 90 percent of those people regain the weight they lost. That’s because dieting, at least as we’ve been doing it, doesn’t work.
We’re made to believe that diets fail because we lack willpower or discipline. But the odds are stacked against a person trying to lose weight through dietary restriction. Recent research has shown that our bodies have a set weight range largely determined by genetics, and a 2013 study found that if you dip below your natural weight, your brain triggers changes in metabolism and energy output to get you back to normal and prevent further weight loss.
Fixating on appearance and weight also affects our well-being. A 2015 article published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass indicates that many of the poor health outcomes associated with obesity could instead be traced to the stigma against bigger-bodied people and the stress it causes.
In short, what ails us isn’t weight—it’s our obsession with it, according to Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian nutritionist and New York Times contributor. In her book, Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness, which came out in December, Harrison proposes that the solution isn’t weight loss—it’s burning diet culture to the ground. We’re trained to believe that being thin means you’re healthy and being fat means the opposite, Harrison says, when you can actually be healthy at any size.
“Weight bias explains much if not all of the excess health risks in people with larger bodies,” Harrison says. “Framing people’s body size as an [obesity] epidemic is weight stigma.”
The overzealous pursuit of thinness—under the guise of a visual indication of health—has an unfortunate byproduct: the foods, lifestyles, and body types that don’t fit into this narrow paradigm are demonized, Harrison argues. When a low-carb diet or a juice cleanse is dubbed “clean eating,” the natural assumption is that other ways of eating are dirty. Before-and-after photos celebrate weight loss but also imply that a bigger body is a problem to be solved or a project to be worked on. Complimenting someone on looking thin suggests that something was wrong with their body before. Harrison also notes that our physical spaces reflect these ideals, like how bus and airplane seats only accommodate people of a certain size. Clothing stores often don’t carry sizes that accommodate larger bodies, and if they do, the options are typically few.
“The way [wellness and diet culture] conceives of health is bound up in healthism: the belief that health is a moral obligation, and that people who are ‘healthy’ deserve more respect and resources than people who are ‘unhealthy,’” Harrison writes. “Healthism is both a way of seeing the world that places health at the apex and a form of discriminating on the basis of health.”
Anti-Diet explains that discrimination itself can lead to a wide array of negative physical and mental health outcomes: a 2015 study from Obesity Reviews found that repeated weight loss and gain can lead to blood pressure and heart problems. A 2009 study in Obesity found that people who had experienced weight stigma in the past year were twice as likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder and 50 percent more likely to have a substance-use disorder than those who had not.
Institutional fatphobia can also affect the quality of health care that larger-bodied people receive, Harrison explains. Women with high BMIs—above 55—are almost 20 percent less likely to get gynecological cancer screenings and have to deal with disrespectful treatment, unsolicited weight-loss advice, and inappropriately sized medical equipment in the doctor’s office, a 2006 study found. That kind of treatment leads larger-bodied people to avoid spaces where they can expect to be stigmatized, like doctor’s offices or gyms, according to research from the University of Nevada and the University of New South Wales. While there is a correlation between higher BMI and health outcomes like hypertension or heart disease, high weight alone doesn’t necessarily cause poor health—there are other risk factors to take into account.
It is possible to change what and how you eat without becoming a part of diet culture yourself. Instead of going keto, quitting sugar, or committing to Whole30, Harrison suggests her readers try something a little simpler: intuitive eating, which basically means eating what you want without stress, shame, or restriction but with careful attention to how your body feels. (If you’re looking for a how-to guide on the approach, check out Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s 1995 book.)
“Diet culture convinces us that honoring our hunger, seeking satisfaction, and feeling full will send us down the road to perdition. It tells us our instincts…are bad and wrong,” Harrison writes. “We have the capacity to get back to a place where our relationships with food are as simple as they were when we were babies—where hunger and pleasure are nothing to be ashamed of, and where fullness is a signal that we can take our minds off food for a while.”
Anti-Diet offers a much-needed unbrainwashing for anyone feeling stress, stigma, or shame about their appearance, diet, or activity levels. Even the socially conscious reader will have an aha moment when Harrison debunks something they have accepted as truth. Though some of the more nuanced concepts are tricky to absorb, like the ways in which diet culture infiltrates progressive movements like food activism, Anti-Diet is an approachable read for anyone ready to untangle their eating habits from their self-worth.