Today I'm delighted to share with you a short interview with nutritionist and researcher Linda Bacon, the author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Last year after reading her book for the first time, I realized that her work provided the scientific background for what I'd already discovered was true about my own body: that listening to my body's cues and treating it with respect and love are the basis for good health... not rigidly judging myself according to the numbers on a scale or catching a ride on the latest diet bandwagon. As you read on, she'll give you a glimpse into why the Health At Every Size approach makes so much sense.
1. So Linda, why don't diets work?
When people use the word “diet,” what they usually mean is that they are restricting their calories so that their body is getting less energy (calories) than it is expending. While you can get away with this temporarily, your body has regulatory systems to protect against this in the long run. If it is deprived of the energy that it needs, it can compensate through many different mechanisms. One obvious example is that it can increase your appetite so you want to eat more. But it can also compensate by slowing down processes that you have less conscious control over. Ever notice that some days you have less get up and go than others? That could just be because your body is slowing down your metabolism to counteract your diet.
2. Why do our bodies work so hard to defend their weight?
Eat too little and you eventually die. It’s that straightforward. So you can imagine that over the course of evolution, humans have developed mechanisms to make sure we don’t get into that danger zone. This is particularly true since we frequently experienced famines. People for whom these mechanisms weren’t well developed couldn’t survive as easily and over time, less of them passed on their genes. That’s one reason why more people these days have genes that provide them with strong protection against weight loss – and relatively few people can get away with it easily.
While we all have mechanisms to protect against too much weight gain, on the other hand, these mechanisms are easier to over-ride. So you can eat a lot of food, the “fullness” mechanism kicks in telling you you’ve had enough, but the food still tastes good to you, and you can over-ride that biological safeguard. And that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective too – until recently food was relatively more difficult to come by and required a lot of energy expenditure to get. So there was no reason for our bodies to develop strong protection against weight gain as we didn’t have easy opportunity to gain weight. For these and other reasons, biologically we’re set up so that it’s very difficult to lose weight, but relatively easy to gain weight.
3. What are the health effects of cyclical dieting?
Off the top of my head, I know that there is evidence from large observational studies that weight cycling is linked to shorter lifespan, and that it’s also associated with increased risk for myocardial infarction, stroke, and diabetes, increased blood pressure and inflammation, and even suppressed immune function. I’m sure I could come up with a much longer list if I examined the literature more thoroughly!
4. It's difficult for those of us who are cyclical dieters or are told to lose weight (either by society or by a doctor) to say "no" to dieting. What resources do you recommend to support our decision to end the dieting cycle?
I know that with so much reinforcement from others – including those who are considered to be well-educated authorities - that dieting is the right thing to do, it is hard to challenge it. I certainly have compassion for people who are stuck in the cycle. My best suggestion is to examine your own experience. You’ve tried. Think of how badly you’ve wanted to succeed, yet you're still in the same boat (or worse). Now, consider that it’s not you that’s the failure. You know you really wanted it badly. If it were accessible, with your motivation, I’m sure you would have succeeded. So perhaps you can question the idea? The diet failed, not you! There is tremendous freedom that comes from understanding that. My book, Health at Every Size, provides many other suggestions on how to break the cycle.
5. How can you learn to love your body after being a life-long cyclical dieter?
There are many ways to go about this. Here’s one example. Start by appreciating the functionality of your body. Consider your legs. If you are able-bodied, you can get from one place to another, allowing you to do so much. I’m in awe of how my legs allow me to participate in my world. It’s not too hard to appreciate them from this standpoint. So look at the different parts of your body, and then how it works holistically, and consider how amazing you are.
For more information, check out Linda's book, Health at Every Size (www.haesbook.com). She's also teaching a workshop called "Find Your Voice: How to Challenge Resistance and Talk Persuasively about Size Acceptance" on Monday August 12 from 9-4:30 pm. I'll be there! You can find information about this workshop and more at Linda's website (www.lindabacon.org), and through following her on social media. (Links can be found on website.)
Love Your Body Blog Part 53