The Diet-Free Revolution Excerpt
Categories: Excerpt Food & Nutrition Health & Healing
Why Be Diet-Free?
For many of us, dieting is like a bad relationship. We just can’t seem to stay away, even though the cycle exhausts us. For anyone who has ever been in an unhealthy relationship—whether it’s a toxic friendship, a controlling romantic partner, or a narcissistic boss—you may relate to the feeling of being pulled in by something dark that makes you feel good and bad at the same time. We get so entranced by the fantasy of what could be that we overlook the reality of what is.
When I was younger, I was particularly drawn to these kinds of relationships. For years I dated someone who was emotionally abusive. He ran hot and cold, became enraged at the slightest perceived offense, and seemed to take pleasure in tearing me down. I held him up on a pedestal, believing that if I could earn his good favor I would finally find relief from the pain that welled up inside of me. My world narrowed until he was the only thing in it—earning his affection was my singular life goal. For the most part, he was critical and demeaning toward me. But on the rare occasions when I was in his good graces, it was like being fed nectar from the gods. I savored the sweet drops and tried to sustain myself on them, though they were few and far between. I believed that one day, if I could just figure out how to be good enough, I would earn a steady stream of nectar. It took me a long time to figure out that the stream didn’t exist; the tiny droplets were all he had to offer.
How many of us are sustaining ourselves on the droplets of nectar offered by diets? That time when you stuck to the plan, the moment when you got to your goal weight, that evening when you felt on top of the world? Those are the droplets, the sweet tastes of all that dieting promises us. It’s these drops that keep us holding on during all the bad stuff—through the shame, the self-hatred, the loss of control, the feelings of failure—and believing that if we can just get it right, we’ll tap into an endless stream of nectar. Spoiler alert: diets have no more than droplets to give. The rest is just a mirage.
Despite our personal experiences with diet after diet (or “lifestyle change” after “lifestyle change”) that failed to result in long-term weight loss, we remain convinced that this time will be different. This time, the diet will work and provide me with all that I’m looking for. We are brainwashed into believing that diets are the answer and we are the problem. Rather than celebrating the natural diversity of body shapes and sizes, the diet-industrial complex convinces us that any deviations from the designated ideal body are moral shortcomings that must be extinguished with proper discipline and righteousness. Inability to conform to this ideal through dieting is a sign of moral inferiority. In one of the most successful hoaxes of modern times, the weight loss industry has convinced us that it is our fault their products have failed. Shifting the spotlight to capitalize on our own insecurities rather than the failures of the diet plans keeps us dependent on the very industry that harms us. If the popular plans really worked, we would go on one (not hundreds), lose weight, maintain the weight loss, and be able to stay on the plan for its duration. Diets would be a one-time investment. Instead we enroll over and over again, spending our valuable time, emotional energy, and money on products that are inherently flawed. We are taught—and then tell ourselves—that we can’t stick to our diets because we are weak-willed, lazy, and gluttonous. We beat ourselves up for our perceived failures and set out in search of the only thing that will make us feel better: another diet! And there is always another diet waiting for us with the promise of a thinner, healthier, happier, and better life.
What would you do if your hairdresser gave you a terrible haircut and then told you that the problem was your hair? Would you keep buying clothes that fell apart days after the first time you wore them? What if, when you tried to return them, you were told that it’s your fault the clothes ripped because you wore them wrong? Would you eat at a restaurant where the food tasted spoiled, and when you complained to the waiter, you were told that the food is fine, the problem is your taste buds? In other areas of our life, if a product is faulty we stop using it. We may even ask for our money back or write a negative review online to warn others. Why is dieting so different? Why are we so convinced that we need diets even after all our personal experiences tell us loud and clear that they don’t work?
The program formerly known as Weight Watchers, now renamed WW, is a great example of how dieting creates a culture of dependency that profits off its failures. WW confers a coveted free “lifetime membership” status to members who have reached their goal weight and maintained it for more than six weeks. After being bestowed this “honor,” lifetime members must attend WW meetings and weigh in every single month. If you miss a month or go more than two pounds above your goal weight, ka-ching!, WW cashes in and you start paying the monthly fee again. This creates a cult-like dependency in which members are indoctrinated into the program week after week, often for years or decades, lest they lose their lifetime status. When members inevitably gain weight, they are punished (by needing to pay again) and the program is seen as the savior (if they recommit, start paying for meetings again, and get back down to their goal weight, they can earn back their status). This strategy of repeat business led to WW raking in $1.4 billion in 2019—and that was one of the company’s less profitable years!
Nearly half of all adults in the US try to lose weight each year. In 2012, 108 million people went on a diet, and in 2019 people spent $72 billion in pursuit of weight loss. The wellness industry, dieting’s close cousin, is valued at $4.5 trillion globally. The average dieter attempts four to five diets per year because success eludes them. One survey found that the average adult tries 126 diets over the course of their life and stays on each one for about six days. Does this mean that we are all failures? Or have diets failed us? These numbers underscore the primary problem with diet-ing: diets are designed to fail. They keep us stuck in the belief that our bodies are the problem instead of challenging the cultural forces invested in our believing that lie.
Diets are more than benignly ineffective; they can be downright harmful. As we’ll learn about in chapter 1, incessant cycles of being on and off a diet wreak havoc on our physical and mental well-being. Dieting is associated with increased risk of eating disorders and disordered eating, body image dissatisfaction, weight cycling (or the weight loss–weight gain roller coaster), internalized weight bias (i.e., the way that we take our negative stereotypes about fat people and turn them inward toward ourselves), metabolic disease (including diabetes), earlier death, and more.
Not only do diets cause suffering on a personal level, they also cause systemic social harm. Dieting is part of “diet culture,” a widespread system of beliefs that equates thinness and weight loss with health, moral value, desirability, and superiority. Diet culture is an amalgamation of systems of oppression, including (but not limited to) the patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. (If the connections between dieting and these systems of oppression don’t immediately seem clear, don’t worry, we’ll be unpacking it all as we go through the program). In her book The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf says: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Diet culture distracts us from social and political action. It occupies precious emotional energy, exhausts us, and makes it difficult to engage fully in other areas of our life. It obscures our vision and makes it hard to clearly see what is happening around us. For example, when we are consumed with thoughts about how many calories are in our scone, we aren’t thinking about why white women are paid 15 percent less than white men, or why Black women are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. When we are googling whether multigrain or spelt bread is “healthier,” we aren’t looking up why one in nine people in the US don’t have enough to eat. When we are hiding in the back of the room because we don’t want people to see our body, we don’t get up to the mic to have our voice heard. Dieting is a tool of an oppressive system invested in keeping us focused on changing our bodies instead of changing the world. When I talk about diet culture in this book, please keep in mind that I’m talking about not just the act of dieting but also the systems of oppression that are inextricably linked.
Women have been disproportionately affected by the demands of dieting. Studies suggest that over 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their body and want to lose weight. In contrast, about 40 percent of men report dissatisfaction with their body. Clearly, both women and men struggle with body image issues, but women are hit far harder. Transgender folks and, to a lesser extent, gay men also struggle with higher rates of body image dissatisfaction than cisgender heterosexual men. Unlike men, who tend to be valued for wealth and power, women are valued for appearance. When women don’t conform to the Eurocentric thin ideal of beauty and health, they lose their social capital. In a world where women are already second-rate citizens, weight loss is seen as a fast track to increasing status. Later in this book, we will also learn how the pursuit of thinness can be traced back to racist origins. Unfortunately, the reality is that dieting keeps us confined to the very same powerless positions we seek to escape.
From the “war on obesity” to the celebrities we admire to the way that we are treated at our doctors’ offices, there is no mistaking that the most desirable body type is thin. We turn on the television, pick up a magazine, or scroll through social media and seldom see people who look like us—instead we see an unachievable thin ideal. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations, trans and nonbinary people, fat people (see “A Note on Language and Identity” at the end of this chapter for a discussion on the term fat), people with disabilities, and those with other marginalized identities who almost never see themselves represented in desirable ways. We are confronted with images of what we should, and (for some of us) perhaps even could, look like if only we had the proper discipline. We rarely see images affirming our current body.
While there are certain universalities to struggles with food and body image, these struggles are heightened for people living in marginalized bodies who are pushed to the sidelines of society and denied access to power and resources, compared with those living in bodies deemed socially acceptable. It is exponentially harder to accept your body when your body is demonized by the world around you. If you are living in a larger body, you are likely confronted on a daily basis with the fact that the world was not designed for your body. Each time a clothing store doesn’t carry your size, or you wonder if you can slide into the narrow banquette at a restaurant, or you are forced to pay for two seats on an airplane, or someone gives you a side-eye when you go to sit next to them, you are implicitly being told that your body doesn’t belong. When you get passed over for a job promotion, get rejected on a dating app, or have your health complaints ignored by your doctor, you are forced to decipher whether or not this is happening because of your body size. Accepting your body becomes even more challenging for those with multiple marginalized identities that layer over each other and intersect in different ways. For example, fat Black women are forced to contend with fatphobia and racism and sexism. Fat Black queer women must deal with fatphobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The world was designed for thin straight white bodies, and the further that you deviate from that “norm” the more societal hostility you will face and the more messages you will receive telling you that your body is bad.
This is hard to contend with. It’s important to remember that the problem is not your body. The problem is diet culture. Diet culture fosters pervasive mistrust in our bodies and ubiquitous conflicts around food. We are caught in a cultural mass delusion that weight loss is a feasible path to alleviating our suffering. We are taught that fat bodies are just containers for thin ones waiting to emerge. Based on a calculation of height and weight called the body mass index (BMI, or the bullshit measuring index, as I like to call it), doctors issue reprimands for presumed poor health, warning of the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer—all without ever drawing a single vial of blood. Diet recommendations are doled out liberally, as if the only thing standing between a fat person and the thinner person they should become is the novel idea to eat less and exercise more.
Even though dieting fails most people, stories of dieting success abound, making success seem like the norm. Our coworker who is two weeks into intermittent fasting can say confidently that it works. “It’s not a diet! It’s a way of life!” they proclaim. Your friend who started eliminating sugar last week already feels so much better. And have you seen how much weight Oprah lost on WW? She can eat bread! A lot of attention is given to the vocal minority of people who experience weight loss success, even when that success comes in the early “honeymoon” phase of dieting—which is almost always followed by predictable weight regain—or when the success story is the exception to the norm (i.e., the roughly 5 percent of people who are able to sustain weight loss long-term, sometimes through eating-disordered behaviors, surgery, or medications). Ever notice how the before and after pictures in diet advertisements specify “results not typical?” The spotlight on dieting success stories (and quiet around subsequent weight regain) makes it seem like diets work for everyone but us. Why can’t we have the same success? What’s wrong with us? We conclude that the problem must be us, not the diet. This way of thinking fosters mistrust in ourselves and keeps us going back to diets again and again.
Our society is in the midst of an epidemic of disordered eating. We are tossed around like a ping-pong ball: on the wagon, off the wagon, restricting and dieting, feeling out of control, consumed with thoughts of food, hating our bodies. It is all normalized; we are even praised when our efforts lead to weight loss (followed by eerie silence or snide remarks when the weight inevitably comes back on). We look to others to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat. We turn our friends and family into diet enforcers, desperately pleading, “Please don’t let me eat that dessert!” and “Don’t you dare bring those chips into the house!” Doctors, both those who treat us and those we see in the media, are the diet dictators, instructing us to eat this and not that. Instagram celebrities are our most trusted sources of nutritional guidance. We become infantilized—unable to trust that we know what we really need. But this is not true! Just like Dorothy trying to find her way home from Oz, we have the power within us. We hold an intrinsic knowledge of how to truly care for and nurture ourselves.