Many people embark on a diet to lose weight under the pretence that they’re doing so for their health. It is no wonder; there is a continual bombardment of messages in the media and by health professionals that being overweight is unhealthy, and is associated with an increased risk of many health conditions.
While correlations between weight and certain health conditions are undeniable, correlation does not mean causation. It is not a person’s weight or weight gain per se that progresses or increases the risks of certain health conditions, but their lifestyle behaviours.
Healthy lifestyle behaviours can improve health, irrespective of weight
It is with this understanding that the Health at Every Size® (HAES) movement has arisen, which advocates that people can adopt healthy lifestyle changes to improve their health at any size . It is the lifestyle behaviours a person engages in regularly that impacts their health, not their weight or body size.
Quote from the book, Joyful Eating: How to Break Free of Diets and Make Peace with Your Body.
So, why is this important?
Quite simply… diets don’t work.
Weight loss diets are ineffective and promote future weight gain
95 percent of dieters will put the weight back on after a diet, and often gain more weight than before dieting. A review of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restriction diets found that one- to two-thirds of dieters regained more weight than they lost on their diets .
Weight loss diets don’t deliver expected health improvements
Unfortunately, our society’s and many health professional’s emphasis on weight being the culprit for innumerable health conditions can cause people to focus on weight loss, as the most important goal, rather than healthy lifestyle changes that may improve their health, with or without weight loss. It can cause some people to think, I’ll lose the weight and then I’ll adopt healthier lifestyle behaviours.
However, this thinking can cause people to adopt unhealthy and unsustainable methods to lose weight, and does more to lead them into a downward spiral of yo-yo dieting and weight cycling than achieving or maintaining what may be considered a healthy weight.
Furthermore, weight cycling has health consequences that may be more detrimental to a person’s health than maintaining a stable weight, even above what is considered clinically healthy. Research has demonstrated that repeated weight loss and weight gain raises blood cortisol (stress hormone), promotes inflammation throughout the body, and increases the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases .
And surprisingly, these risk factors are more prevalent in people of normal weight who yo-yo diet, such as dieting each year to obtain that elusive beach body, than in individuals that maintain a relatively constant weight, even if within the overweight or obese weight range [4,5].
An emphasis on weight loss can hinder the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviours
Contrary to the belief that encouraging weight loss will lead to health, messages telling people to lose weight do more to create weight stigma. Research has demonstrated that frequent exposure to weight stigmatisation perpetuates unhealthy lifestyle behaviours and obesity, rather than prevent or reverse it .
For example, a study of 100 female undergraduates on motivation to exercise found that weight stigma results in a decrease in physical activity, not an increase, as may be expected .
Weight stigmatisation by healthcare providers can perpetuate avoidance in seeking medical support, mistrust of health professionals or poor adherence to prescriptions, all of which have considerable health implications .
Therefore, encouragement or support of a person’s weight loss endeavours, while it may seem beneficial, may do more to promote unhealthy lifestyle behaviours.
Furthermore, scientific research indicates negligible improvements in health after weight loss [2,9], suggesting that it is not the magic bullet to good health that we’ve been led to believe.
Ditch weight loss diets and focus on healthy habits
So, what’s the alternative?
A HAES approach where the focus is on making changes to nourish and nurture the body, irrespective of body size and without any intention of losing weight has been demonstrated to yield more positive health improvements long-term than weight loss interventions [10,11].
Beware of diets disguised as healthy habits
Any lifestyle changes or lifestyle program that considers weight loss a potential outcome or celebrates a person’s weight loss, as an indicator of success, is still a diet. The underlying message remains: weight loss is desirable and healthy.
It is only when the desire to lose weight is abandoned, can lifestyle behaviours be adopted solely for their health benefits, enjoyment and feeling of vitality.
In the book, Joyful Eating: How to Break Free of Diets and Make Peace with Your Body, I explore how we can ditch diets and diet mentality to nourish and nurture our bodies without the goal of weight loss. Grab your copy today.
- Bacon L. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight Dallas: TX BenBella Books; 2010.
- Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew AM, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. Am Psychol. 2007; 62(3): p. 220-33.
- Strohacker K, Carpenter KC, McFarlin BK. Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk? Int J Exerc Sci. 2009; 2(3): p. 191–201.
- Hill AJ. Does dieting make you fat? Br J Nutr. 2004; 92((Suppl. 1)): p. S15-S18.
- Montani JP, Schutz Y, Dulloo AG. Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk? Obes Rev. 2015; 16 (Suppl 1): p. 7-18.
- Myers A, Rosen JC. Obesity stigmatization and coping: relation to mental health symptoms, body image, and self-esteem. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999; 23(3): p. 221–30.
- Vartanian LR, Shaprow JG. Effects of weight stigma on exercise motivation and behavior. J Health Psychol. 2008; 13(1): p. 131–38.
- Phelan SM, Burgess DJ, Yeazel MW, Hellerstedt WL, Griffin JM, van Ryn M. Impact of weight bias and stigma on quality of care and outcomes for patients with obesity. Obes Rev. 2015; 16(4): p. 319–26.
- Tomiyama AJ, Ahlstrom B, Mann T. Long-term effects of dieting: is weight loss related to health? Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2013; 7(12): p. 861–77.
- Bacon L, Keim NL, van Loan MD, et al. “Evaluating a “non-diet” wellness intervention for improvement of metabolic fitness, psychological well-being and eating and activity behaviors,” Int J Obe Relat Metab Disord. 2002; 26(6): pp. 854–865.
- Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. “Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters,” J Am Diet Assoc. 2005; 105(6): pp. 929–936.