Doing without diets

Colin MacLean
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Society's preoccupation with weight might do more harm than good, some nutritionists say

Pamela Ward

For many, the idea of celebrating something called International No Diet Day flies in the face of everything we know about weight and health.

International No Diet Day, held each year on May 6, is intended as a day to embrace all body shapes.

It's not just a day off from a regime of calorie counting and waistline watching. It was founded in 1992 by Mary Evans Young, who wrote a popular book called "Diet Breaking: Having It All Without Having to Diet" and intended it as a day to highlight the ineffectiveness and dangers of dieting.

But according to the prevailing messages, most Canadians ought to be on a diet: a 2007 study by the World Health Organization claimed more than 60 per cent of Canadians were of an "unhealthy weight."

Recent studies reported on by The Globe and Mail say almost one in four Canadians is obese, and it's common to hear professionals in the media refer to "the obesity epidemic."

Obesity, they say, causes health problems, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and those problems cost taxpayers millions of dollars in health-care fees.

So people enrol in Weight Watchers, cut out carbs, keep food journals and count calories.

There are numerous studies showing diets don't work, and there's a growing number of doctors, scholars and nutritionists who believe the culture of the "obesity epidemic" is at least partly at fault, and it is ultimately making people more unhealthy.

"My perspective on obesity is that we are going in the wrong direction," says Pamela Ward, a PhD candidate at Memorial University, instructor in the School of Nursing and member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Applied Health Research's Affinity Group on Eating Issues, Disordered Eating and Body Image.

"There's very little evidence to show that obesity treatment works. Ninety per cent of diets fail, and they fail because of the mentality surrounding the issue."

Ward's work is in critical obesity scholarship, an emerging field within health-related disciplines that scrutinizes obesity studies and puts them into a larger context.

"My research is based upon scholarship which suggests that obesity is a social construction," she says. "And that's an idea that's been developed based upon research which is, sometimes, very slippery. It's very attractive to talk about the dramatic rise in obesity and childhood obesity being a ticking time bomb. But, for example, Health Canada just released a report in 2011 showing that obesity had plateaued."

But that doesn't mean the diets are finally working, she says. Obesity, she says, is a far more complex issue, with many unanswered questions.

For example, she says, the relationship between body size and health isn't as clear as we are led to believe.

"Research is showing that you can be large and you can be fit, metabolically fit," she says. "And in terms of looking at chronic disease, like hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, those problems seem to be more environmental, and people who are not obese are suffering the same problems. There are also many people who are obese and who are not necessarily at risk for these conditions."

In fact, she says, the relationship between body size and diet isn't even very clear.

"There's a huge percentage that's related to genetics," she says. "So here we are with these people who are preprogrammed to be the size and shape that they are, and we're teaching them to be uncomfortable with their bodies. And as soon as you start battling against that body, that body is going to fight back.

"Ultimately, it's resulting in more eating disorders," she adds. "People are so afraid of being obese, and so afraid of weight, it leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and unhealthy eating patterns."

Feeling about food

Michelle Allison, a Toronto-based nutritionist behind the popular website The Fat Nutritionist, has seen this first-hand.

She hosts an online group called Eating Without Drama aimed at people she calls "dieting casualties" - people who have been through one or many diets and are struggling with how they feel about food, eating and their bodies.

"In the group that I just finished, we were talking about food preoccupation," she says. "When people stop eating food, or limit their food intake, they can start thinking incessantly about food and even start hoarding it. These things seem crazy and psychologically driven, but they're actually survival reflexes that come out in conditions of food scarcity."

Allison teaches people to eat normally: to approach food as just another important aspect of your life, to recognize and respect your body's hunger and satiation cues, and to have a relaxed and joyful relationship with what they eat.

"Trying to eat less makes us, as a population, more preoccupied with food than we otherwise would be. And that redirects mental and physical resources you would otherwise apply towards having a gratifying life."

The misdirection of resources plays out on larger scale, too.

"We need to remove the weight equation and switch to an emphasis on health at all sizes," says Ward. "We need to focus on people being able to actually enjoy their bodies. We're putting all this money into stigmatizing one segment of the population instead of putting it towards the overall health of the population."

Both Allison and Ward celebrate International No Diet Day and are looking forward to this year's festivities.

"I'll probably bake a cake," laughs Allison.

"I'll be spending the day with my teenage daughter," says Ward. "We'll walk, talk, laugh and enjoy a great meal without guilt or the need to evaluate or measure the contents of our plates."

Organizations: World Health Organization, Globe and Mail, School of Nursing Newfoundland and Labrador Applied Health Research Affinity Group on Eating Issues Health Canada

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Recent comments

  • Sherri Hayter
    June 04, 2012 - 15:45

    Thank you for this wonderful article! More light really needs to be shed on acceptance of ourselves - diets do create preoccupation with food - eating should be a natural activity where we are able to listen to our bodies needs but instead with the massive cultural preoccupation with weight and body size, we've turned something that is natural for the sustenance of our lives into something compulsive and unhealthy! Orchid, that is wonderful that you've lost 35 pounds and kept it off for 4 years - I myself lost over 100 pounds several years ago but I have not been able to maintain all of the loss and I've tortured myself as a result. I have resigned myself from diets and now listen for signs of my hunger and eat when I'm hungry and stop when I've had enough. I exercise regularly and am beginning to have peace within myself. That is my wish for all people, and just because someone is larger than the cultural norm (which hasn't always been what it is now - you need only look at a Titian painting for evidence of this), does not mean that they do not deserve peace and happiness. Health at every size is the way to end the zaniness around dieting, I don't care who you are, when you are on a diet, life becomes about food - what to eat, what not to eat, how much to eat, whether to eat upon waking, not eat before bed, leave the table just a little hungry, don't have that beer, milk not cream in my coffee, a salad when I really am craving protein blah blah blah! That is no life!! If we weren't so preoccupied and obsessed with food and our bodies, we could eat naturally and our bodies would normalize naturally. I have 2 young boys who are of normal size (a little tall for their ages) but my eldest who is 6 told me the other day that he needed to lose weight! He is in kindergarten!!!! If we think this is healthy as a nation, we need our heads read!

  • Andy
    May 06, 2012 - 14:02

    Thanks a lot for this great article about losing weight.When you want to lose weight I think just avoiding the food types that feed the fat cells and instead eat foods that feed the muscle is good advice. I have reviews of various weight loss programs on my blog:

  • Kyle
    May 06, 2012 - 08:45

    I agree with Orchid. If you are truly dedicated and you are exited about your weight loss program then there is no reason why it should be unhealthy (assuming you don't put your health at risk going to extremes). Healthy eating, exercise and fitness programs can make you feel really good about yourself. So if you enjoy it, please DO enjoy it. If you don't want to: who's telling you that you have to? Using personal weight loss programs has really helped me lose weight. The most successful program is that lets you eat fresh and healthy while losing weight fast and effeciently.

  • Orchid Pistachio
    May 06, 2012 - 00:20

    This article just seems wrong on so many levels. It's simply a justification to remain obese. In fact, it's even a bit whiney. "oh, counting calories is mentally unhealthy..." what a crock! And to say diets don't work... Yeah, for the people who are too lazy to do it! It took me 4 years to correct my bad eating habits and lose 35 pounds, and being back to my high school weight has never felt better. And guess what? I don't have to count calories, because I know the difference between good food and bad food. I exercise 3 to 4 days a week and I love it! Maybe a few of you should quit making excuses and actually attempt to do your body some good.