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