The issues closest to our hearts are often the most difficult to discuss with our loved ones. We don’t want to get up on the soapbox, or make people feel attacked.
I was thinking about dieting as I re-read a favorite article of mine from Dances With Fat, a great body-positive/fat-activism blog, about how to deal with family and friends who decide to act as the food police.
After I read the piece, I immediately thought of my aunt, someone I love dearly and who has been present at all big turning points in my life. I don’t know if she had ever been on a diet before the beginning of November. I heard about her diet at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, where she proudly discussed her 500 calorie a day diet “and if I get hungry, I just drink water!”
I was disturbed…worried, concerned. 500 calories is not enough for a grown woman (or man). That’s less than many anorexic folks take in.
She was thrilled – she had lost 20 pounds in 28 days.
Again…I was legitimately concerned. Most doctors agree a safe rate of weight loss is about 1-3 pounds a week (though most doctors don’t have enough training in nutrition or a good enough understanding of health at every size to talk diets with patients).
I was so proud, at the end of the night, when my mom talked about how she had ruined her metabolism by constant dieting since her teens, and how much space and energy dieting had taken up in her life.
But neither my mother or myself said anything to my aunt, and it wasn’t because we didn’t have the information; I’ve been looking at HAES literature for years and am in recovery from an eating disorder, so by default, my entire family is well versed in the harmful effects of dieting and image focus.
I struggle with how to confront these issues in people I love. I know as a dyed in the wool rebellious jerkface, that I do NOT like being told what to do; I know as a psychologist that telling people things forcefully is not an effective route to behavior change. But when we see harmful behavior in our loved ones, we may feel a responsibility to speak up, especially if the harm is a result of simple ignorance.
Unfortunately, often the best teacher is experience. If someone hasn’t experienced the negatives of dieting, it’s unlikely they’ll believe you over the enormous diet industry’s propaganda machine, or over our own cultural norms.
Long term? Everyone gains the weight back. You can lose weight on almost any diet, but it won’t stay gone and your body will pay.
So how to bring up the surprising but true fact that hey, dieting is really harmful, it’s not healthy, that diets don’t work (say it with me now!)?
- Come from a place of questions and interest. No one likes being lectured or condescended to (“oh, you’re so cute, you think you’re gonna be thin!”), so it’s important to act with respect. Ask the reasons for the diet, what they’re doing, if they feel healthy, if this is medically supervised (even though that usually doesn’t matter a whole lot).
- Gently ask questions about their own knowledge/experience of dieting not working. Everyone knows someone who’s dieted unsuccessfully. Everyone knows that Jared got fat again, that Oprah’s yo-yo dieted for decades, that Kirstie Alley gained weight back. It’s likely that the person you’re talking to has ALSO been on a diet and re-gained weight (because 95% of people do). Bringing up these ideas can get a person thinking critically.
- If comfortable, feel free to share your own experience/knowledge. If you’ve had a bad diet experience, or an eating disorder, and you’re comfortable, talk about it.
- Bring up the research. Astute readers will note the sources throughout my articles, but some great information about how health and diets often counter each other can be found here, here and here.
- Extol the virtues of health, rather than thin-ness, and express support for this goal. Health and fat are not mutually exclusive, even though the media and diet companies spend billions each year convincing us that thin = healthy, NO MATTER WHAT, consequences be damned. You can easily support friends eating more fruits and vegetables, moving their bodies more often, and sleeping more. Guess what? No matter how much you weigh, that will make you healthier.
Last week, my aunt reported she was now down to 250 calories a day.
Diets don’t work, but we’re still spending time, effort, and energy thinking this time is different. It’s not. Diets don’t work, and the more people we tell about it, the better off all of us will be.