I think a question people contemplating giving up dieting might ask is, “But what if I get fat?” I think it’s a good question and it doesn’t really get talked about enough in the intuitive eating world, in my opinion.
I first heard about HAES® while sitting in my introductory nutrition class in college, given by the woman herself, Dr. Linda Bacon, size acceptance activist and author of the book Health at Every Size®. She really turned my head with her talk of not-dieting and fat acceptance. It took a few months before I was fully able to digest (pun intended) all that she was saying. When I did finally take it all in and decide to give up dieting myself, I didn’t think about whether I would get fat again. I was so hungry and tired of dieting while continuing to be dissatisfied with my body that I just couldn’t bear to do it anymore. Naively, I thought I had taken care of my “fat” problem years ago when I first began dieting and then, against all odds, maintained a lower weight for 8 years before my dieting got really crazy.
Had I asked myself that question at the time – but what if I get fat? – I’m not sure what the answer would have been. I was definitely not in a fat acceptance headspace for myself at that moment. For others? Sure! For me…uh….no. All I knew is that my dieting and the quality of life it gave me was not sustainable or enjoyable and almost anything would be better, including whatever consequences of not-dieting might be.
And so yes, after a number of years of not-dieting, I did get fat again. It seemed inconceivable that just eating in a slightly more relaxed way – the way I ate throughout most of my 20s! – would cause my weight to suddenly and dramatically go up, and yet up it went. Every year was another 10 pounds gained until I arrived at my original pre-any-diet weight last year. My body now maintains that weight – at least for now – without me thinking much about it.
Why on earth, one might ask, would anyone give up dieting if they are “successfully” maintaining a lower body weight? Good question. Well, that person might feel the way I did – that dieting had taken over their lives and they are no longer fully themselves. Or they might be sick of fighting constant food cravings. Or being hungry all the time. Or fearing food. Or someone might have an eating disorder that is threatening their lives. Everyone is different and I respect any and all reasons to give up dieting – or to keep it up if that’s what feels right.
But for those wanting to say goodbye to dieting, what can you expect if you give up dieting? If you were originally a heavier person and you’ve been maintaining a lower weight than your natural body weight…yes, you might gain weight once you start to eat more intuitively. If you’ve been suppressing your natural hunger cues for a long time, you’ve sent your body a message: there is not enough food available in your environment. Your body responds by becoming very efficient at storing energy – i.e., hanging onto fat. This is also why dieting often yields fast weight loss results initially, but then slow down and eventually stop (and then reverse) the longer the diet continues. It’s just your body trying to save your life in a perceived famine.
If you’re one of those folks who gains weight, you’ll likely have some self-acceptance homework to do. I’ve talked recently about how this isn’t easy, but totally worth it. While you might have heard a lot of kudos for your weight loss – the ubiquitous “You look great, did you lose weight?” – unfortunately, the way society currently operates, you won’t hear the opposite: “Omigod, you look amazing, did you gain weight??” On one hand, this kind of sucks! On the other, you realize quickly that relying on the opinions of others for your self-esteem is a no-win game.
Sometimes the only critic you have to contend with is the person looking back at you in the mirror. That can be even harder to deal with than facing the opinions of others. For me, learning to accept my body started with first being able to see the beauty of other fat bodies. I poured over fat fashion blogs in awe – these women look fantastic, why did I see fat as ugly for so long?? I stopped seeing weight as a measure of my self-worth. I also decided to focus on what my body could do for me rather than what it looked like. I am lucky to be able to walk long distances, use a hula hoop, swim, lift weights, ride a bike and dance in my living room, so I focused on celebrating that instead of what shape my body was. I focused on my behaviors – eating healthfully (and enjoyably) and engaging in movement I loved. Working at appreciating my body was a worthy endeavor that eventually paid off – I’m much more at peace now with myself than I ever was on a diet.
In the end, there are many worse things than gaining weight and getting fat. For me, life on a diet was worse. I know this because I was willing to give it up without even thinking about the possible consequences. Eventually I was able to trust in the wisdom of my body to take me and my weight where it needed to go. Then I just needed to take my mind there with it.
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