I get it. You don’t want to be fat. Fat people are unfairly vilified, laughed at, paid lower salaries and thought of as lazy. Weight stigma is so bad that a team of dedicated researchers at Yale are studying it.
Meanwhile, we live in a culture which constantly bombards us with the message that body weight is controllable if only we are disciplined enough to drop the kilos. The multi-billion dollar diet industry sells us everything from shakes, packed with synthetic fillers, to organic bone broth made from hand-reared calves.
Being ‘on a diet’ to lose or maintain weight seems both normal and advisable, and probably something that should be a good influence on the people around you, right?
Wrong. There are some very good reasons why it’s not a good idea to broadcast your latest weight loss diet in your workplace or social circle.
1. You alienate others
If I had a dollar for every time someone thinner than me has complained about how huge their thighs are or how disgusting they feel after gaining a few kilos, I could buy so many doughnuts.
No, seriously. As a fat woman, I have had colleagues tell me that they’d rather have a stroke than take medication that might make them put on weight. I know parents who say they would send their kids to a boot camp if they got chubby. I’ve heard friends wish they were fat enough to go on the Biggest Loser because even though they only ‘have’ to lose five kilos, it’d be really motivating to be around all those obese people.
Disparaging your own body or those of others is not done in a vacuum. Implying that it’d be better to be dead - or hounded by vicious bullies - than to look like me is not the motivating force you might think it is. Words are powerful: use them for good, not evil.
Implying that it’d be better to be dead - or hounded by vicious bullies - than to look like me is not the motivating force you might think it is.
2. Diets don’t work
It seems like a controversial thing to say but it’s blatantly obvious when you look at the facts. This isn’t even new information: in a paper from 1991, researchers Garner and Wooley found that “there is virtually no evidence that clinically significant weight loss can be maintained over the long-term by the vast majority of people”.
Since then, studies have consistently found that weight loss dieting, even when combined with exercise, fails in around 95 per cent of attempts. What might give you more reason to pause before you chug that meal-replacement shake is that most attempts result in the dieter being a higher weight than when they began. In fact, a large-scale study published in Pediatrics in 2003 observed that among the 15000 teenaged participants, those who dieted gained significantly more weight than those who ate normally. As Traci Mann, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied eating for more than two decades says, “people are too uptight about their weight; people are handling that uptightness in a foolish way that doesn't work (that would be dieting); and the reason diets don't work is not [willpower].”
Instead, experts including Dr Rick Kausman, researcher Linda Bacon and dietician Zoe Nicholson recommend a non-diet approach, embracing physical activity that you find enjoyable whilst eating a wide range of foods to provide you with the nutrients your body needs for you to feel at your best.
If you want to continue to engage in dieting behaviours that have been proven to be counter-productive that’s up to you, but there’s no need to evangelise to others.
3. You waste your time and energy on boring stuff
The diet industry wants to keep you stupidly focused on superficial things because it helps their profit margins, but to be frank, it doesn’t make you very interesting.
No one wants to hear about your macros, your fat-free breakfast, or whether your old jeans are less tight this week. This kind of talk might feel ‘safe’, especially for women who are socialised from an early age into chatting about weight loss as a form of bonding. Ultimately it is not only damaging to others but it’s actually mind-numbingly boring.
People who can’t find anything better to talk about need to brush up on their conversation skills, pronto. Forget the gluten-free paleo kale chip recipe and read a racy novel or a juicy piece of political commentary instead.
4. You run the risk of harming the young and vulnerable
All joking aside, our words really do matter.
Talking about reducing food intake or counting calories around those who have eating disorders can trigger relapses and send people into spirals of self-loathing.
Over 900 000 people have an eating disorder in Australia at any given time, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone you see regularly is suffering. Even people who have a relatively healthy relationship towards their bodies and food can experience a drop in self-esteem after a bout of conversational body-bashing.
Add to this the fact that young people are at extreme risk of developing negative body image and weight gain if they are exposed to diet talk, it becomes clear that it’s better to keep your food anxieties to yourself. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that even doctors should be wary of discussing weight with young people.
Encouraging the enjoyment of exercise and a wide range of foods are two things that we can all do that will have a far more positive impact than discussions about restrictive eating or negative commentary on bodies.
The three key behaviours most strongly associated with both eating disorders and clinical obesity are: dieting; weight talk (including comments others make about their own weight); and being teased about one’s size.
Instead of assuming that talking about weight will help people to keep healthy, we need to acknowledge that the opposite is true. Encouraging the enjoyment of exercise and a wide range of foods are two things that we can all do that will have a far more positive impact than discussions about restrictive eating or negative commentary on bodies.
5. You deserve better
Food is morally neutral. Eating cake doesn’t make you a bad person, or even necessarily an undisciplined one (but body-shaming others might).
Crowing about how great it is to deprive yourself can detract from how blessed we are to have abundant food to eat in the first place.
A non-diet approach, which focuses on wellbeing, isn’t only about rich indulgence - it can also be about taking a bit more time to notice how that cherry tomato bursts sweetly in your mouth or to linger over a second coffee because your friend could do with some companionship. Food can be celebratory or perfunctory, lavish or frugal, fast or slow. But it can never be the measure of your worth as a human being. Quitting the diet talk may be the one new regime that actually pays off.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter @MsElizabethEDU