There’s a prevalent myth in our culture, which causes a lot of shame, guilt, and mass purchasing of diet products every year. This myth is the belief that all of us should adhere to the “thin ideal standard” and that if we don’t, it’s a moral failing or an example of “poor self-discipline.”
Some believe that an individual’s weight is a reflection of their eating and exercise habits, and that in order to lose weight and keep it off-people simply need to “eat less” and “move more.” However, there is a complete lack of research evidence to support this.
For instance, The Women's Health Initiative, is the largest and longest randomized, controlled dietary intervention clinical trial. In this initiative over 20,000 women maintained a low-fat diet, reducing their calorie intake by an average of 360 calories per day and significantly increasing their activity. After almost eight years on this diet, there was almost no change in weight from starting point, and average waist circumference, had increased.
“There is much we do not know about the intricate interplay of genetics, physiologic regulation of hunger, feeding, metabolism and fat distribution in humans. What we do know is that this is a highly complex system. To reduce a person’s body size to “lifestyle choice”, “will-power” and “calories-in vs calories out” is to do a huge disservice to humankind,” says Ana Paunovic, MD, MS, a doctor in Washington D.C.
Set Point Weight
Biologically, we all have a set point weight range (typically between 10-20 pounds) that our bodies will fight to maintain. Our set point weight is largely based on genetics. The same way some people are tall and short. Some people are naturally larger or smaller.
Dr. Traci Mann, a psychologist and researcher who has studied dieting for over a decade, explains: “Your genes play an important role in determining how much you weigh throughout your life. In fact, your genetic code contains the blueprint for your body type and, more or less, the weight range that you can healthily maintain. Your body tends to stay in that range—which I will refer to as your set weight range—most of your adult life. If your weight strays outside it, multiple systems of your body make changes that push you back toward it.”
Sumner Brooks, a registered dietitian, adds, “One perspective can be to consider how babies are born at all ranges of sizes and weights, despite never having made one choice yet about eating or exercise. Mom’s body size also does not predict the size of a baby. So, from the very beginning, every human is born with a genetic blueprint to have their own unique body size. What we know very clearly from studying diets and weight loss attempts is that the more a person tries to get smaller or deprive the body of calories, the more their body will try and correct and/or protect from weight loss.”
Even if you believe that you are not currently at your set-point weight, a focus on weight-loss will be detrimental. If you are naturally meant to weigh less, your body will adjust as you work to heal your relationship to food (if this is the cause of being higher than your set-point). However, having “weight loss” as the goal promotes disordered eating and can set people up for discontent and weight-cycling.
The Dog Analogy
I love data and research, but a simpler way to explain the concept of body diversity is the dog analogy. When I’m working with clients, I will explain the concept of “body diversity” by looking at different dog breeds. We don’t typically say that a poodle is superior to (or cuter than) a pug. The same way dogs come in all different shapes and sizes, humans do too.
This video on “poodle science” helps to further explain the concept of body diversity, and how this relates to the research on weight and health.
What If I Hate My Body at it’s Natural Size?
If you are feeling defeated about the idea that your weight is not something that you can just arbitrarily choose, I first off want to validate that this is perfectly understandable.
It may take some time to grieve the loss of the “thin ideal standard” and to accept your body. However, I’d ask you how has hating your body and trying to shrink it down been working for you? Also, where do your beliefs about your body stem from?
We live in a culture that currently deems that “smaller” is “better” and “more attractive,” and there is often stigma towards people in larger bodies. However, this is completely a cultural construction. There are other cultures around the world where people in larger bodies are celebrated, and women actively try to gain as much weight as possible.
Instead of fighting against your body, I’d encourage you to work to take care of it by doing movement that you enjoy, generally being mindful of your hunger and fullness cues, eating food that you find pleasurable, and engaging in self-care.
If this is a struggle for you, i’d highly recommend that you seek professional help from a local therapist or registered dietitian (ideally one who specializes in health at every size).
Your Weight Is Not Your Worth
I often share with clients that even if you loved your body, the reality of life is that our bodies are meant to change as we age. When you allow your sense of self-worth to rest on something external (and that research shows is largely out of your control in the long-term), it is a recipe for discontent.
There are so many things about you that are far more interesting than the gravitational force of the earth on your body. At the end of your life, what kind of legacy do you wish to leave? Would you rather be remembered for your body-or for the kind of person that you were?
Despite what diet culture may say, this I know to be true. You are not more valuable if you take up less space. You are enough, just as you are.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Germantown, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: www.jenniferrollin.com