If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?

Strong WomenOne of our favorite things about the blog is the way it has generated conversation and a sense of community.   We enjoy hearing from people, not least of which because we’ve had generous comments for the most part. Once in awhile, however, someone calls us on something. That’s okay too. Debate is good. We’re philosophers, and, as Sam said, that’s how we roll.

I was called out just last week when a regular commenter said that I spend a lot of time repeating that diets don’t work, but I don’t offer anything hopeful or helpful. Craig said, “if this blog is about getting fit and healthy, and not simply about “fat acceptance” – give us some clue as to how obese people can lose a lot of fat in a healthy way and keep it off for reasons pertaining to health, as opposed to just reminding us of the inevitability of us being fat and unhealthy forever!”

Granted he is right about one thing for sure: neither Sam nor I has given any advice for how to diet away fat and keep it off.  The stats for success using that approach are depressingly grim.  I say “depressingly” because I wish it were not so. But does this mean that I think there is no hopeful or helpful approach that might take the place of plans and programs aimed specifically at losing weight and keeping it off?  Not at all.

Sam has blogged quite a bit about the potential to be both fit and, by the standards of most charts, overweight. Both of us stress performance goals over weight loss goals.  And both of us would love to be leaner for various reasons having to do mostly with the strength that additional muscle mass would bring, thus enabling us to perform better at some of our chosen activities.

We have also talked about metabolic health. Amber at Go Kaleo! is a strong proponent of focusing on lifting heavy weights and eating in such a way as to stoke the fire that is our metabolism. That usually means eating substantially more than we thought we needed to eat and that most diet plans will tell us we need to eat for maintenance.

Though I have not yet read Amber’s new book, Taking up Space, I know that the information from her blog is first rate, and that the book compiles a lot of information from the blog, making it easy to find and use.  As Amber tells her own story, she was quite overweight by any standards and had a damaged metabolism. She says,

2008, after 35 years of the Standard American Diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and two pregnancies, I found myself obese, exhibiting a whole laundry list of Metabolic Disorder symptoms, and hurtling madly down a path toward chronic illness and an early, preventable death…After decades of diets, yo-yoing weight, and thousands of dollars spent on weight loss gimmicks, I decided to stop trying to lose weight and instead focus on nourishing my body with real, whole foods in adequate amounts, to achieve HEALTH, not weight loss. Instead of punishing myself for dietary indiscretions by spending hours running on the treadmill, interspersed with years of absolute inactivity, I started finding activities I enjoyed..

After doing her own extensive research she developed an approach that has certainly worked for her and enabled her to change her body composition dramatically while eating lots of good food, including carbohydrates. So that’s an approach that I would recommend.

I have also talked about Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2, another book in which metabolism and the damage that diets can do to it figure prominently.  Again, he recommends an approach that is 180 degrees from what we usually see recommended in the form of diet for weight loss.

My preferred approach and the one that I am practicing these days is Intuitive EatingIt is working for me. By “working,” I mean that I am not obsessed with food and weight. That’s a big change from my experience for the majority of my adult life. I do not weigh myself anymore, and the last time I did (for curiosity’s sake — a dangerous move that I will not engage in very often), I weighed the same as when I’d started intuitive eating. If I end up gaining, I will not let a weight gain deter me from continuing to develop an overall healthy relationship to food, weight, and activity.

I combine this way of eating with my favorite activities: yoga, swimming, running, and resistance training. I follow a schedule for training, though I am not rigid about it.  I would rather do less than I think I ought to do than aim so high that I start wanting to skip working out or feel as if working out is an obligation instead of an enjoyable part of my life.  I recommend that anyone who is just starting out or who is struggling to find a rhythm with it aim lower rather than higher.

Above all, Sam and I don’t budge on being anti-diet.  Why? Because they don’t work. I didn’t make that up and, as I said, I wish it weren’t true. I don’t keep saying this to discourage people, but rather to allow us to move on from a failed experiment.

We pretty consistently offer a different approach to those who are interested in improving their health (again, as Sam said yesterday, you don’t have to be interested in this). And we do offer some specific tools and information for embarking on that approach.

I have said before that it is not an easy thing to do. It’s very possible that those who follow Amber’s approach or Matt Stone’s approach or the intuitive eating approach or the focus on strength, not weight, will weigh more than the weight they have in mind as their ideal. But over time, the focus on that number will recede into the distance as a more energizing focus takes its place.

The “results” might not be as immediate or dramatic as what you will see on a restrictive diet. But they will be more sustainable.

When I was always dieting and gaining back weight, my dad — a family doctor — liked to say that the only thing necessary to lose weight and keep it off was to “change your eating habits.”  This truism used to annoy me, but the fact is, I never took it seriously.  I did have to change my eating habits.  The single most necessary change I had to make was to stop eating beyond my comfort level.  This requires a more mindful approach to food and to how I feel when I eat it. It’s every bit as difficult as dieting but the difference is that it produces sustainable changes.

There is nothing extreme about eating mindfully. And there is nothing extreme about the recommended approach to activity. In both cases, let’s make choices we enjoy.

I hope very much that the overall message of our blog is not one that inspires hopelessness, but rather one that encourages those who wish to enjoy a healthy approach to physical fitness to try doing things differently, and in more sustainable ways.  We would love to offer a “how-to” with 5 or 7 or 10 easy steps. But that’s not how we do things around here.

[thanks go to Craig for sparking the conversation that led me to write this post]

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