The Hijacking of “Lifestyle Changes”

Out_for_A_Spin - cats cycling
Lifestyle changes are fun to make when they don’t involve thinking about weight loss.
I want to stage a coup. I want to take back the term “lifestyle changes” from the diet industry.

In my last post, I talked about the crazy things people will do in the name of losing weight. Pro-weight-loss people, allow me to speak for you because I know exactly what you’re going to say: “Obviously diets don’t work; everyone knows losing weight is really about making permanent lifestyle changes.” I have heard this refrain myself from well-meaning-but-not-yet-in-the-know colleagues many times.

The reality is something quite different. When we (non-diet advocates and just, you know, all the research) say that nothing has been shown to produce long-term (greater than 5 years) weight loss for most people, we are talking about everything: calorie restriction, exercise, and yes, even so-called lifestyle changes. (And if you can find proof otherwise, please send it my way)

I am not against lifestyle changes, not in the least. There are many things we can do to improve our health: we can eat more fruits and vegetables; we can move our bodies more; we can try to lessen our stress; we can quit smoking or just never start; and we can avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Doing all of those things will most likely help to make you a healthier person. I’m all about getting as healthy as we can.

But when the term “lifestyle changes” is meant to inspire weight loss…sorry, but that’s when it becomes just another diet. Most easy-to-make lifestyle changes don’t result in significant, long-term weight loss. They just don’t. That’s why most people who want to lose weight turn to more extreme, unsustainable measures – calorie restriction (aka dieting) or food-group elimination (think Atkins or Paleo). While these methods of eating do tend to produce immediate weight loss, the results are short-lived and nearly everyone gains the weight back and sometimes even more within 3 to 5 years.

I’m not saying lifestyle changes won’t produce weight loss – maybe sometimes they will. But when weight loss becomes the focus of the behavior change, and then the weight is regained (as tends to happen through natural, biological processes geared to maintain weight homeostasis), how likely are people to keep up those changes that they made? Maybe if outcomes goals of lifestyle changes were things like feeling better or improved metabolic measures, instead of unrealistic expectations of permanent weight loss, then people would be more willing to try them, or keep them up once started. As long as they masquerade as a diet, I predict resistance and disappointment for all.

Maybe it’s too late for “lifestyle changes,” but at least we still have Health at Every Size® – a term registered by ASDAH to protect it from this same hijacking. So suck it, weight loss industry: your profiteering stops here.

Bonus! Book Review: Secrets of the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

One of the most comprehensive, fact-laden books I’ve read on the subject of the failure of weight loss lately is Secrets of the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann, PhD. Mann runs the Health and Eating Lab at the University of Minnesota and is no stranger to the science of weight loss. The first section of the book is chock-full of references to the literature on the failure of intentional weight loss efforts (aka dieting). She writes engagingly on why diets don’t work and how the failure to maintain weight loss has nothing to do with willpower. I can’t recommend this book enough if you are still skeptical about the need to abandon dieting as a health intervention. The second part of the book delves into why diets are not only useless, but bad for you. This, of course, is my favorite part! Again, every statement is backed up by sound research.

The third section of the book is titled “How to Reach Your Leanest Livable Weight (No Willpower Required)” and is essentially a list of small changes you can make to help you eat healthfully and live at the lowest end of your weight range (although no advice on how to know what that personal range is). I tried to read this part with as little bias as I could muster, but as a recovered dieter, I will never be completely bias-free when it comes to talk about eating and I had mixed feelings about this section. However, as much as I love and promote intuitive eating, I also realize that there is no one definite way to eat for everyone. Tips include making healthier foods more readily accessible and creating obstacles to temptations (like taking the route to work that doesn’t pass your favorite bakery). Some of these tips I love, like not eating healthy food because it’s healthy but because you have other compelling reasons that are important to you (might I suggest taste?), and changing how you think about tempting foods. Others, I was not so keen on, like pre-committing to a penalty for indulging (because I don’t believe punishment and eating are good bedfellows).

Some of these tips felt a little prescriptive to me but may be useful for those who have never dieted and want more regimented ways to eat better. As long as the “tips” don’t become strict rules and aren’t tied to weight loss results, I think they could amount to good advice for some. Dieters in recovery may find some of the tips too rigid or similar to the diet rules they used to follow, as I did with some of them. And what works in the eating lab to get people to eat better (when they do not even realize their eating is being studied) may work differently when we are applying them more consciously to ourselves. However, I appreciated the final tip the most, “Savor (nearly) everything,” because I think it underscores the basic message of the book – don’t eat for weight loss, eat well, and enjoy life. As long as the little “lifestyle changes” recommended here don’t become “diet rules,” the book remains an important part of the non-diet canon. So yes, I’m recommending the book for its ardent, fact-based support of abandoning intentional weight loss. Happy reading!

8 thoughts on “The Hijacking of “Lifestyle Changes”

  1. Rachel May 25, 2015 / 10:37 am

    My question is why it’s desirable to live at the lowest end of one’s set-point in the first place. Is that somehow better than not living at the low end, or even the high end? Frankly, I find this to be a sizeist idea, because it implies that being thinner is better than being fatter, and I have no idea why it’s in a book like this.

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  2. GlenysO May 25, 2015 / 11:07 am

    I agree with you! What is the evidence that living at that lower end of your weight range is beneficial? How would we know if we were there? How would we even know what our range is? I think it would have been better to say, if you are eating as well as you can, living as healthfully as you can, you are probably already at your leanest livable weight, and I thought perhaps that’s what she was basically trying to say. I wondered if this was a concession to the pro-weight-loss people who make noise if you dare to say “Don’t worry about weight loss.” I still recommend the book in general because I’ve given up on the idea of perfection in ideals and it is WAY more HAES than it is not and it does support the idea of not eating for weight loss.

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  3. Lana May 25, 2015 / 5:00 pm

    I’m reading the book now and just like you found the part with the tips a little annoying. Most of them are ways to restrict your eating. I guess it will work for people who don’t have any psychological issues with food… But that’s not most dieters. So I too am trying to read this as unbiased as I can.

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    • GlenysO May 25, 2015 / 7:29 pm

      Thanks Lana, I’m glad I’m not the only one. As a dietitian who is not in favor of restrictive eating, I’m sometimes conflicted about how best to give diet (as in “one’s diet” not a WL diet) advice to help improve eating. I really don’t like this business of trying to trick ourselves into eating less or not eating decadent foods. If I’m the one playing the trick on myself, I’m going to figure it out! I do feel that intuitive eating is the easiest way to stop over-eating and improve eating habits without ever feeling deprived, especially for former dieters.

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  4. Me June 23, 2015 / 11:28 pm

    Hey! I stumbled across your blog and I’m enjoying reading your posts. I have been reading Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat and trying to apply it to reverse about 8 years of disordered eating. Not an eating disorder, just unnatural eating behaviours like restriction, overeating, binging. This idea that a lifestyle change can just become another weight loss diet in disguise is new to me, but it makes a lot of sense. Just when did something as natural and innate as eating to fuel our bodies become something we need to dignify with a label? Why does it need to be elevated to an almost religious-like status? The term “following a diet”… It just dawned on me how the rules can become like some kind of mantra you live by… Whatever happened to being defined by your principles in life rather than by your weight or your holy eating habits? Anyway, sorry about that rant… I’d better write a post about it cause I’ve become inspired by this post. I’m hesitant to agree that being at your highest healthy weight is better than being at your lowest healthy weight though… Surely the less weight is on your joints and bones the less wear and tear they get over time and the less effort the heart needs to make? Obviously not to the extreme of being underweight… But then, I guess that begs the question of who sets the boundaries…. This is a tough topic.

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    • Me June 23, 2015 / 11:31 pm

      Sorry, I realised nobody said being at the highest healthy weight is BETTER than being at the lowest, they said the same! But still… You know what I mean about your heart and joints etc, right?

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      • GlenysO June 24, 2015 / 9:35 am

        Hi! Thanks so much for your comments and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! I’m so glad you’re recovering from disordered eating – as you read more you’ll see that I had to do the same thing. Intuitive eating is really an amazing thing – it’s the way babies and toddlers learn to eat if we leave them alone with food and not harangue them to eat more or less or things they don’t like. Which unfortunately has happened to so many of us in childhood.

        Regarding being at your “highest healthy weight” vs “lowest healthy weight” – my question is, how do we know what our actual weight range is? I’m sure that my normal weight range has been changed over the years by severe restriction. So what I would advise to most people is that your weight that you can live with eating “normally” in a way that you enjoy, getting the movement that you like – that is your healthiest weight. At my lowest weight (which was at the lower end of the BMI “normal” range) I developed osteoarthritis in both my toes which later required surgery (when I was still at a low weight). I had severe back pain for two years. So being a low weight did not prevent injury to my joints at all. Now, 40-50 pounds heavier than that, I have almost no pain anywhere and can exercise and move how I want to. Whether my current weight will affect my future joint health or not, well, I can’t worry about that because trying to achieve a lower weight 1. will surely cause me to eventually gain even more weight as the evidence shows and 2. appears to be impossible without more severe restrictions which I’m not willing to do. Check out all the evidence that shows that having healthy habits (eating more f/v, exercise, not smoking) are a much stronger predictor of mortality than weight. Most weight studies don’t control for health behaviors, unfortunately.

        If you’d like to check out a lot of fat people doing great things with their bodies, check out the http://www.fitfatties.com (no weight loss talk allowed in this space).

        Thanks again for your comments and I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the blog!

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        • Me June 24, 2015 / 11:40 am

          You’ve given me a lot to think about again, thank you! I shall look up that link and continue to read about your own journey to normal eating with great interest!

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