Illustrated by Tania Lili.
This time last year, I didn't feel good. I was uncomfortable in my body and completely out of shape. When I launched The Anti-Diet Project, it was with the intention of releasing disordered eating, the diet mindset, and — hopefully — my excess weight. It wasn't about getting skinny, but I assumed there would be weight loss involved. Surely, if I really embraced a balanced, active lifestyle and learned to eat intuitively, then I would reach a healthy weight.
That's where I went wrong: "healthy weight." The idea that health and weight are in lockstep with each other was just another misconception I needed to un-learn. Because, as long as I continued to focus on the weight part, then the health part would always take a back seat. That is why we need the Health At Every Size movement.
Like Intuitive Eating, the Health At Every Size movement (or HAES) is a concept that's been around for many years, though it has just recently started to get mainstream recognition. That's largely thanks to Linda Bacon, PhD, author of the eponymous book on the topic. Her work drew attention to the growing cache of evidence negating the idea that size necessarily dictates or indicates a person's health. The BMI, for example, has lost much credibility, with recent studies proving its consistent inaccuracy for predicting health and longevity.
"Most health indicators, such as insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels, can be improved through changing health behaviors, regardless of whether weight changes," declares the HAES manifesto. Research affirms that "even people who gained body fat while participating in an exercise program improved their health." Perhaps the boldest statement put forth by the movement: "No one has ever shown that losing weight prolongs life. Some studies actually indicate that intentional weight loss increases the risk of dying early from certain diseases." It's not necessarily weight, but the cycle of yo-yo dieting that hurts our health far more than we ever realized.
Illustrated by Tania Lili.
This is the paradigm shift Dr. Bacon and others seek to make with Health At Every Size. Dr. Bacon herself grappled with body image for years. "My body shame led me on a quest to lose weight, which reinforced my bad feelings," she tells me. But, in entering this field of study, Dr. Bacon not only revealed the falsehoods propagated by diet culture; she also found personal peace. "Instead of fighting the fat on my body, I realized that it was more valuable to fight against oppressive attitudes about fat," Dr. Bacon explains. In doing so, she opened millions of eyes to the truth.
Naysayers often claim HAES, Intuitive Eating, and the Fat Acceptance Movement are just "excuses" for being overweight (and for all those prejudiced, fictitious notions about what being overweight means). But, these movements are three distinct entities, all of which support the idea that we may simply be wrong about weight. Fat acceptance tackles cultural bias and social issues. Health At Every Size stresses the possibility (and importance) of leading a healthy life without emphasizing weight. Intuitive Eating helps us learn how to do that, outside of the harmful diet model.
None of these movements are an "excuse" for anything. HAES doesn't advocate that overweight people should sit around and ignore their health. It simply defies the idea that overweight or obese people are incapable of being healthy at the size they are. It's a radical notion that could revolutionize the way we treat our bodies and each other.
But, revolutions take time. Even people (ahem, me) who've embraced Intuitive Eating don't always get the picture right away. "Some people promote Intuitive Eating as a means for weight control," Dr. Bacon explains, "holding the belief that if everyone just responded to body signals, we’d all be thin. Not the case!"
"Intuitive Eating helps your body find its natural groove around weight, which may or may not involve weight change," she adds. I didn't believe this at first — and, I didn't want to believe it. My size and shape have certainly shifted in the past year, but I haven't had a BiggestLoser-style transformation. It wasn't until I saw the actual numbers (which showed that my blood pressure had dropped and my cardiovascular strength had soared) that I realized my health had indeed done a 180.
Given my own evidence — and the heaps of research on Dr. Bacon's side — I wondered why it's so hard for us to shift focus as a culture. When asked, Dr. Bacon explained that it's not easy for us to trust ourselves and our bodies when, for decades, we've been taught not to. "Some people are fearful that if they just ate what they want when they want, they would binge out of control on 'junk' food," she explains, echoing a concern I hear constantly from readers. "The out-of-control feeling is actually the result of holding onto a dieting mentality, not self-trust," she adds.
Illustrated by Tania Lili.
I think it's also that niggling, little belief that if we just try hard enough we'll eventually be thin and healthy. (But, mostly thin.) Seeing my health and fitness improve so dramatically set me, finally, on the path to self-trust — and self-respect. That's when eating well became less of a struggle and more instinctive. That's when fitness became less about burning calories and more about keeping myself active and strong. This is the goal and the magic of Health At Every Size: You don't need to wait to be skinny to get healthy. "Skinny" is the roadblock between you and your health.
So, perhaps the haters are right when they say Fat Acceptance, HAES, and Intuitive Eating are the same. I accepted my body, fat and all; therefore, I could shift my focus toward health and learn how to eat and move in a way that felt good. As Dr. Bacon explains in her follow-up book Body Respect, "Your body really does know best when it comes to getting what it needs to sustain itself; your job is to listen carefully and respectfully and trust what you feel."
This lesson is there for the taking. We all have the evidence and resources available to make the shift from "thinking thin" to "thinking about what's best for our bodies." Anyone can join the Health At Every Size movement. All it takes is a commitment to self-respect, self-care, and an understanding that those things are far more complicated than any diet. Self-respect is hard. But, so is self-loathing. Which would you rather put time and effort into?
The Anti-Diet Project runs on Mondays twice a month. You can also follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject. If you're new to the column, you can check out all the entries here. And, if you're feeling it, feel free to grab the hashtag yourself. I live for your gym selfies and breakfast 'grams.