After the year that was 2020, the turnover of the clock on 31st December probably felt like a release. Even if you knew that in reality, very little was going to be different on 1st January 2021, it felt important to hold onto the idea that the new year could be, and must be, better than the last.
So it’s hardly surprising that the siren song of New Year's resolutions called to many of us more loudly than ever. According to a recent YouGov survey, one in five Britons intended to make a New Year’s resolution in 2021, with resolutions being most popular among people aged 18 to 24 (38%). The survey found that a couple of the most common resolutions are towards making positive change in the world around us (raising money for charity or volunteering) but given how much the world around us feels out of our grasp, especially now, it’s hardly surprising that the most popular resolutions are around self-improvement. You can’t impact the government’s pandemic strategy but you can control what you do to and for yourself.
For the second year in a row, 'health' dominates the top three resolutions. Finding long-term changes you can make to help you feel better (whether it’s improving your flexibility, upping your veg consumption or drinking less) is an understandable and generous thing to do for yourself, especially if these are habits you lost in 2020. For some people that may have nothing to do with changing their body but for many others it is directly linked to weight loss. In fact, the same YouGov data found that 48% of people are explicitly resolving to lose weight in the new year, while the more general goals of improving fitness or diet are being taken up by 52% and 39% respectively.
'Health'-related resolutions are often bound up in the idea that weight is a synonym for health. But as reported by Michael Hobbes in his viral Huffington Post piece, "Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong", weight and health do not automatically go hand in hand. Hobbes writes: "Yes, nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call 'the lean unhealthy.'"
Nevertheless, the myth persists and the most searched diet plans in the past 30 days in the UK, according to Google Trends, are centred around weight loss as a key to health. The most popular term, the "fast 800 diet" is linked to a book by Michael Mosley which claims that you can combine "rapid weight loss and intermittent fasting for long-term health". You do this by eating 800 calories a day. The next most popular, the weight loss brand Noom, focuses on giving you the "support you need to deal with cravings in a healthy way" and claims to be on a mission to "make the world a healthier place".
Whether it’s keto, low carb, no carb, liquid fasting, low calorie, high fat, low fat or any other dietary combination, many fast-result diet plans rely on some form of extreme change in eating habits, most commonly achieved through restricting calories and reconfiguring every aspect of your day around the diet: the time of day, amount you spend, amount you exercise and inevitably amount you think about food is all geared around this particular eating plan. They are all-consuming in their process and inspiring in their claims to finally give you the body you want after only six short weeks. More often than not, they claim to do so in a bid to be "healthier".
But as the unsustainability of these diets shows, they can rarely be a healthy lifestyle for anyone. According to Dr Andrew Jenkinson, a bariatric surgery consultant, everyone has a weight set-point that their metabolism will work to bring them back to. If you over- or under-eat, he says that your body will adjust how many calories it burns to keep you at your set weight. And if you crash diet and manage to lose weight, it’s unlikely to provide results that last. The moment you can no longer sustain the eating habits the diet asks of you, your body will begin to move back to your set-point. And the more extreme the shift from your set-point, the more sharply your body will snap you back. This is why, as reported by Hobbes, "Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost."
With all this in mind, it’s worth evaluating what you really mean when you resolve to be healthier in 2021. Hopefully, it’s about making a commitment to exercise and well-rounded, whole meals with fresh ingredients. But if you're committed specifically to weight loss without incorporating these long-term changes, it’s important to be mindful about the way you talk about it, especially online.
Recent data from the NHS Health Survey for England found that a staggering one in five women may have an eating disorder (ED), a far higher number than previous data showed. Likewise, a survey from the Mental Health Foundation in 2019 found that one in five adults had felt shame about their body in the last year, and over a third had felt anxious or depressed over their body. Just as the pandemic has induced stress and anxiety across the board, it has made it exceptionally harder for those who either currently or have previously reckoned with any sort of eating disorder or body image issue to cope.
If you are one of the many, many people who reckons with an eating disorder or body image issues, you will know that being told about the virtues of someone’s miracle diet can, at best, remind you that the world expects you to lose weight. At worst this can trigger a relapse or exacerbation of ED symptoms. This is only worse if you are visibly plus-size or overweight. No one knows better than fat people that the world wants them to be thin – they are likely reminded of that both through unsolicited advice (often coming from a place of love or care) or through explicit shaming. But despite the belief of internet trolls the world over, shaming people to lose weight will not magically make someone thinner. In fact, it will likely make them gain more.
If the diet plan you are on feels miraculous and is finally working the way you hoped it would, that’s great for you. 2021 has started in a weird way and we’ve got to get our kicks where we can. But it’s worth being aware that talking about its benefits can serve as a reminder to other people, particularly fat people, that their body should be a source of shame. As we strive to create a more inclusive, more forgiving world in 2021, being mindful of what you say and on what platform you say it is one of the best ways you can help contribute to everyone having a genuinely healthier relationship with their bodies. And in doing so, it can help lay the groundwork for tackling anti-fat bias on a much larger, systemic level.