Stuff people assume I believe vs. stuff I actually believe.

by Michelle

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

break50

This post has been sitting in drafts for several weeks, but I figured now was as good a time as any to actually publish it.

1) That the food industry is AWESOME.

In one sense, industrialized food production is an amazing thing that allows an unprecedented human population to eat and survive, and we do have regulations in place that largely prevent acute disaster, though there are plenty of reforms that could and should take place. On the other hand, I believe the food industry does try to manipulate humanity’s natural desire for food to get us to eat more than we may actually want or need.

Some of this is normal and to be expected – most good cooks at home as well as in the industry know that adding fat and salt and sugar to things makes them tasty, and of course you want people, especially when you’re cooking for company, to think your food is tasty. The big issue is that pre-prepared food used to be more of an exception than a rule, but with changing lifestyles, people rely on this food more and more as a staple, and hence may be eating richer, saltier, sweeter things in greater quantities than in the past.

However, if this is true, I think the answer is not to clamp down with food restriction, but to build our eating competence skills by being responsible and structured, and also allowing ourselves to seek pleasure, with food. The impulse to restrict seems very intuitive and makes sense on the surface, but if that worked, I wouldn’t have a job because people would be restricting themselves however they like with no problems. But there is a problem – attempted restriction usually backfires because it sets off internal survival mechanisms that drive us to seek food even more intensely, and can even lead to binge eating, making restriction directly counterproductive.

I think the food industry, or at least some decision-makers in the food industry, probably know this – and as such, the food industry is often tied to the diet industry, sometimes by directly owning or funding weight loss centers, and most often by producing “Lite” or “Diet” (or “Natural” or “Healthy”) foods. Which allows them to profit from every part of the cycle: abundant, rich, tempting, cheap food everywhere –> relying more on these foods and perhaps overeating –> guilt and the urge to restrict –> using diet services or diet foods to restrict –> feeling unsatisfied and wanting the abundant, rich, tempting, cheap food EVEN MORE –> finally breaking down and eating a ton of “bad” food, which starts the cycle up all over again, and puts twice the amount of money into the pockets of people who have their fingers both in the food industry and the diet industry.

The answer to all of this is to opt out of the cycle – to learn to eat well, not to try to eat less. The industry at large profits from people eating in black-and-white, all-or-nothing ways: eating a ton of calorie-rich food, then clamping down and restricting and using products to help them eat as little as possible. Learning to eat well results in people eating moderately – by which I mean eating tasty, nourishing foods in comfortable quantities – which isn’t very exciting and doesn’t provide a good platform to sell products and diet books from. And when people opt out of the cycle and eat moderately, you don’t get the self-renewing influx of repeat customers driving your 60 billion dollar industry. You just get a population of people who are basically okay with eating and spend their time obsessing about other things instead, and who wants that?

2) That there are no health risks associated with being fat.

Obviously, there are, or, once again, my blog and the entire “obesity epidemic” concept would not exist. However, even though research shows that there are health risks with being fat, especially extremely fat, the research also seems to indicate that 1) we don’t know for certain whether all those risks are caused by a direct physiological mechanism of adipose tissue, 2) that trying to lose weight does not work permanently for most people, 3) even if it did work permanently, we still do not know whether a formerly-fat person would enjoy the same lowered risk as a naturally-thin person, and 4) that “obese” people with good health habits have less risk, even though they are still fat.

Also, having a condition that means you have more health risks doesn’t make you a bad person or an intolerable burden on society. Lots of different categories of people have elevated health risks (like men), but we don’t stigmatize them in the same devastating ways we do fat people.

3) That people should and must eat junk food.

No. What I believe is that people must make their own choices about food, and probably shouldn’t generalize those choices to other people, because people vary. Some people don’t eat any junk food and seem to be perfectly happy with their decision, both physically and psychologically. Yay for those people. If everyone were like that, this blog would not have to exist and I would not have to do the work I do with clients.

The fact is, most of us live in a world where junk food exists and it is part of our lives. Rather than try to deny that reality, I think it is more productive to learn to navigate and manage it. Most people are going to eat ice cream, drink soda, and have french fries sometimes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

I believe that overall variety in the long-term is the most important principle of good nutrition; I believe arbitrarily denying yourself something that is important and meaningful to you and that you take great pleasure in is unhealthy; and I believe that people need to learn to make choices about food that take into account both how food tastes and how it makes them feel, and their bodies will mostly lead them in the right direction.

Some people will decide that certain foods do not belong in their diet, and they will avoid those foods in most situations, and they will have very good reasons for doing so. However, if you try to do this before you have good eating competence skills, you will be putting the cart before the horse, and very likely you will increase your anxiety around food and binge eat the exact food you’re trying to avoid. If this happens, you need to start over from square one and re-learn to eat.

4) That weight loss is always bad, and never happens anyway.

Actually, people’s weights do seem to fluctuate somewhat, both long-term and short-term, though most people do also seem to have a general range that their body likes to stick to. Sometimes people find themselves at a weight that is not their body’s usual, naturally-defended weight, because of various circumstances (environmental stuff, medical stuff, etc.) and when the circumstances go back to normal, so does their weight. And sometimes people lose weight (or gain weight) as a side-effect of eating better and moving more – that’s why we refer to the Health at Every Size approach as a weight-neutral approach. Because sometimes you will lose or gain weight, but the first priority is on how you take care of yourself regardless of those changes.

What I think is “bad,” as in unhealthy and counterproductive, is a focus on weight in the place of health and well-being. (But even though I disagree with it, choosing to do this does not make you a bad person, and I don’t think any less of you for it. It’s your body, which means it is not my business to judge.) There is research that shows this – that people who put their primary focus on weight loss usually don’t maintain it for the long term, and the healthy behaviours (like exercising or eating vegetables or whatever) they were doing to try and promote the weight loss fall by the wayside when they stop losing, or start regaining, weight. That is not good.

Since weight loss is supposedly about “getting healthy,” why not cut out the middle-man? Focus on doing stuff directly for your health, and let your weight sort itself out.

That’s it for now. I’m sure there is a list of these misconceptions as long as my arm, but I’ll have to address more of them later. I just want people to keep in mind that there is a tendency to think in dichotomous, black-and-white, all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us terms when it comes to food, eating, weight, and health.

When I haven’t specifically written about a topic, and so people don’t actually know what I think about it, there is a tendency to want to fill in the gaps with what they assume based on my other positions, or based on what other people in the fat acceptance or HAES community have written or said. I do this too. It’s only human. But it’s not always accurate, either.

I’m not very chatty today, but feel free to talk amongst yourselves.