With the festive overindulgence box checked, it’s time to roll out the annual “new year, new you” story – a narrative that typically involves how to shed those pesky Christmas kilos.
First you will be schooled in the outrageous tendency to eat more of your favourite foods over the holiday season, then you will be made to feel guilty if you have “piled on the pounds” and finally, you will be provided with “easy tips” to deliver you from Christmas pudding temptation and into weight loss salvation. You’ll be served groundbreaking suggestions like weighing yourself, blue football eating smaller portions and having a food diary. There might even be the suggestion to swap the Christmas sweets for some miracle weight loss product like green coffee bean extract (a miracle because it doesn’t actually work).
Forget the weight loss goal and aim for a health goal instead.Credit:Getty
Before you know it, you’ll be a smiling, leaping, hair-flicking image of weight-loss joy. And that is because weight loss makes us happy, right? At least, that’s what the advertisements keep telling me.
Although these stories are inherently boring and, I suspect, play into an old paradigm that just makes us feel bad about ourselves, after almost two years of life dictated by strict rules, as if we need more rules and excess “personal responsibility” heaped on our shoulders.
I get it. A third of Australians are obese and there is some good evidence that weighing yourself daily may help prevent holiday weight gain and can be a key strategy for maintaining weight loss.
But here is what irks me about these stories. Firstly, they fail to consider that such advice can be hugely problematic for some people.
A key part of recovery from an eating disorder was not weighing myself. I was already disconnected enough from my body’s cues. Weigh-ins only exacerbated the externalisation of my eating behaviour: the lighter the number, the better. The higher the number, the greater the failure and the more I needed to restrict.
Eating disorder participants in one study from 2020, expressed similar psychology. They had significantly more anxiety and weight preoccupation when the number on the scale was tracked via daily weigh-ins.
“For many, relinquishing control over their weight facilitated body trust and was a necessary step towards recovery,” the papers authors wrote. “Participants found that not knowing their exact weight helped challenge their over concern with weight.”
Even many, many years later, I found being weighed while pregnant confronting as I didn’t want weight to be my focus, and frankly it brought up bad memories. I eventually asked not to be weighed, as there were many other ways to track my health and that of my growing baby.
Secondly, eating disorders aside, weight loss doesn’t always make us healthier. Fitness matters more than fatness in determining mortality risk, and we can improve our health outcomes regardless of weight loss. And weight loss certainly doesn’t always make us happier.
A study following almost 2000 overweight or obese participants over four years found those who lost at least 5 per cent of their body weight were significantly worse off psychologically than those whose weight remained the same.
Of course, this may be partly due to how miserable their method of weight loss was and, as the history of fad diets show, diets know no end to misery nor common sense. Lord Byron, the poet who equated love with measles and who said that sorrow is knowledge, credited his “thin, pale look” to a diet of vinegar and water. Let’s not even get started on the chewing gum diet or the tapeworm diet.
Inadequate nutrition can activate the release of stress hormones like cortisol and impact both mood and cognitive function.
There is also the possibility that if people lose weight and are not magically happy and resolved of all their problems, or they don’t find that the benefits of being slimmer outweigh the costs involved in maintenance, then they may fall back into old behaviours. This happens with about two-thirds of dieters and can lead to a sense of failure if weight is our metric for success.
Herein lies the third problem which can help to explain the second: the focus is all wrong.
A 2020 study of participants who were overweight found those with better body image and subjective wellbeing were more likely to report being happy, regardless of their age, gender, or weight.
A separate meta-analysis exploring the relationship between weight loss and mood found that weight loss alone had no impact on symptoms of depression. It was only when it occurred as a byproduct of improving health generally, via exercise, better nutrition and psychological support, for instance, that it benefited overall mood.
When the focus is not on weight loss, but on improving our health and wellbeing generally, on caring for our bodies and our brains, our weight will take care of itself. And that may or may not involve weight loss. Whatever. We’ll be happier and healthier, and after the serious global health threat of COVID-19 that has taken its toll on both markers of wellbeing, that seems like a much better goal to take into the new year.
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