Once the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve and the champagne flutes are cleared, there’s almost an immediate shift in mentality. After the decadence (and stress) of the holidays, millions of people resolve to create better versions of themselves, most often in a way that involves losing weight.
As they do, there’s a multibillion-dollar wellness industry lying in wait, with a new diet or exercise plan that promises to, once and for all, help them make their bodies smaller. January has become synonymous with an onslaught of weight-loss advertising and content, both from companies and media outlets, turning the month into a minefield for people who have struggled with disordered eating or a desire to lose weight.
But as anyone (everyone?) who has broken a New Year’s resolution or two knows, almost none of these resolutions last longer than a couple of months. For years, we’ve all blamed ourselves for lacking the willpower or being too lazy to actually go through with our best-laid plans.
But as Christy Harrison, a registered dietician, podcast host, and the author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, argues, it’s time to realize that we aren’t the problem. The diets are.
Eater spoke with Harrison about the implications of the “new year, new me” obsession, the insidious ways that the diet industry is seeking to turn decades-old diet plans into “new and improved” programs that allegedly promote “wellness,” and what we can all do to shake off the pervasive grip of diet culture.
Eater: It might seem obvious, but is January the worst month of the year for diet culture bullshit?
Christy Harrison: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s the worst of the worst, the pinnacle. It’s the worst month.
How would you describe the emotional toll of this “new year, new you” bombardment, especially on people who’ve struggled with disordered eating?
Constantly living in diet culture and having a disordered way of eating and thinking about food be celebrated — losing weight is something your doctor tells you to do, people in your life will praise you for it — makes it so much harder to recover from that behavior.
In treating people with disordered eating, that’s how I became so acutely aware of the harms of diet culture. When you see them make a lot of progress in their recovery and that progress is just undone by a doctor making some comment or seeing an ad online that follows them around everywhere. It’s just a minefield out there, especially this time of year.
Who do you think is most impacted by diet culture rhetoric right now?
Diet culture increasingly affects people across the board, but I think it has a disproportionate impact on women, on trans people, on people of color. Basically, anyone who doesn’t fit what Audre Lorde calls the “mythic norm” of the white, Christian, heterosexual male. For the people outside of that ideal, there’s a lot more pressure on them when it comes to body size and shape. Increasingly, though ... people who haven’t been part of the traditional market for diets — straight, white, thin males — are now being targeted as well.
What are some of the more insidious ways that diet culture is manifesting itself in new and creative forms, especially in the midst of our national obsession with “wellness”?
Diets don’t want to call themselves diets anymore. They want to call themselves “lifestyles,” or “wellness plans,” or “resets.” For example, Noom [an online diet platform] has the number-one ad spot and search results on Google for the term “anti-diet.” They’re really shameless.
I don’t even like the word “wellness” anymore because it’s become synonymous with an industry and a culture that is truly predatory. It’s often the same principles, the same tenets that sort of underpin all diet culture, right? It all goes back to this idea that weight loss — or wellness — is a way of achieving a higher kind of moral status or social status.
Why is it that even longtime diet companies, like Weight Watchers, are rebranding their messaging to focus on “wellness” and not “dieting”?
Some of it has to do with people are getting wise to the idea that diets don’t work. In the early-to-mid 1990s, there was a lot of scientific research around that idea. You would see doctors at prominent medical schools who’ve dealt with weight loss for years saying that the scale is not helpful, that these diets did not result in long-term results for people.
The diet industry and the pharmaceutical industry pushed back in a big way on this idea, sort of in an effort to reclaim their power. That’s when you start to see phrases like the “obesity epidemic” surface. Before that, the focus of weight loss companies was all on aesthetics and body size. But around the mid-1990s, there was this shift in the rhetoric. The weight loss industry took on a much more serious tone, telling people that extra weight could be a real threat to your health. So weight loss never really went away as a goal, it just became sort of, like, pushed underground.
I think most people would agree that the actual process of dieting — the counting calories and eliminating carbs — sucks. So why do we keep doing it?
There is so much cultural stigma on being in a higher-weight body or having gained weight. People feel like they should always be losing weight to be healthy or morally correct. There’s an enormous amount of pressure on people to constantly search for the diet that’s actually going to work this time, the one that will be different. People are conditioned to want to lose weight.
Even though we know, from lots of research, that diets tend to make people weight-cycle and actually end up heavier over time, and that up to 98 percent of weight loss efforts will fail within five years, it’s still really hard to quit.
Why is it that so many diets fail?
It’s important that we start to shift the blame. People don’t fail at diets, diets fail. Even though a lot of popular new diets promise that they’re not like all the other diets, that they use psychology or target your microbiome or whatever, it’s all just repackaged versions of the same stuff that we’ve been seeing for 150 years or more. Keto, and before that the Atkins diet, is just a recycling of the Banting diet, which was created in the 1860s. There’s kind of nothing new under the sun.
How in the world do you convince people who are stuck in the cycle of dieting that they’re not the problem?
People have to be ready to hear that. Twenty years ago, I had a dieting phase that spiraled pretty quickly into disordered eating. I enrolled in a study back in 2003 that was being done at my college on women with eating disorders, and I remember hearing things like “if you’re eating too little, you’re going to binge” or “diets don’t work” — ideas that I now embrace and convey to my clients — and just thinking “fuck that bullshit.” I really thought I was capable of dieting in a healthy way.
But I think at a certain point, people go through that enough. They realize that they’re banging their head against the wall, or go through phases of losing weight and then it all comes back. Even if you’re doing everything “perfectly” according to the diet, your body will eventually protect you. Our bodies are really good at defending against famine, and when you put on weight, your body is programmed to take care of you in that way.
If you have been stuck in the diet loop, how do you break that cycle?
The first step is just becoming aware. You don’t have to jump in and say “I’m going to quit dieting forever.” That can feel really scary, especially for people who are used to operating within the structure of a diet. You have to build the desire to change, and you’ll start to see the ways that diets have failed you.
Since so many people still insist on pursuing self-improvement in the new year, how do you build better habits around food and movement without falling back into the diet trap?
It’s really tricky. You have to start healing from diet culture, and get back in touch with your body’s natural cues and instincts around food and movement. Having the desire to eat in a way that feels good to you, that’s going to nourish and sustain you, and move your body in a way that feels joyful, is totally compatible with an “anti-diet” approach.
When you’re working on making peace with your food and not depriving yourself, you’re less susceptible to binging or eating in a way that feels out of control. Once you’ve worked through the principles of intuitive eating, you can really approach nutrition and movement in a way that’s very different from diet culture. When you can get to a place of truly feeling like you’re allowed to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and to move or not move your body in whatever way feels good, you start to trust yourself more. You trust that it’s true, that you can come to nutrition or physical activity in a way that feels totally divorced from diet culture. It becomes all about self-care.
When you’re doing it for self-care reasons, for joy, for having a sense of abundance and pleasure in your relationship with food, things really start to click into place. When you don’t feel like you’re punishing yourself or controlling yourself into believing these things, because that’s just another diet.