OPINION | Health at every size: Fitness, not weight, is the key to longevity

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Senior people training in gym. Fitness, dumbbell, sport flat vector illustration. Retirement and health lifestyle concept for banner, website design or landing web page


  • The way of thinking the diet-culture has taught us are wrong. 
  • We don't need measure what we eat and stick to an 'external' eating plan. 
  • A more effective approach is where people of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to pursue health, while letting their weight be.

I went to my Pilates class one Monday morning, and while we were exercising, the ladies started to chat.

One said: “I ate so much this weekend. All the stuff I usually don’t touch. If you look closely, I’m sure you’ll see a layer of carbohydrates lurking beneath my skin.”

Another followed with: “We exercise so that we can eat.”

And yet another remarked: “You have to choose between drinking and eating. You can drink a glass of wine or have a slice of bread.”

All while I’m thinking: "What? Have you not heard? Has nobody told you?"

You've been tricked

You don’t have to “pay” to eat! You don’t have to keep track of everything you eat to balance some slippery equation. You don’t have to be vigilant and controlled around food. You don’t have to beat back your desires and rein yourself in constantly; that is not how it works.

My dear Pilates ladies, you’ve been tricked. Food is not dangerous, it’s wonderful. Your body is clever. Eating is a gift. You have been robbed.

I don’t say any of these things, because I know that it sounds like gobbledygook to someone who is trapped in the diet mind-set. These ladies are simply speaking the language and thinking the thoughts that the diet-culture has taught them.

Diet culture says that everybody should be thin, and that they will attain their goal if they eat in a controlled fashion and meet a prescribed exercise quota.

To be a successful dieter, you must learn to distrust or ignore internal signals of hunger, appetite and satiety and depend instead on external references such as foods you are allowed or not allowed, and measured or weighed portions. But an unintended side-effect of dieting, is that the dieter also becomes sensitised to other external cues to eating and loses their trustworthy internal guide.

Overeating of a different kind

So how does this play out in practice?

Dieters get a list of foods they may eat, in quantities specified to create a calorie deficit and, subsequently, the desired weight loss. As food intake is decreased, food cravings increase, especially cravings for high fat and high sugar foods, which inevitably leads to overeating.

The dieter is trapped in all-or-nothing thinking: "Chocolate cake is not allowed, but l really really want it. A small bite can do no harm. What the heck. I’ve fallen off the wagon, so I might as well keep eating." And boy, can a dieter that has broken the rules eat. This is overeating of a different kind. The internal stopping place that we are all born with, is lost to the dieter. And as their eating fluctuates wildly between periods of restriction and disinhibition, so does their weight.

Dieting is what we call an iatrogenic cure. That is one where the prescribed treatment actually causes or, at least, contributes to the problem it is trying to solve. It makes things worse, not better. Once people are in the habit of dieting, they no longer know what normal eating is.

Dietitians, mental health- and other medical professionals from all over the world have been pointing out the flaws of the diet culture dominating our health community for the last few decades.

Relying on internal cues

Non-Diet South Africa has added their voice. Committed to weight-neutral, non-diet approaches to healthy living, they create awareness of the harm that comes from the diet culture and the pursuit of intentional weight loss regimes. They advocate for a different way, one where men and women of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to pursue health, while letting their weight be.

People of all sizes should be taught to rely on their internal cues of hunger, appetite and satiety to determine the amount of food they need. If they have dieted in the past, they will have to learn how to tune in to these signals again. They should be encouraged to trust themselves.

They should focus on learning to like new foods, and enjoy a variety – variety being the backbone of a nutritionally adequate diet. It is important to remind people that it is normal and healthy to take pleasure in eating. This pleasure is necessary to keep up the daily work of providing meals for themselves and their families, thinking of food as a friend to celebrate, enjoy, taste and savour.

Beauty comes in all sizes

Individuals of all shapes and sizes should be encouraged to enjoy living actively, to celebrate activity as a natural part of life. We need to point out the real benefits of regular exercise: improved health, increased energy, strength, endurance, bone mass, better sleep and stress relief. We should stress again and again that fitness, not weight, is the key to longevity.

Lastly, we need to teach respect – respect for self and others. People should be motivated to make peace with their genetic blueprint, and to accept their appearance, shape and size. Stop trying to change something that is out of your control. Think critically about media messages that portray unrealistic standards or ones that suggest that happiness comes with a certain look. It is important to celebrate diversity in ourselves and in others. Beauty, health and strength come in all sizes.

If we achieve our goals, my Pilates ladies may still speak of what they ate on the weekend, but it will be with excitement and joy with no side-order of guilt: “I tried a new dish at a party on Saturday, and it was amazing,” one might say. And another might reply: “Tell us all about it; we love good food.”

*Maya Naumann is a registered dietitian and ADSA member

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