Focusing on Weight Loss is a Bad Idea

Updated: Jun 4

In terms of food and body, what do you want?


This sounds like a simple question. What do you truly desire? What would make you happy? For most people, we have a standard answer for this. Something we repeat from memory with automatic tenacity.


“I want to lose weight”.


With my clients, I’ve noticed the real answer is often more closely aligned with “I want to feel better”.

One of my favorite people in the world, who is living in a larger body, always says, “My body hates me”. They feel disconnected from their body. They try fad diets and the push and pull struggle with distrusting their body that these diets cause then brings more frustration. The outcome is this strong sense that their body is against them.


They think what they really want is weight loss, because this is the answer that arises as a result of conditional learning in our Western society.


To feel good, our disordered society tells us, we must lose weight.


It’s as if we all had to memorize this is grade school, like the pledge of allegiance. Let’s examine this ridiculousness.


What does it mean to feel good? Feeling good, for me, engenders imagery related to pleasure which is subjective. I adore a good deep tissue massage while others might find it uncomfortable. My husband loves, loves, loves raw sushi, but I can’t handle uncooked fish (I know! It’s tragic- it feels like everyone loves sushi but me!). Feeling good in our body means more than pleasure though, it also means the absence of pain as well as a congruence with the ability to gain respect and appreciation from others and ourselves.


So for the statement, “To feel good, we must lose weight” to be true, weight itself must both increase pain and decrease pleasure AND hinder our ability to be respected and appreciated.


Does weight impact our ability to experience pleasure? Uhh, no. Obviously. All bodies and minds experience pleasure if we allow ourselves to be present in pleasurable experiences. Often, it is our view of ourselves and the limitations we set that disrupts our ability to find pleasure in daily life. There is no difference in our body’s neuronal pleasure response regardless of size or shape.


And does extra weight equal extra pain? If this is true, it is only because of weight stigma.


There is evidence that if a person living in a larger body seeks care for back pain they are more likely to get suboptimal care that includes an emphasis on “weight loss” over other actual effectual treatments compared to someone living in a smaller body. Which is totally an issue with societal bias, not the actual body.


What about someone with knee pain who feels “extra weight” is causing this pain? I would point to not everyone living in a large body having knee pain. What about inflammation in the body? What about physical alignment and kinetic chain problems that could be corrected?


The answer isn’t weight loss but rather a deeper exploration into what is causal and what is possible in terms of behavioral changes that could ameliorate the pain.


I’ve had 3 knee surgeries, for example, and regardless of weight, my pain was much higher in my 20s before I started eating a more anti-inflammatory diet pattern and moving joyfully on a weekly basis.


The last part of the question is more complicated. Respect and appreciation certainly impact how we feel about ourselves and function in the outside world. Does weight hinder our ability for respect and appreciation on a large scale? Again, only if we buy-in to the bullshit that is our disordered culture’s view of weight, or if others have weight bias that leads to weight stigma. How do we overcome this very real bias that we may encounter from employers, doctors, or family members, for example?


Awareness is the first step. Here's an article about how weight stigma causes harm.


Unraveling our self worth from our weight can be a difficult process. The first step is knowing that our bodies are beautiful and worthy, and deserve pleasure and appreciation and respect JUST AS THEY FUCKING ARE.

Could we feel better? Sure. But not from focusing on weight loss. The probability of weight loss is very low. In one study, it was 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women when aiming to achieve what we categorize as a normal weight (BMI is also bullshit for individual use- but that is a whole other blog post!). Focusing on weight loss is setting most of us up for failure- our body physiology is just too smart to respond to restriction.


Did you know restriction is actually a stressor on the body? Yea, it increases cortisol which disrupts everything from our sleep to our hormones. Crazy, right?


Dieting does offer seductive short term weight loss though. But this is temporary gratification- like how we buy a pair of shoes and want another immediately as we set them in the closet and start looking at the other shoes we no longer like. We always want more, more, more. Weight cycling is usually a response to weight loss- this is the regaining of the lost weight as a result of metabolic adaptation and lowered metabolic rate.


Also, in 35% of regular dieters, the experience of dieting leads to what we call pathological dieting which means it causes significant stress for them and diminishes quality of life. Of this portion, 25% develop a diagnoseable eating disorder.


Here’s the thing. Weight loss CAN make us feel better in our bodies, but this isn’t typically a result of the weight loss itself but rather behavioral changes that were taking place associated with the weight loss that make us feel better. For example, death rates don't vary by weight in physically fit people. Being physically fit is independent of weight. Also, just four behavioral changes (5 or more fruits/vegetables a day, limiting alcohol, not smoking, and exercising over 12 times per month) minimize any weight-based differences in death rates.


It is the behavior, not the weight loss that is important in helping us feel better.


The focus on weight is also problematic because it exacerbates weight stigma and increases internalized body shame. Food rules from dieting also threaten our autonomy which creates a dysfunctional relationship with food and diminishes body trust. This can increase binge eating or emotional eating behavior.

If we shift our focus to behavioral change, a more peaceful and intuitive relationship with food while working on self-compassion and body-acceptance, then we can truly feel better in our bodies with or without weight loss.


The weight loss itself may or may not be a happy byproduct of changing your food and body relationship for the better.


So you truly want to feel better in your body forever? Stop the madness. Focus on Intuitive Eating and body trust, not the number on the scale.


What are your thoughts? I'd love to chat about it.


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