Have you ever noticed how near enough every lifestyle magazine, news article or advertisement involving a diet or weight loss plan is often portrayed with someone looking happy or at least very content next to it?
There are also those (often annoying!) before and after pictures, with the before image being of a person who looks notably unhappier that the after version? And then there are the masses of publications that speak about the joys of losing weight, and how it helped someone to finally be themselves again and lead a much more fulfilling life
Although losing weight might benefit of minority of individuals (mainly those involved in the organisations that thrive off selling weight loss gimmicks), what we are regularly told about losing weight is part of the mythical assumption that doing this will instantaneously result in happiness.
In actuality, there is very little evidence to suggest that losing weight, or intentionally going on a diet, leads to any health benefits or happiness.
Even when weight is not the main issue that is stopping someone from being healthy or leading a fulfilling life, the clear association between losing weight and happiness portrayed by the media makes it hard to ignore such a method one of the best ways to wellbeing.
Add this to the frequent victimisation and stigmatisation of individuals who are deemed to be ‘overweight’ or ‘too fat, and we have a recipe that involves many individuals unnecessarily striving to lose weight - perhaps even at the expense rather than the gain of any health benefits.
What might be even more concerning is that intentionally aiming to lose weight, or even succeeding at this goal, may increase the risk of poorer rather than better health .
For example, most research suggests that not only do around 99% of dieters regain the weight they originally lost (and sometimes even more due to changes in metabolism and the way individuals view food), many go on to experience poorer self esteem, as well as diminished happiness and overall life satisfaction.
More recent research also found that out of 2000 individuals who were instructed to lose weight to improve their health:
- 14 % lost 5% or more of their body weight
- 15% gained more weight
- 71% stayed the same weight
- Ratings of overall happiness and wellbeing decreased
- Dieters compared to non-dieters were twice as likely to be depressed
There is also quite a large body of evidence that shows that being overweight, according to the standards of BMI, does not have a direct relationship with health, happiness or longevity.
However, there is a much more notable and significant relationship between being underweight and the risk of premature mortality, especially among middle aged to older individuals.
The simple message from such findings translates into the fact that dieting and weight loss can not be viewed as the main route to wellbeing and happiness, and that despite how such goals might lead to some (minimal) physical health, there are many psychological factors to consider.
Take for example some of the psychological and social changes that are likely to happen when someone embarks on a diet:
- Increased time spent thinking and worrying about food
- Placing more restrictions on what foods are deemed as ‘good’ or ‘bad'
- Avoiding social occasions or times that involve celebrating with ‘off limits’ food
- Increasing risk of social isolation the more individuals opt out of social occasions that involve eating with others
- Rigidly counting calories
_ Experiencing mood swings and negative mood states
- Negatively judging self-worth based on how much weight they have gained or lost as well as their appearance
- Developing unnecessary rituals around food that increase the likelihood of developing a disordered relationship with food and body
- Time spent on methods of losing weight limits time spent on activities where happiness and wellbeing are more likely to evolve from, such as spending time with family and engaging in enjoyable or relaxing hobbies
- Not eating enough nutrients to fuel metabolic activities of the whole body
- Increased likelihood of becoming a ‘restrained’ eater and developing a tendency to binge on foods by viewing eating occasions as an ‘all or nothing’ activity.
- Losing weight and not getting enough nutrients can have a detrimental impact on brain function, as well as increasing the likelihood of mental illness such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression
- Becoming more hostile towards others due to changes in our mood and social habits, which means that dieting behaviour could technically impact the welfare of others too.
- Engaging in behaviour that encourages other people to believe that dieting is the key route to wellbeing, and even encouraging them to gradually develop their own negative relationship with food and body.
As you might be able to tell already, there is definitely no linear process between dieting, weight loss and happiness. A key concern of mine is that the many ways we promote dieting or altering our food intake in modern times is actually encouraging individuals to move away from health rather than towards it.
We have to remember that our bodies were not designed and did not evolve to lose weight in order to gain a survival advantage.
The opposite is true, when the body experiences a phase where starvation is interpreted as being an issue (e.g. when embarking on a diet or restricting food intake), there are so many subconscious processes going on that encourage the body to alter its metabolism or behaviour in a way that promotes weight gain - even long after a phase of restriction has ended just to be on the safe side …
By turning the concept of dieting and weight loss = happiness on its head, I would like to help you be more aware of this fact, and that there are many other more compassionate routes to wellbeing.
Instead of aiming to lose weight, I would like you to know that your body is worth loving right now, and that your health and happiness can be pursued in so many more exciting and enjoyable ways that really benefit you in the long term...
All you need to do is follow your very own Nourishing Routes