This post discusses dieting, dieting culture, eating disorders, and food habits which may be triggering to some readers.
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The Shrew is honored to share this post investigating dieting and dieting culture. Does it do more harm than good? Read more and find out!
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The Healing Goat is a blog focused on healthier and happier lifestyles! Recognizing that everyone has different needs, Miriam and her sister Hannah, write to share their personal experiences and journeys to healthier lifestyles, and encourage readers to get involved!
Does Dieting Do More Harm Than Good?
Understanding Dieting Culture
By age ten, 80% of girls have been on a diet. When I was in elementary school I remember hearing adults make “fat jokes,” attacking strangers who they believed were overweight.
When I was in middle school I remember watching friends sneak off after meals to throw up in the bathroom and once we started high school, all of my friends started tracking their calorie intake on a phone app.
When I was in college I remember friends skipping meals so they would have “calories to drink later.” Now, I see loved ones skip out on social events to go to the gym and feel guilty for eating too many carbs. I’ve even heard people say that they don’t mind being sick because at least they will lose a couple of pounds.
Dieting culture is all around us.
Diets are the norm.
Thoughts and Metabolism
The hypothalamus in the brain sends signals to all parts of the body, controlling our autonomous nervous system, which is responsible for saliva production, heart rate, blood flow, glucose release, hormone release, stomach and pancreas functions, breathing, and digestion. It gathers information through our senses, emotions, and thoughts, transforming them into physiological responses. This powerful part of our body connects the nervous system (responsible for receiving and interpreting stimuli) to the endocrine system (responsible for metabolic activity), ultimately connecting our mind to our body.
When we see, smell, taste, or think about food, the cerebral cortex is stimulated and begins sending a message to the hypothalamus. From here, either the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) or the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is stimulated. The feelings that we associate with eating or with a specific food directly influences how our bodies respond and our ability to digest and metabolize properly.
In a stress-free, healthy situation, the parasympathetic nervous system responds to pleasure and prepares for digestion based on these triggers. Blood flow is directed to our digestive system, saliva increases, stomach activity is stimulated, glucose release is inhibited, and activity in the intestines begin before food has even touched our tongue. This is the cephalic phase, the first part of digestion, and it starts with the brain. Without these physical responses we would not be able to digest food, breakdown nutrients, digest fat, pass food through our bodies, regulate blood sugar, or control appetite.
On the other hand, if our mind feels negative emotions such as stress, guilt, or anger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This activation takes blood flow away from digestive organs and pumps them into our muscles and lungs so we can prepare ourselves to either fight off danger or run from it. Blood pressure increases, stress hormones such as cortisol increase, insulin increases, and glucose is released to provide our bodies with extra energy that may be necessary in a dangerous situation. Our digestive abilities are inhibited, metabolism is slowed, and cortisol and insulin cause our bodies to store calories as fat. Any negative thoughts while eating cause the same response, whether about your body, health, or the food itself. It does not make a difference whether these thoughts are accompanied by a piece of cake or plate of vegetables, the effects on the body are the same.
Pleasure and Digestion
As important as it is for our bodies to use the parasympathetic nervous system by avoiding negative feelings of guilt and stress while eating, the power of positive emotions is just as strong.
The effects of pleasure on nutrient absorption was studied by giving people meals from their culture that they had positive feelings towards versus foods from a culture different from theirs, without those positive connotations. A group of Thai women and a group of Swedish woman ate food that was traditional to their own culture. When the Thai group ate Thai food and the Swedish group ate Swedish food, they absorbed almost all of the iron found in the meal. When their meals were switched, with the Thai group eating Swedish food and the Swedish group eating Thai food, only half of the nutrients were absorbed. This found that the pleasure coming from the comfort of familiar food increased ones ability to absorb nutrients, but what about taste itself?
The same study then took half of the Thai group and fed them a regularly prepared plate of Thai food while giving the other half the same meal that had been turned to mush in a blender. They found that the group given the regular preparation of the food absorbed all of the nutrients versus the group given the blended version of the meal who did not have full absorption. The same was true when tested with the Swedish group and a traditional Swedish meal. Taste and pleasure should not be feared, they should be celebrated! If you do not enjoy “diet” foods, then you are not going to be able to use the nutrients in those foods as well as if you ate foods that bring your pleasure.
Endorphins, a “feel good” chemical, also connects with our bodies ability to digest and metabolize. Endorphins are released in the brain and digestive system every time we eat. These endorphins not only make us feel good, but they also burn body fat. They increase the amount of blood and oxygen going to the digestive system making your body improve digestion, absorption, and calorie burning abilities.
On the other hand, cortisol, a stress hormone, also plays a role in decreasing our ability to feel pleasure while eating. By avoiding foods that bring you pleasure and restricting yourself, your body increases in neuropeptide Y, the most abundant peptide in the central nervous system. When this neurotransmitter is increased, so is appetite, the likelihood to eat past fullness, and a craving for carbohydrates. Because of this, diets that deprive you of food you enjoy actually lower your mood, lower your blood sugars, and end up increasing your body’s demand for pleasure. This may come in the form of cravings, bingeing, or weight gain after a seemingly successful diet.
What Should I Weigh: BMI and Set Point Theory
Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement was originally made to gather statistics across large populations of people, not to measure an individual’s health. It ignores waist size, bone, muscle, and fat proportions, and it suggests that all people of the same height have the same body type and supposedly healthy weight.
In 1998, the 4 individuals given the authority to alter the BMI criteria for “overweight,” were involved directly with pharmaceutical diet pills or weight loss programs. They declared that everyone with a BMI of 25 or higher was overweight, taking 15-20 pounds off of the original measurements.
To disprove the accuracy of BMI as a measurement of health, a study compared BMI ranges with cardiometabolic health factors including blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, inflammation, and insulin levels. They found that about 50% of people with an “overweight” BMI, 30% with an “obese” BMI, and 15% with a “extremely obese” BMI appeared to be healthy based on these other factors. 54 million individuals with BMIs above the “healthy” range actually appear to be clinically healthy based on indicators besides weight. On the other hand, only 70% of people with “normal” BMIs were found to be metabolically healthy when looking at these alternative factors. BMI and weight are not an accurate representation of one’s health.
The set point theory states that each individual has a weight range that their body is healthiest in. It is each of our bodies “normal.” This set point weight fluctuates within a range of 10-15 lbs. Lifestyle choices cause weight to move within that range, whereas strict dieting and overeating unnaturally take our bodies outside of it. The set point is maintained by the hypothalamus, which adjusts our hunger, energy, and metabolism levels accordingly, whether it is trying to get our body to gain or lose weight. As factors such as what you eat, how much you eat, and how much you move your body change, your body will adjust accordingly. The hypothalamus will send signals to your body to try to get you back to equilibrium, or it’s normal. If you lose a lot of weight quickly, your body reacts by increasing hunger signals and slowing down metabolism.
Set point weights rarely ever have the ability to decrease, but they do have the ability to adjust to an increased weight. Even if a diet works your set point does not decrease, leaving your body in a constant battle of trying to reach its normal while being deprived.
The only way to know what your set point weight is, is by listening to your body and eating intuitively! It is different for everyone, but by following hunger cues, fullness cues, and noticing when you feel good rather than focusing on what others say looks good/healthy, your body has the opportunity to reach its natural size.
How To Practice Intuitive Eating
- Breathe– Start by taking just 5 deep breaths before you begin a meal
- Enjoy– Try eating your meals without distraction or sharing meals with a friend, decide which allows you to most enjoy your food.
- Slow down– Really taste your food and savor every bite! Try to set just 5 or 10 more minutes of time aside to eat your meal.
- Listen to your body– Don’t deprive yourself of sweets, don’t feel guilty for following your hunger cues.
- Gratitude– Take a moment before you eat to think about the energy that went into making and growing your food.
- Stop counting calories– Rely on your bodies fullness cues to know when you’ve had enough
- Be kind to yourself– Try to be non-judgmental towards yourself and remember you are worthy and enough just as you are. Your size does not define you.
Factors Contributing To Health That AREN'T A Number
- Social connections
- Eating real, unprocessed food
- Your body’s ability to move
- Stress levels
- Energy levels
- Feelings of contentment, joy, and happiness