Like most plus-size women, I am a diet expert. Early on, I was taught that I was too big, too tall, too loud, and I took up too much space. My whole life, strangers have commented “Wow, you're a big girl!” upon meeting me. I never quite knew if they were referring to my height or size, but either way, I knew “big” was not a compliment. Added to that was a lot of shame inducing remarks on the natural volume of my voice or twang of my accent. Multiply that by countless tear-filled shopping attempts, and I found myself making the same conclusion as millions of young girls: the only way I was going to become an acceptable woman was by shrinking my body, my voice, and my needs.
So I spent the ages of 12 to 32 on the roller coaster of fad dieting, shame eating, and new fad diet. When one restrictive diet inevitably left me binge eating and destroying the evidence, I’d switch to the next. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Slim-Fast, Sugar Busters Diet, South Beach Diet, Atkins Diet; for some time in seventh grade I ate only yogurt and grapes; as well as a doctor-prescribed diet that included fen-phen and fasting—and ultimately weight loss surgery.
This is diet culture: a paradigm that pervades every fiber of our society, tirelessly enforcing the idea that our size is the best measure of our worth, health, and morality. In diet culture, happiness is the exclusive property of thin people, so everyone else had better cut calories and hit the gym. Diet culture tells you that your life will truly begin only after you lose weight.
Despite the relentless preaching of diet culture, research shows that diets don’t actually work. In fact, studies show that they ultimately cause weight gain. Moreover, they’re physically and psychologically destructive. Frequent intentional weight loss can result in long-term effects on immune function. Dieting results in lowered self-esteem, contributes to depression, and in women correlates with decreased self-advocacy during sex.
Why? Because diets strip away your bodily autonomy. When you’re dieting, you’re actively repressing your body’s internal cues and overriding them with external rules and regulations. The central message of dieting is: “Don’t do what you want. Do what we tell you to.”
I sometimes think about how hungry I was most of my twenties.
Like the summer I spent in rural Pennsylvania working as an intern at a county newspaper. While there, I found out my college boyfriend was cheating on me. I was convinced it was all my fault—namely my “freshman twenty” weight gain. I promptly put myself on the SlimFast diet to solve all my problems. I was bound and determined to become the type of woman I thought he needed me to be.
Stressed out and starving, I quickly resorted back to a junior-high coping mechanism and added grapes to the diet in an effort to curb my appetite. I would pass by the little country grocery store every day on my way to work and buy a four-pack of SlimFast and a bag of grapes, with the goal that two SlimFast shakes and one bunch of grapes would get me through the day. I would then “reward” myself with a grilled chicken breast for dinner.
I rarely made it through the day on that plan. Most days, I would have the entire bag of grapes devoured by lunchtime and down on all four shakes by the end of the day. I have vivid memories of fantasy meal planning as I drove through various fast-food restaurants between assignments, ordering nothing but a Diet Coke.
Inevitably. the hunger would get the best of me and I would pick up a pizza on the way home. I would binge eat the entire thing alone in my apartment and leave the uncooked chicken breast to rot in my tiny refrigerator.
According to Dr. Linda Bacon (who has the best name for a nutritionist), my SlimFast diet debacle is not only common, it is exactly why diets fail. Diets make your body’s own signals, as well as your body itself, the enemy.
“Any system that emphasizes external processes to determine what to eat is fragile and ineffective and promotes discontent and periodic rebellion and bingeing,” she explains. “Attempts to control your food intake through willpower and control require that you drown out the internal signals, leaving you much more vulnerable to external signals.” In other words, if we stop following our bodies’ own cues and try to follow a set diet, we’re more likely to overcompensate by bingeing later.
It’s easy to see how this process of ignoring our own needs could also affect our mental health and leave us feeling depressed, detached from our sexuality, and disappointed in our bodies’ failure to stick to these outside standards.
I found out years later that my editor from that summer had given me a poor job recommendation. Today, I can clearly see it was the hunger that made me a less-than-desirable intern. I was too consumed by my obsession to lose weight to be present on an assignment, and I wasn’t giving my body and brain the fuel they needed. Overwhelmed with shame that two SlimFast shakes didn’t satisfy my hunger and give me the same happy life the women in the commercials seemed to possess, I confronted a daily monster of negative self-talk inside my head.
So if diets don’t work and have a net negative effect, why do most of us believe they work?
To understand why diet culture persists despite its harmful effects, we must look at who is benefiting.
The primary benefactor of diet culture is the weight loss industry. The U.S. weight-loss industry was worth $72 billion in 2019, and the global weight loss industry is projected to exceed $253.1 billion in 2024. Diet culture is key to their profit margin. The weight loss industry knows that if you are told ad nauseam that you are bad and undeserving because of your size, you will be easily coerced into buying weight loss products.
The weight loss industry told me my fatness was why my boyfriend cheated, not him. We did get back together after that summer apart, but the damage was irreparable. How could I expect someone to love me when I had no idea how to love myself?
I remember telling him I was joining Jenny Craig, one day after we got back together. Bless his little twenty-something heart, he said, “All my girlfriends get fat when they date me. It doesn't bother me,” and gave me a kiss on my forehead.
I wish I could tell you that was the end of the story. I wish I could tell you I didn’t join Jenny Craig that day. But the truth is, I believed diet culture more than I believed my boyfriend. He inevitably cheated again and we eventually broke up for good. I repeated that cycle in countless romantic relationships, and countless other diets, before I found my worth.
In fact, diets are designed to fail. The industry wouldn’t be making billions of dollars if one diet did the trick and we were all the “ideal” size for the rest of our lives.
When I was dieting, I was full of self-hatred every single day. Life felt like I was on the pirate ship ride at the county fair. One day, I would be restricting food intake and thinking only of how to trick the hunger pains into thinking I was full. The next, I would have a case of the “fuck-its” and be eating every carb in sight. And then back to restriction. It didn’t matter which end of the pirate ship I was on; both were filled with shame, guilt, and feeling less than.
This is because diets set you up to fail and then self-flagellate. Decades of the diet roller coaster led to unmanageable, paralyzing levels of anxiety and depression. Eventually, the unmanageability of it all got the best of me and I reached out for help.
I connected with body-positive medical professionals who approached my struggle from a mental health standpoint. The goal was to improve my mental health by changing my relationship to exercise and food—not to change my body.
Exercise is a key part of diet culture, particularly the “lifestyle change” incarnation of dieting that has become super popular recently. But this time around, the focus was on moving my body in order to connect with myself as part of a holistic approach to improving my mental health.
Endorphins, dopamine, and mental health, not weight loss, became the goals of movement. I never stepped on a scale. Instead, I used movement (namely walking and hiking) as a spiritual, meditative practice to boost my mood.
It was at this time that I also discovered intuitive eating. To use Dr. Linda Bacon’s definition, intuitive eating is when you choose foods “based on an internal felt sense of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction.” To eat intuitively, you must be able to listen to and trust your body.
This can be difficult, explains author and activist Jes Baker, because “when you become obsessed with thinness, the communication channels between your brain and body get obstructed with all kinds of static.”
Dr. Bacon emphasizes that intuitive eaters “choose” foods. For me, healthful eating means being able to make choices about what I eat, rather than eating in a reactionary way. Restrictive eating, shame eating, and comfort eating are all examples of a reactionary relationship with food.
For me, a key part of reestablishing those channels of communication was the practice of replacing judgment with curiosity and awareness. I stopped labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and started paying attention to how they made me feel. I would notice I felt energized when I cooked dinner, for example, and lethargic after eating takeout. I eventually noticed that sugar affects my sleep and fast food affects my stamina on a road trip. I still eat both of those things sometimes; I simply found that coming from an intentional, attuned place in relationship to food gave me freedom.
The power of choice is liberating. I love me some fried chicken, for example. Especially when it’s not a reaction to shame, or something I eat to make myself feel better. And there’s no restriction or value judgment around it, either. It’s not like, “If I eat fried chicken, then I’m a bad person who must be punished by going to the gym.” There is simply no moral judgment on fried chicken. It’s a tasty treat perfect for a Sunday afternoon when I can take a little nap after.
Equally, I can choose to eat a quinoa bowl for lunch. If I choose this lunch option, it does not make me a good person. I mostly choose it because gives me energy to be more productive at work. Productivity is a high value for me. Plus, I really enjoy playing around with flavors. Turns out you can put almost anything on top of quinoa, creating endless options that keep me from getting bored.
The secret to any of my food choices is to pause while eating them. I won’t enjoy the delicious flavor options if I’m mindlessly shoveling food into my mouth in front of a computer screen. I won’t even taste a french fry if I’m piling them into my mouth between stoplights as I run errands in my car. When I pause and pay attention to how the food tastes and how my body feels, I will feel more satisfied. This awareness helps me to neither over- or undereat.
Choice equals agency, and agency equals freedom. Choice can occur only when you’re in tune with your body’s wants and needs. When you diet, the weight loss industry is making choices for you, and your body’s intuitive knowledge doesn’t get a seat at the table.
Diets don’t work, and that’s okay. Healthier and happier choices are out there.