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Why Diets Make You Fatter -- And What to Do About It

The $60-billion-per-year diet industry keeps offering new programs and plans, but it doesn't work 95% of the time because the problem is more than calories.

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Rather than using control to stop herself from eating, Sasha learned to say to herself: "I'm reaching for food and I'm not hungry. I wonder what I would think about or feel if I didn't eat right now?" In the past, the moment she'd reached for food, she'd lost access to what was really bothering her, but she'd now gained a window into her feelings. She began to identify more of the conflicts in her relationship with her husband and to talk directly with him about her concerns. As a result, the couple elected to go to marital counseling to address long-standing issues.

As the relationships among dieting, overeating, and emotions become clear, therapy helps clients develop their ability to regulate affect without automatically reaching for food. Clients who integrate attuned eating into their lives will find that their relationships to food, themselves, and the world change in profound ways.

Attuned Eating vs. Weight Management

Mounting research on intuitive eating shows positive outcomes, from improved cardiovascular health, increased pleasure and enjoyment of food to fewer dieting behaviors and food anxieties, greater body satisfaction, and better coping skills. In a well-controlled study in 2002 reported in the International Journal of Obesity, Linda Bacon and her colleagues compared a traditional weight-management program with a nondietary approach. Both groups showed similar improvements in metabolic fitness, psychological factors, and eating behaviors; however, the dropout rate for the diet group was 41 percent, compared to 8 percent in the nondiet group. The diet group showed short-term weight loss and improved self-esteem, but these results weren't maintained after one year; conversely, members of the nondiet group showed improved outcomes over the same time period.

In 2005, a two-year follow-up to Bacon's study appeared in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Participants in the nondiet group had maintained their weight and sustained their initial improvements, while members of the weight-management group had regained their weight and showed little sustained improvement. The researchers concluded that the approach based on intuitive eating "enabled participants to maintain long-term behavior change; the diet approach did not. Encouraging size acceptance, reduction in diet behavior, and heightened awareness and response to body signals resulted in improvements in health risk indicators."

Weighing Our Attitudes

It's ironic that with two-thirds of us moving into the "overweight" or "obese" categories, fat-bashing remains a common occurrence, and weightism (or weight stigma) arguably remains one of the last socially acceptable prejudices. Unfortunately, psychotherapists aren't immune from this bias. In his book Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom acknowledges this prejudice. In the chapter titled "The Fat Lady," he writes, "I have always been repulsed by fat women. I find them disgusting: their absurd sideways waddle, their absence of body contour -- breast, laps, buttocks, shoulders, jaw lines, cheekbones, everything, everything I like to see in a woman, obscured in an avalanche of flesh. . . . How dare they impose that body on the rest of us?"

Yalom's honesty is admirable, but his observations raise a topic not often discussed in our profession. Most of us agree that the cultural ideals of thinness are unrealistic and harmful, but how do we really feel about people who are fat -- or "large," or "oversized"? At workshops, I ask therapists to brainstorm the qualities they associate with "thin" and "fat." Like most others in the general population, they tend to regard thin people as healthy, successful, attractive, active, and sexy, and to regard fat people as lazy, stupid, ugly, and unhealthy.

Where does this loathing of fat come from? Charisse Goodman, author of The Invisible Woman, points out that "one of the most curious contradictions of weight obsession is that if a woman succumbs to it and keeps her weight unnaturally low by even the most desperate means, she is popularly considered in our culture to be an attractive person who 'cares about herself,' even if she risks her health in the process. On the other hand, a heavy woman who shuns this mania and refuses to waste her life fixated on her figure is characterized as unattractive and lacking in self-regard." In The Obesity Myth, law professor Paul Campos considers the darker side of our disgust with fat as he explores the idea that Americans worry that we've become too big for our own good. He writes, "Nor is it a coincidence that, amid America's whirlwind of overconsumption, with its attendant anxieties about our economic, cultural, and military voraciousness, our anorexic Puritans promise that we can maintain our virtue by refusing to surrender to the most literal of our gluttonous impulses." Could it be that our own desires and fears about losing control are displaced onto the body of a fat person? What other unconscious dynamics might be at play?

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