In the ’90s, my mom often kept a canister of SlimFast on hand, that old twice-a-day meal replacement with the jaunty jingle: “Give us a week, we’ll take off the weight!” Occasionally, there were Dexatrim appetite suppressants in the cupboard. We had a ThighMaster purchased from TV, a series of wildly popular booklets called Thin Thighs in 30 Days and the Buns of Steel box set (a Christmas gift “for all of us”). Our house was full of get-slim-quick promise, but by 2000, I was a plump first-year student revelling in my new-found grocery store freedom. By 2001, I’d packed on an impressive sophomore 20. By 2002, I was on Atkins, which made the front of the New York Times Magazine that summer. The cover showed a square of butter melting on a glorious T-bone steak, and the article revived the good doctor’s argument for a low-carb, high-fat lifestyle. I lost 30 pounds and stayed with it until 2006—an extraordinarily long time in diet years—when my doctor recommended I eat some goddamn carbs because I hadn’t had a period in 36 months.
Did my mom pass on an eating disorder? Were we obsessive? Self-hating? I’m still not sure. Back then, when Jane Fonda’s scrawny, spandexed booty defined the body-image zeitgeist, it seemed like trying to drop a few was a normal part of womanhood, like doing your makeup in the morning.
In 2015, attitudes toward weight loss are more complex, our conversations more cloaked. Most of us would never skip meals in favour of a chalky powder-in-water substitute, but we’ll do so for a $12 organic juice that’s jacked with a day’s worth of sugar. We’ll paleo, detox, fake allergies and cold-turkey on dairy, gluten, meat and joy in the name of “wellness.” But we won’t utter the word “diet,” because we’re smarter than that. Aren’t we? Maybe not. This summer, I did the paleo-ish Whole30 because, guys, I just wanted to sleep better and reduce inflammation. It had absolutely nothing to do with dropping five pounds before my boyfriend returned from a summer on the road. (The month he moved in with his dude-level eating habits, those five pounds came right back.)
But 2016 will be different. I swear on my mother’s 1996 Oprah weight-loss journal. Because there is now way too much evidence proving that diets—i.e., schemes that call for drastically cutting food groups, calories, carbs, etc.—don’t lead to lasting weight loss. If we don’t heed the science, we risk becoming the health equivalent of climate change deniers: delusional at best, dumb at worst.
This past summer, Scientific American published an excellent piece by Charlotte Markey, a psychologist and the author of Smart People Don’t Diet (Da Capo, $20), who analyzed dozens of weight-loss studies from the past decade. Her conclusion? “Do not diet. Do not cut out groups of foods or count calories. Do not try to eat very little or deprive yourself. Such strategies backfire because of psychological effects that every dieter is all too familiar with: intense cravings for foods you have eliminated, bingeing on junk food after falling off the wagon, an intense preoccupation with food.”
Traci Mann, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied eating habits for nearly 20 years, published Secrets From the Eating Lab, a book-length summary of research showing that dieting most often leads to weight gain, because our bodies are not hard-wired to resist food as a matter of survival. And a growing body of research proves that the more virtuously you eat, the more likely you are to indulge (kale, kale, kale, doughnuts), because you subconsciously carry out what the studies call a “licensing effect,” which basically means you intuitively balance the good with the bad.
Such findings are trickling into the pop-dieting sphere, too. Recent headlines include “Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner Is Real Food” in The Atlantic and “The Weight of the Evidence: It’s Time to Stop Telling Fat People to Become Thin” in Slate. Calgary-based health scholar Timothy Caulfield shredded celebrity-endorsed food fads in Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? And this month, Kelsey Miller, the 31-year-old blogger behind The Anti-Diet Project, releases her first book, Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life (Hachette Canada, $24), all about intuitive eating—listening to her body and eating according to what it needs.
Even marketers are jumping on the anti-diet train. Multi-Grain Cheerios, once billed as a low-fat breakfast, recently launched a Canadian campaign (worldwithoutdieting.ca) to combat what the brand calls “dietainment,” unhealthy body-image messages disguised as entertainment. “Diet” is now such a dirty word that Weight Watchers, the stalwart that taught women to count points instead of calories, is failing to attract Fitbit-wearing millennials: after 10 straight quarters of declining sales, its stock hit an all-time low in July, before Oprah bought a 10 percent stake, hoping to bring the company back into favour among its core boomer demo.
All this evidence doesn’t mean people should give up and plunge face first into the fried chicken. Obesity is real: one in four Canadians suffers from it. There is hope, but the solution may require changing your mind before your body. The kind of old-school dieting my mom and I practised was flawed for several reasons, primary among them the fact that we were driven by loathing for our thick German thighs (Diane Kruger is an anomaly). In January, psych profs from the University of Waterloo found that women who surrounded themselves with positive body messages from friends and lovers not only lost more weight than those surrounded by haters but were also less concerned about their size. This acceptance is key for weight loss, because another 2015 study out of the Netherlands showed that stressing about how you look may destroy your motivation and mess with your brain’s ability to send you fullness cues.
Still, you can’t mind-trick the pounds off. You do have to eat vegetables and have some willpower. For that, Markey offers up profoundly unsexy advice: “Most people know what they need to do,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t realize they should order the salad instead of the chips. It’s making that decision over and over again that’s difficult. One way to do that is to change the environment—make sure more healthy options are available. Another is thinking of ways that aren’t overly restrictive and don’t feel terribly burdensome, like giving up soda or only eating out X number of times per week. It’s about small, incremental changes.” Tell us something we don’t already know. Maybe next year we’ll finally listen.