Life After Diets

Dieter Beware!

The insidiousness of the wellness re-brand

I did my first round of Weight Watchers (now WW) the summer after I graduated high school, and by the end of that year, I had developed a full-blown eating disorder. Losing weight had been fairly simple when it was summer, and I was only working part-time and not going to school and had ample free time to dedicate to very basic meal planning and exercise routines in my living room.

It’s also so much easier when you’re only 18 and otherwise healthy, but that’s neither here nor there.

For the first few weeks of college, it was somehow even easier. Forget about the freshman fifteen, my college cafeterias were stocked with fresh, organic staples and the most amazing salad bars I’d ever seen. Hot meals were fresh and often made-to-order. All diets were accommodated, and there were nutrition cards at every display.

Coming from the fast-food and take-out dinners of a single mother household, I was thrilled with the food college had to offer, and it helped me keep track of my points.

Eventually, though, my routines became unsustainable, and so too had my diet. I couldn’t work out, go to classes, work a part-time job, hang out with friends, and study on 1,000–1,200 calories per day. I was eating all my points, but only those points. The weekly “extra” points and the activity points I earned through my workouts were exclusively for “weak” moments and weekend alcohol binges. Again, this was college.

But a diet is a diet is a diet. And diets, by their very nature, fail. Only, we don’t see it that way, do we? We see ourselves as having failed.

WW still tries to manipulate users toward certain foods and away from others, and that is simply not sustainable. Worse yet, they’ve started focusing on children with their Kurbo app, marketed to children aged 8–17.

Kurbo uses a red-, yellow-, green-light system to guide children toward “healthy” foods and away from “unhealthy” (i.e., high calorie) ones. This seems relatively simple and incredibly beneficial, given the statistics on childhood obesity in the United States and the impact it can have on children’s long-term health.

But teaching children restriction without giving them the tools they need for success or ensuring age-appropriate levels of parental involvement (I don’t know about you, but I didn’t exactly have much say in my family’s grocery list when I was 8, nor did I have the ability to meal plan and prep).

To be fair, Weight Watchers really was far more restrictive back when I was in college than it is now, and they have taken steps to focus more on overall health and long-term weight management. They’ve partnered with other wellness brands to provide discounts on exercise and meditations app subscriptions. They’ve turned their focus to in-app and online groups to replace the community they once provided in stuffy, aggressively middle-aged rooms in shopping centers.

And, in their re-branding, they’ve put an emphasis on total wellness, adequate nutrition, and other ways to make the lifestyle they offer far more sustainable than it ever was in the past.

But a diet is a diet is a diet. And diets, by their very nature, fail. Only, we don’t see it that way, do we? We see ourselves as having failed.

We fail, not because we are weak or stupid or lazy, but because most of us simply cannot live our lives with the restrictions and rigidity inherent in virtually all diets. This inevitable failure creates an impossible and unhealthy cycle of yo-yo dieting that ends up doing far more damage to our health than whatever weight and habits we had previously.

In the last three years, there has been a change in our language, if not our behaviors, around dieting and what we’ve termed “wellness.” We’ve seen everything from laxatives disguised as health teas to vaginal eggs marketed to us as wellness products.

But, the only way to truly effect change is to develop habits, over time, that fit into your current, actual lifestyle. Changing a habit is far easier and more realistic than changing your entire lifestyle. If you currently work two jobs, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to change your daily routine to fit in a long workout at a gym across town. If you spend your weekends caring for children or an elderly relative, and that’s the only time you get to spend with them, you’re probably not going to want to take hours away from that to meal prep on a Sunday.

Instead, finding ways to fit healthier habits into the life you’re already living is far more likely to lead to success. You’re more likely to keep that habit once it’s established, and you’ll get a boost from that success and feel confident in adding more healthy habits to your routine over time.

Fortunately, with the renaissance of the intuitive eating and mindful eating movements, alongside health at every size health practices, many of these companies are jumping on the bandwagon and focusing more on health-promoting behaviors. The dark side of this coin, though, is that because wellness is now trendy, everyone seems to be riding the wellness wave. This means there are a lot of great options available for people looking to make positive, healthful changes, but it also means there’s more noise than ever.

Avoid any company, plan, or person offering a “lifestyle change” (that’s almost always a red flag phrase), or that promises weight loss through overly-complicated plans, diets, or exercise routines.

Always go to the source.

I write a lot about intuitive eating and physical activity, but I’m doing so from my anecdotal experiences. I’m offering those experiences and what I’ve learned in hopes of helping others, but I’m not an expert, and I won’t pretend to be. Ideally, other people shouldn’t either, but there’s so much competing information out there that it’s nearly impossible not to fall for one or more of the traps.

My advice is always to go to the source of whatever you’re reading about. Read the studies that are cited. Read the books that are referenced. Look specifically for things that disprove the claims you’re reading, not just ones that confirm them.

Also, stay away from laxative teas.

Follow along on my quest to make diet culture another millennial casualty. Find me on Insta @life_after_diets

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