The Tricky Argument That Dieting Makes People Fatter

Dieting and SuccessAs the whole Kurbo disaster has unfolded (in case you missed it, Weight Watchers – aka WW [insert eye roll here] decided that their best move was to harm children with a diet app which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that their shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit based in large part around their decrease in adult subscribers.)

Of the many, many (OMG so many) arguments that were made against the catastrophic atrocity, one that I saw a lot was that dieting is likely to make kids fatter than they would be otherwise. This is a tricky argument and I want to get into that today.

Now, when I talk about “dieting” I mean any intentional attempt to alter food intake and/or movement in order to decrease body size. Yes it counts as a diet even if someone calls it a “lifestyle change” (sure it is  – you change to a lifestyle where you diet all the time.)

First of all, based on the research it’s absolutely true. It turns out that one of the many negative effects of giving a body less food than it needs to survive in the hopes that it will eat itself and become smaller, is that the body’s famine defenses kick in and alter it to become a weight gaining, weight-maintaining machine.

Would the victims of diet culture have been smaller without their history of dieting? Maybe. What’s important is that a smaller body is not a better body – bodies come in lots of sizes for lots of reasons, and people of all sizes are fully worthy of respect.

And that’s the issue with this argument. Though it’s true that dieting is likely to leave people fatter than they were when they started, using that as an argument against dieting is inherently fatphobic since its core premise is still that we want to avoid people becoming fat/fatter.

That said, we live in a fatphobic society and dieting and the diet culture it creates have real negative consequences to physical and mental health, and so this argument can also be considered a harm reduction strategy. It can be seen as a drop of fatphbobia in the fatphobia bucket, but if it keeps a parent from putting their child on a diet for example, it may be worth it in a cost-benefit analysis.

There are things that we can do to improve this argument by the way that we frame it.

After I explain statistics around dieting and weight gain I’ll often say something like “so even if you believe that fat people would be healthier if we were thinner – and I don’t agree – dieting is still the worst possible advice you could give us.”

The truth is that there are actual health risks to dieting which I think are important to point out, saying something like “It’s not that weight gain is, in and of itself, the problem. The problem is that dieting changes a person’s physical and mental response to food and movement and can lead to health issues including everything from weight cycling to prompting an eating disorder,”

I most often use this argument when I’m speaking to healthcare providers about whether or not dieting meets the requirements of ethical, evidence-based medicine (spoiler alert – it doesn’t.) When I make this point, I try to always counter any fatphobia inherent in the argument by saying something like – “there’s nothing wrong with people being fat, but there is something wrong with giving a supposed medical intervention that has the opposite of the intended effect the majority of the time.” Or “I don’t think the evidence suggests that a larger body is a medical problem to be solved, but as long as HCPs are trying to treat weight loss as if it’s a medical intervention, then we have to talk about whether or not it meets the basic requirements of ethical, evidence-based medicine.” 

If we are using the argument as a harm-reduction strategy, we can try to remove some of the fatphboia by saying something like “The Kurbo app creates physical and mental health risks and, even if you believe that kids would be healthier if they were thinner, there’s no evidence that this app will any kid thinner or healthier. In fact, experts from multiple fields agree that this app will do great harm.

The fact that diets don’t work is an important thing to talk about – especially since they are sold to us a healthcare intervention (of course, being thinner and being healthier are two different things  and dieting almost never results in either.) Still, there are plenty of reasons to eschew dieting besides the fact that the most common outcome is weight gain, and the fact that this argument can add to fatphobia is something we can try to mitigate when we make it.

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10 thoughts on “The Tricky Argument That Dieting Makes People Fatter

  1. *chef’s kiss* As usual, you hit the nail on the head. This response sat wrong with me (even when I used it myself) but I couldn’t articulate why. Thank you for working this out and being a voice in the community. I appreciate your work.

  2. I agree with you and appreciate your work. I just have such a hard time trying to get this info across to HCP im dealing with. Just yesterday I was going to a new therapist (mine is retiring) and I answered the screening questions honestly and said I did overeat when depressed. Not 3 minutes later she’s suggesting a support group, Overeaters Anonymous. I was so floored…a twelve step program that is shame based is not what I need! I said that and she spent way too much time defending the group. So today Im looking for a different provider.

    1. Sorry if this is a duplicate comment. I’m having trouble with WordPress eating my comments–again.
      Overeaters Anonymous suuuuuuucks. I know from experience. Fortunately, even though I was nowhere in the same zip code as size acceptance at that point, I knew a diet when I saw one even though they tried to frame it as a “recovery program.” They wanted participants to not only cut out all refined sugar and white flour but to treat it as if it were an addictive substance like alcohol and wanted us to weigh every morsel of food we put in our mouths. Helllooooo DIET! Methinks not!

  3. I will admit to wondering at times whether I would have gotten as big as I did if I hadn’t fallen into diet culture’s clutches when I was just a kid. I became bulimic at twelve, but I would see those ads for Ayds candy in my mother’s magazines. Does anyone else remember these things? They were chocolate caramels with lidocaine in them. I bought a box of them once as an adult. They didn’t work, by the way. Shocker, I know.
    I have a myriad of endocrine problems, but I still wonder if I would have kept gaining weight or had ravenous cravings for food or alternated between binge eating and restricting food if it hadn’t been for diet culture. I do know that it’s internalized fatphobia that there’s a part of my psyche which says” “you might not be this fat if you hadn’t started dieting.” Logically, I know that the number on the scale doesn’t matter. I don’t even own a scale. But I also wonder if my overall health wouldn’t be better if I’d given diet culture a miss.
    Orthorexia caused me a few problems which have come back to haunt me in my middle years. I’m trying to rebuild my strength and stamina without making weight loss part of the equation. It isn’t easy and I get no support for my efforts at all. If you aren’t trying to lose weight, you will find no cheerleaders.

    1. Reasonable wonder on the personal level. Didn’t seem to for me. I only half dieted as a kid, fully aware by eight that fat is the thing “they all hate” about me. But aside from saying I would diet and lose weight, I never really did. At least I don’t think I did. By the time my teens rolled around I was dealing with full on agoraphobia and kept to myself self for the better part of a decade. Still fat, very fat. Morbid Obesity is on my take home med info at every Dr. app. I hardly care, or believe it. People in my family are fat, and often ridiculously long lived.

      You know what I secretly, but not too intently, wonder. If having a lack of serious dieting and exercise history means I don’t have the weight loss yo-yo effect and if I really committed to it, if I’d lose a lot of weight easily. Like you see them newly famous slight zaftig female celebrities do. I could see myself a hundred pounds lighter, but not two hundred, which by todays standards, would leave me still “too fat”.

      What a pathetic way to live your life, always thinking of something so stupid (not pointless, we know what fat vrs thin means these days) so much mental energy wasted…

  4. I usually hear this argument from thin “allies” who claim to be “body positive” and was guilty of internalizing it and led me to believe that if doctors and society left my body alone, I wouldn’t be fatter today. The first of time I heard that argument was from a media critic named Jean Kilbourne when I saw her 4th installment of “Killing Us Softly” back in college. When I first heard her using that argument, I was excited and led me to believe that she may be an ally, until seconds later she mentioned the “obesity epidemic” and how “childhood obesity” is “rising”. I was a fan of MEF’s films, but I was trying to avoid films that released after the late 2000s because they are starting to become more fatphobic and it is making harder for fat people like me on the left to fully support them.

    1. I have noticed an uptick in anti fat advertising myself. Probably letting us know we hit a nerve, the nerve to say we are human beings and want to be treated like human beings. You know, heresy.

  5. (This is the real cie’s facebook account. WordPress is giving me fits.)
    I hate seeing that “morbid obesity” shit on my chart. It literally depresses me for a long time afterward. Like that’s the very worst thing that they could say about me, and I know it’s the only thing they see about me. I’d pretty much prefer if they’d put “patient is a defensive asshole.” In fact, the reason I’m defensive is I’ve been attacked about my weight for most of my life.
    I used to work in a long-term care and retirement community. There are plenty of fat old people who are in no worse health than people of other sizes. The idea that there are no fat old people is ludicrous. Still, I sometimes wonder how they avoided jail time. Surely with having to deal with rampant fatphobia from so-called medical professionals for 80 – 90 years plus, they must have considered killing one of them at some point! 😉

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