I know it’s Thanksgiving week and you’re probably hoping for tips and tricks for surviving the holiday. But I’ve done that before, and there are going to be a million other people writing posts in this same vein all week.
Today, I want to talk about another topical subject, albeit one that has flown much further under the radar:
So the New York times published another article by Gretchen Reynolds, whom I used to really trust as a news source, back in my gym-and-fitness obsessed days.
Because her articles toed the party line about calories (in and out), working out, etc. They validated everything I needed to hear at the time to keep me locked into and justifying my exercise addiction.
This doesn’t just apply to Ms. Reynolds’ articles, of course—the mainstream media is FULL of articles and reports and studies and press releases and analyses all meant to help you reduce your calories in, increase your calories out, and get to that all-important, all-mighty weight loss goal.
But the reason I’m talking about her specifically today is the SHIT article that got posted in the New York Times Magazine this weekend comparing outcomes between calorie restriction and intuitive eating.
Here’s the TL;DR:
A study was published in October that basically says that Intuitive Eating is not as good as calorie counting.
Now. Here’s the thing.
This study is BEYOND problematic, as is this article. Because it makes SO many assumptions about what intuitive eating is for—and actually makes this method of freeing yourself from diet hell seem like a bad idea.
So let’s just dig in:
First of all—and this is one of the biggies—the study makes the assumption that intuitive eating is about weight loss.
That the point of eating what you want when you want it and learning how to be mindful and not following meal plans and removing restriction, planning, and rules from your food is to continue to control, restrict, and suppress the size and shape of your body.
Last time I checked, intuitive eating was supposed to help people STOP obsessing and controlling their bodies. So to compare the effects of intuitive eating to calorie restriction is to compare apples and oranges. Or kale and cupcakes. Or something.
What happens when you try to take a non-diet mindset and compare it to a diet mindset in an effort to prove that the diet mindset is better is to measure the non-diet mindset by units that literally cannot quantify the effects.
Like measuring the volume of a liquid in miles. You’re not going to get real results.
Intuitive eating is NOT about weight loss, so you can’t measure intuitive eating in weight loss. That would be faulty at best and stupid at worst.
And I’m leaning toward the latter.
Yes, there are intuitive eating coaches in the world who will promise effortless weight loss once you start eating mindfully, but those are people who are still operating under the assumption that weight loss is a goal and not a side effect, and whose salary is still dictated by diet culture. (I have videos and articles that you can watch and read for more context on those assertions.)
Second, this study was of such a tiny sample size and over such a small period of time, that even if we were to make the assumption that weight loss was a valid unit of measurement, you would get absolutely no valid results from this study.
The study followed 16 overweight/obese people. 8 were fed diets of 1200-1800 calories (which, if you’re familiar with the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, is actually a starvation diet). 8 were taught the principles of intuitive eating.
The study followed them for nine weeks (NINE WEEKS). They had weigh ins after the third week and the sixth week, and then they stopped the diets and were given post diet counseling and weighed again at the ninth week.
And the starvation diet people lost more weight and quote-unquote “kept it off” for quote-unquote “longer.”
Nine weeks is NOT a valid measure of “weight loss success.”
95% of dieters fail at their diets.
And 2/3 of people regain the weight PLUS MORE in 5 years. And that’s according to a major study by UCLA, led by Traci Mann, who is currently one of my favorite researchers in the weight loss and dieting world. Those numbers weren’t guesstimated after 9 weeks; the UCLA study was a meta-analysis of 31 major long-term peer-reviewed studies of weight loss, weight regain, and health. People who restrict calories in the short term lose 5-10 pounds, but, according to UCLA, dieting is actually a predictor of future weight gain.
So, no, a short-term study of 8 people who were starved for 6 weeks isn’t going to give you anything conclusive or worth publishing in the New York Times.
Third—and I think this is the most important—the article makes the assumption that you have to lose weight to be healthy, and that losing weight is an important goal.
As I’ve said before, weight loss is a SIDE EFFECT of changing eating and/or exercise habits. And side effects present themselves differently in every body. You may lose weight when you start eating intuitively. You may not. You may lose some weight, you may lose a lot.
Eating a starvation diet will probably lead to weight loss, but that’s not health-protective or -promoting; in addition, eating a starvation diet can lead to all sorts of negative psychological changes, such as those seen in the Minnesota starvation experiment, where 36 perfectly physically and mentally healthy cisgender men ate just below 1600 calories for a half a year and ended up behaving mentally and emotionally like anorexics—contemplating and enacting self-harm, suffering from depression and anxiety, obsessive about food, etc.
Because the article (and the study) are operating under the faulty assumption that weight loss is a healthy goal and a healthy goal that everyone should have, it makes the assertion that “Calories matter…No one is likely to lose weight over the long term by responding intuitively to hunger with a serving of chocolate cake.”
To that, I say….DUH. Also, so what?
This article is so problematic in so many ways. And because it’s published by a respected fitness/health author in a respected publication, and because most people aren’t obsessively digging into the actual implications of the study and don’t have at least a cursory knowledge of the contradictory work done on dieting, disordered eating, and weight, most people are going to leave this article feeling better about their decision to keep their FitBits strapped on and their perfectly calorie controlled foods in tupperware over the holidays. Companies are going to continue to profit off of cleanses and diet foods. The gyms are going to be full come January 1. People will continue to lose money in an effort to shed pounds…and also lose out on experiences. Relationships. Life.
Look, I’m all for not eating chocolate cake for every meal. But if you want it, eat it. I’m all for making sure that greens are on the menu and making sure to find a good source of protein to eat alongside them. But I’m not for tallying the calories in my iceberg lettuce and worrying if the sugar in the carrots is going to derail my 21 day sugar detox. I’m all for taking care of your health, moving a little each day, and eating the best quality foods you have access to. But I’m NOT for using that food to manipulate my body size or shape in any way. Or for missing out on experiences because I’m obsessing about those foods.
I got my life back when I stopped worrying about my weight. My health too—physical and mental.
This article is the embodiment of the ways in which the mainstream media perpetuates faulty beliefs about weight and actually villainizes methods of breaking free from the diet cycle. There are going to be people—chronic dieters, disordered eaters, and people with eating disorders—who will read this article and find encouragement and proof for continuing to restrict themselves from food and life in an effort to control their weight. And that scares the hell out of me.
Ms. Reynolds, please, think before you hit publish, about what the implications of your words will truly be. I know your intentions are pure, and you want to help educate people about how to be healthy.
But this isn’t it. Don’t do more harm than good.
Intuitive eating won’t necessarily help you with weight loss, but that’s literally not the point.