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HAES and Weight Loss

February 18, 2014

Weight LossFat HealthFat ScienceExerciseEating DisordersMy Boring-Ass LifeDickweedDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss as a result of following Health at Every Size.

Dang, this post was hard to write. I had a really hard time putting my thoughts together on this topic.

Let me start with a confession: I have been held back from fully embracing a Health at Every Size® (HAES) lifestyle (despite my absolute belief that it is a sane and effective way to live) by my inability to completely stop putting my desire to be smaller above my desire to be healthier.

Let me break that down for you. Despite my personal commitment to and belief in the ideas behind HAES, the part of my brain that’s had an eating disorder since childhood, that’s had “lose weight” as a forefront thought for decades, has never been completely shut down. This is why I still sometimes exercise to the point of injury while making an attempt at eating far below my body’s base metabolic needs. This is why I still suffer from body dysmorphia. This is why I haven’t been able to learn to eat intuitively.

It’s better now than it was before HAES. At least I know intellectually that my body size is not the end all, be all indicator of my health. I can honestly say that despite the disordered thinking that still sometimes rears up, I fully understand that I can improve my health whether or not my weight ever changes.

Since I’ve been writing every day about my Eat the Food experiment, I’ve gotten some negative attention from people who are against Fat Acceptance, HAES, Body Acceptance — these are very angry people. I’m usually either under their radar or blissfully unaware that they are making fun of me on Reddit or Tumblr or wherever, so the blow back has been a little shocking to me. It’s made me really think, though. I believe that the rift between the HAES folks and the diet-and-exercise-always-works-just-stop-being-a-lazy-glutton folks stems from the basic human desire to be understood without feeling put on the defensive.

They don’t want to be told they can’t lose weight, even if they have had many failed attempts or yo-yo experiences or whatever. Those who have had successful, long-term weight loss (and I think they are disproportionately represented in this group) don’t want to be told their experiences don’t count.

We don’t want our lived experiences negated, either. We don’t want to be told we’re lying about what we eat or how we live.

HAES is simply this: a lifestyle that advocates intuitive eating and moderate exercise as a means to gain health without focusing on weight loss.

The truth is that if you eat intuitively and you exercise moderately, especially if in the past you were doing neither, you might lose weight. Dr. Linda Bacon talks about HAES leading to bodies finding their natural weights or set points in her book Health at Every Size. The disconnect comes when instead of weight loss or set points or natural weight being part of the big picture, it is the whole mural, so that things like cholesterol, body strength, cardiovascular fitness, joint health, bone density, blood pressure, and blood sugar, aren’t even visible around the edges.

There is a difference between not trying to lose weight and trying not to lose weight.

One means that your focus is elsewhere. Maybe you aren’t even in a place where you can put a priority on health at all — in the middle of a divorce or grieving the death of a loved one, for instance. Maybe you are working to improve your health, but you aren’t measuring your progress with a bathroom scale.

The other means that you are actively attempting to either stay the same weight or gain weight. I can imagine some reasons for trying not to lose weight. Maybe you’re happy with the way you look and feel. Maybe you’re concerned with yo-yo dieting and you think that, for you, staying the weight you are is your best route. Maybe you are underweight or at a weight you’re comfortable staying at. Maybe you think being fat is beautiful and you want to be beautiful. Whatever the reasons, they aren’t my business because I’m not in the business of being the body police.

What I do know, however, is that most people I come across who are fat and follow a HAES lifestyle fall into the first category. The act of practicing HAES usually means that they are interested in increasing their health. They are not trying to lose weight, because they are using other means to measure their success. Or maybe they are in recovery from an eating disorder and focusing on weight loss is detrimental to them. Or maybe after many, many failed attempts at getting smaller, they can’t face thinking about that anymore, so they focus on something else. Maybe they’re focused on lowering their high cholesterol or controlling their blood sugar or maybe, like me, increasing their energy levels.

If doing the things that cause weight loss is going to lead to someone losing weight, it isn’t actually necessary for them to have that weight loss in the forefront of their thoughts at all times. Let me give you an example.

I’m not trying to make my feet smaller. I have big feet. Very big. I’ve worn a 12 wide since my last baby was born nine years ago. (Random fact about me: I gained a shoe size with every one of my three pregnancies.) I’m resigned to the fact that I have limited access to cute shoes. When I started my Eat the Food experiment, one of the first things that happened was that the edema I’ve dealt with for the same nine years disappeared. Result? None of my shoes fit. They are all too big. I’ve lost almost an entire shoe size.

Does the fact that I’m not trying to have smaller feet negate the fact that I do? Does my foot size reduction only count if I go on a foot-reduction diet and exercise program?


And HAES is like that, too.

You might lose weight. And that’s okay. You aren’t going to have to turn in your Body Acceptance club card if you do. It just means that your body is changing because you’re adopting different habits.

I started my experiment thinking I wouldn’t talk about weight at all. I’m pleased to find that this really isn’t about weight for me. I honestly thought that might just be lip service, fake-it-til-you-make-it talk. The further I go along, though, the more I hear from people who are struggling to reconcile a changing body with their commitment to HAES. I also hear from people who struggle with guilt because they are caught between wanting to lose weight and wanting to take the HAES path.

I think it’s important to say that it’s okay to hope that following HAeS will help your body find it’s natural weight. It’s okay to feel good about the changes in your body as you follow the practices of HAES, like eating intuitively and exercising moderately. A big part of HAES, though, is decriminalizing the body you live in now. That’s good news, because it means you get to love your body and celebrate it starting right now. Believing that you have a good body puts you in a much, much better position to take care of it.

Believing in HAES and living a HAES lifestyle usually comes with an attitude shift away from “I’m so gross and if I don’t lose weight I’m going to die” to “my body is a good body and it deserves to be taken care of.” That shift doesn’t always come easy. It’s HARD to undo years and years of negative self-talk, believing that the size of your body is an indicator of your worth as a human being, and failing over and over to fix yourself in the long term.

It runs counter to HAES to believe that the only possible way for you to be healthier is to lose weight at any cost, using any method. I actually believe that much of the time that mindset has more to do with wanting to look a certain way or wear a certain size clothing than with actually wanting to be healthier. It does NOT contradict HAES to actually lose weight as a result of adopting intuitive eating, moderate exercise, and self-love.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2014 2:00 pm

    This is very well-written. Especially the part about angry anti-HAES commenters. The thing is that successful dieters are already told over and over again by mass media that they are doing something normal even as they’re also praised for being special– above “the great unwashed.” It parallels almost perfectly the kind of lectures poor and lower-class folk get from the affluent:

    “Anyone can lose weight.”
    “Anyone can ‘make it’ in America.”

    The rage and unnecessary cruelty directed at the two groups of “great unwashed”: the fat and/or poor (or struggling) is also remarkably similar. Also, in both scenarios, the more vocally satisfied you are with what you have, the more vicious and incensed the “winning team” (thin, rich) becomes.

    What gets lost in the ensuing arguments over Thin/Rich Forever being universally possible or not is the whole question of why anyone should need to be rich or thin to be happy, respected, etc.

  2. February 18, 2014 5:35 pm

    Excellent blog post. Many important issues are covered. Attitudes conditioned during childhood are hard to break because they remain at the unconscious level in adults. Since calorie restriction is biologically destined to fail, fat acceptance and HAES are the only viable alternatives. As you point out, inner struggles are all too common in those who choose HAES. I believe that HAES is worth it despite the uncertainties and struggles. And despite the all too common arrogance among “successful” dieters, many say privately that weight loss is not really worth the effort.


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