Your Body is OK. (I promise!)

”I gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I feel terrible about myself and my body.” I hear this phrase, or some version of it, Every. Single. Day. And it saddens and maddens me. (Read on for why. Spoiler alert: Diet culture and societal body shaming).
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29 March 2022

I’m a registered dietitian-nutritionist (diététicienne-nutritionniste for you Francophones) and my job is to take the science of nutrition and food and help people apply it to their everyday nutritional and/or health concerns. But in practice, I’m more of a nutritional therapist. What does that mean, you ask? Let me answer that question with another question. “If we all generally know what to eat, what gets in our way of doing the best for our bodies?”

As young children, as eaters we are very attuned to our own bodies. We eat when we’re hungry and we stop when we’re full. And anyone who has had a child or spent time with one knows this is true. Try to force a kid to eat something they don’t want, and you may get it thrown in your face. And heaven help the parent of a child who’s in a fit of hanger and needs food NOW. It ain’t pretty.

So why, as adults, and especially as women, do we stress so much about what to put in our mouths? Where did we lose the ability to feed ourselves intuitively and well? And where did this obsession with thinness, dieting and shrinking our bodies come from?

As a culture, why do we accept and encourage (albeit somewhat grudgingly in some cases) diversity in so many areas, such as gender, race, sexual orientation or physical ability, yet we can’t seem to accept body size diversity? And hell, while we’re on the topic, why do we seem to accept that we may all have different eye color, hair color, skin color and even height, but it’s still expected that we all have one common — and very thin — body size? I mean really, what the absolute fuck?

Now that I’ve got your brains spinning, let’s take a look at what’s happening and what you can do to ditch these soul- crushing societal norms.

Let’s start with Diet Culture. This is the social construct that tells individuals (primarily those identifying as women, but in truth, others don’t escape its wide-reaching tentacles either) they must always strive to be smaller. That their appearance is the most important part about them. That their appetite and their body are wrong and not to be trusted. That they can never, ever, rest and just be. Instead, they must always be policing and trying to control their body, their food, their appearance. Diet Culture is also a nearly $250 billion global industry: pushing diet products and programs, supplements, gym memberships and weight loss surgeries at every turn.

And yet, most women don’t even register the massive and insidious hold Diet Culture has on our bodies and our feelings of self-worth. It’s just the water we are swimming in.

Don’t believe me? Take a quick peek at social media. How many posts, photos, ads can you count in one minute that include things like “before-and-after” photos, “clean eating” challenges, “detox” elixirs, “guilt-free” foods and “what I eat in a day” shots? Give it a try. I’ll wait.

Now I also hear you saying to me, “But clearly, having a larger body or gaining weight can’t be healthy! I need to be healthy!” And certainly, protecting our health can be important to ensuring longevity and the ability to be fully present in our lives. But what if I told you that being in a smaller body isn’t a guarantee of health? And what if “health” wasn’t even a requirement or a societal judgment? (Mind blown).

In fact, studies have shown that weight is not synonymous with health. In reality, it is our habits that have the most impact on our energy levels, risk for disease and mortality. Studies have shown that when comparing two individuals at any given weight, the individual who participates in regular physical activity, doesn’t smoke, limits their alcohol intake, and eats five or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily has a lower mortality risk and lower risk of developing chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer. (Remember this: weight is not a habit!)

Let’s also not forget that dieting has real and profound effects on our body in ways that we may not anticipate nor desire. In fact, “weight cycling” (the pattern of frequent dieting, weight gain then dieting anew) disrupts the body’s natural metabolic regulation and can actually lead to long-term weight gain. This all-too-common diet cycle also puts us at increased risk for osteoporosis, high blood pressure, loss of muscle mass and chronic inflammation.

And the stress and anxiety around eating “perfectly,” counting calories and restricting dozens of foods are not health-promoting in any way. Not trusting ourselves, feeling bad about our appearance, and constantly trying to change our bodies is extremely damaging to our psychological health, which in turn can adversely affect our physical health. So yeah, that thing you’re doing to be “healthy” may actually be making you ill.

What if instead of worrying about the shape of your body or the number on the scale, you turned your focus to accepting yourself? To living your best life and taking care of your body in a loving and compassionate way? And that you demanded others treat you as such as well?! Heresy, I know.

It is true that it’s not easy to “swim upstream” in the murky shark-infested waters of Diet Culture, but if we all try together, imagine what we can do with all that collective kickass energy!

Also, please try not to worry about COVID weight gain. Your body helped you survive a year of uncertainty, fear and unprecedented stress. She is amazing. And so are you.

Written by Diana Reid, MPH, RDN