Let’s stop the nonsense and finally admit that the notion of dieting for permanent weight loss is a hoax. Statistics show that ninety-five percent of dieters do not succeed with their goal to lose weight over the long term. And don’t get us started about how demoralizing it is for people to fail at a diet over and over again, not to speak of the emotional toll from wincing every time you look at yourself in the mirror.
Alexis Conason would like you to consider a different relationship with eating, one that begins with the fact that there’s nothing wrong with you or your body if you carry extra pounds. As she says in the interview below, she dreams of a day when we “reach a critical mass of people who opt-out of diet culture, so we can raise the next generation to be free from the body-shame we’ve inherited.”
Alexis’s new book, The Diet-Free Revolution, earned a stellar review from Kristen Rabe in the July/August issue of Foreword, so we decided to get the two of them together for a deep-dive conversation.
Thanks to North Atlantic Books for helping with the details.
This book does a remarkable job of deconstructing the diet mentality that pervades so much of our world. Reading it made me more aware of how much of my own self-image is tied to what the scale tells me in the morning. How often I fight through hunger pangs or low blood sugar because it isn’t mealtime. How much energy I waste berating myself for overeating or making a food choice I regret later. Your book is very freeing. What motivated you to write it?
First, thank you. I’m thrilled to hear that The Diet-Free Revolution is helping you free yourself from diet culture; that is a big part of what motivated me to write this book. The experience of feeling bad about our bodies and berating ourselves because of what we eat is incredibly common. Research suggests that over nintey percent of women feel dissatisfied with their body and want to lose weight. It’s not just an individual issue, it’s a cultural and political one. I wrote this book to help people recognize diet culture, question their participation in the system, and guide them on another path. Imagine what would happen if we took all that time, money, and energy spent trying to shrink our bodies and instead devoted it to the things that are most important in our lives?
Diet culture is so pervasive and normalized that many of us don’t question it. I grew up in a family with a lot of chronic dieting and, until I learned about the Health At Every Size ® movement as an adult, it never occurred to me that there was any other way to be. It was incredibly freeing to recognize that there was nothing wrong with me because I couldn’t stay on a diet forever; in fact, my body was doing exactly what it was built to do.
At that time, I was working as an “obesity researcher.” I couldn’t believe the disconnect between what the data suggested about eating and health—namely, that diets don’t work, significant weight loss is not sustainable for most people, and weight is not a reliable indicator of health—and the messages in the media—namely, that they should diet to lose weight to improve their health. People were told to do the same things over and over, and then they blamed themselves when those things failed. The book was born out of my need to share what the research says and let people know that there is another path. As a clinician, I also wanted to provide a plan for people as they move away from dieting into a mindful and trusting relationship with their body. My objective is to guide them through the process, like guiding my patients, because listening to your body can initially feel intimidating.
As a parent, I believe that healing our relationship with food is a gift to ourselves and our children. My fantasy is that we will eventually reach a critical mass of people who opt-out of diet culture, so we can raise the next generation to be free from the body-shame we’ve inherited. I started working on this book eight years ago, before I was a mother, and my daughters motivated me to cross the finish line.
Your insights are timely as people emerge from the pandemic lockdown, many with a few extra pounds. What’s your advice for people considering a new diet or exercise regime to shed the extra weight?
I encourage people to look at the complete diet cycle when deciding whether to go on a diet. That is, do diets work for you in the long-term? We tend to credit our short-term weight loss to a successful diet and then blame ourselves when we go off-track and regain the weight. But, as I explain in my book, dieting inherently involves both parts of the cycle, the part where you are on the wagon and the part where you fall off. Diets don’t work for eighty to ninety-five percent of people, and I have a hard time believing that all those people are unmotivated, weak-willed, or undisciplined. When the product fails for up to ninety-five percent of its users, clearly the product is faulty.
I have a ton of compassion for people who want to lose weight and see dieting as the solution. This is natural in a culture that villainizes fatness and idealizes thinness. Especially as we emerge from the pandemic, body image issues are intense. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that over sixty percent of adults in the US experienced unwanted changes in body size during the pandemic. The weight loss industry is capitalizing on our insecurities and ramping up marketing for diet plans. As the public figures out that diets don’t work, diet companies are rebranding themselves as wellness companies, lifestyle changes, or even anti-diets, while selling the same old product. It’s all really confusing! Remember, your body just survived a global pandemic, and that is incredible. I wish we could take some time to celebrate that instead of shifting right back into cycle of judgement and shame.
Abandoning a “diet plan” feels like a leap of faith. Trusting your natural instincts rather than following “the rules” of a diet can be life changing, no question. But what if your instincts tell you to sit on the couch all day eating cookies?
People often worry about this when moving away from a diet and starting to eat mindfully. We’ve spent so much of our lives restricting certain foods and then feeling out of control when do eat them that we can’t imagine eating in a balanced way that’s attuned to our body’s signals. In my clinical experience, these fears never materialize. Sometimes, when people have been restricting certain foods, the pendulum does swing in the other direction temporarily. They may eat a lot of certain foods while learning to trust that no food is off-limits. At this point, some want to flee back into dieting and declare that mindful eating doesn’t work. But it’s just a phase; if they stick with the process and permit themselves to eat what they want, they start to hear their body guiding them (instead of eating in response to the diet rules).
Things almost always balance out. Our body usually doesn’t crave cookies all day every day, and we probably wouldn’t feel so great if we ate cookies all the time. It really is a leap of faith to let go of dieting and trust our body. I hope my book provides some structure on how to do that, because standing on the precipice contemplating the leap can be overwhelming.
Diet plans absorb a remarkable amount of time and energy. As you point out in your book, letting go of that fixation leaves a gap, an opportunity for something else that brings joy and meaning. Aside from your work—which is obviously very meaningful—where do you find that joy?
Joy often comes from being present in the small moments. There is so much busyness in life that it’s easy to get caught up in the to-dos and miss what is happening right in front of us. I find joy being in nature and listening to the birds chirp or the wind blow through the trees. Enjoying a delicious dinner with my family. Watching my daughters embrace each other. Smelling their hair while we snuggle. Dancing. One of my greatest challenges is to let go of being productive all the time and just enjoy being.
Intertwined throughout this book are case studies based on composites of clients you’ve helped. These stories are so relatable. Several are about people obsessed with “healthy” foods—constantly checking labels for foods that are low-sugar, low-fat, gluten-free, lactose-free, or whatever the latest fad diets call for, while ignoring the foods they enjoy. Clearly, that’s not helpful. But is there a balance? When does a focus on what’s healthy turn into something negative?
Mindful eating is about making moment-to-moment decisions about the best ways to care for yourself. Mindful choices tend to be flexible and come with ease while diet behaviors tend to be rigid, fraught, and feel like you are “white knuckling” it or at the edge of losing control.
Allowing yourself to eat all foods doesn’t mean that you must eat all foods. Here is where mindfulness comes in. When we move away from the external rules of dieting, we get to make our own decisions about how to eat and honor our own unique needs. We may find that certain foods don’t agree with us and choose not to eat them. For example, if I get a terrible stomachache every time I eat onions, I probably won’t dive into the onion dip if it’s served at a party. However, if I’m really craving onions, I may make a different choice, weighing the benefits of eating the dip with the cost of having a stomachache.
You point out that people with a high BMI tend to receive poorer medical care, in part because doctors often blame medical problems on excess weight rather than searching for the root cause. Are any efforts underway to change that?
The medical community is becoming more aware of weight stigma, but unfortunately many of those awareness campaigns are funded by the weight loss industry. The focus is on decreasing stigma so fat people feel more comfortable going to their doctor to ask for weight loss medications or bariatric weight loss surgery. The irony! We have a long way to go toward making the medical system a safe place for fat people to receive competent, unbiased medical care. I’d love to see physicians trained in weight-inclusive approaches to health starting in medical school and residency. We also need top-down changes in the medical organizations that set the guidelines and standards of care. They must be disentangled from the financial interests of the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries, so their guidelines are in the best interest of improving the health of patients not profiting businesses.
Some writers suggest that connecting with the sources of food (through gardening, foraging, fishing/hunting, buying directly from producers, etc.) can change your relationship with food, making you more cognizant of what you’re eating and how it tastes. Do you agree? If so, since many of your clients live in the city, how can they reconnect with food sources in a positive way?
This is an elitist perspective. Who has that access to food sources? It takes time and money to hunt, fish, garden, forage, or even to go to a farmers market. I personally love going to farmers markets, but the food is almost always more expensive and more limited than what I’d find in a grocery store, so it’s an additional shopping trip. It’s just not realistic for most people. The nutrition in the carrot you grew yourself is going to be very similar to the carrot you buy in a grocery store or the bag of frozen carrots in the corner store of a neighborhood that doesn’t have a local grocery store. Many of our notions of health are inaccessible to large groups of people and, ultimately, that isn’t healthy. The biggest predictor for life expectancy in the US is income. All along the spectrum, the more money you have, the longer you will live. If we really care about improving health, focusing on these social issues will have a much bigger impact than foraging for mushrooms.
You encourage readers to explore new foods: they may be delighted by the unexpected. Have you discovered new foods that surprised you, that you absolutely love? Do you enjoy cooking?
Recently, I’ve had fun exploring new fruits. The variety is incredible, and I’m amazed at how many types I never tried. Some of these fruits were hard to find in my region, but in other cases it was about my routines and habits. We become so accustomed to eating the same things over and over that it doesn’t occur to us to broaden our choices. So far, I’ve tried dragon fruit, rambutan, cactus pear, persimmon, passion fruit, different types of mangos and papayas, the sweetest tiny little yellow plums, different varieties of grapes, and so much more.
The fruit that surprised me the most was dragon fruit. With its vibrant appearance, I expected it to have a strong flavor, but it’s actually quite mild. I didn’t like it at first. But after I tasted it a few more times and tried different varieties (pink, white, and yellow), I started to like it more and more. Now I appreciate the subtle citrus flavors and the texture of the fruit with the seeds. I love how our taste changes, how something we initially don’t like can go on to become a favorite food.
I have a love-hate relationship with cooking. At times, it has brought me a lot of joy. But, right now, when it comes time to cook, I’m so tired that I want to prepare something easy and be done with it. When I’m grocery shopping, my current dilemma is reminding myself that even though I like the idea of cooking elaborate foods, there’s a future me who actually has to prepare the meal!