Every time I see someone post in a group that they want or need to lose weight, especially postpartum, and even in the name of “health”, “strength” “feeling better", or on "doctors orders" I feel a twinge of empathy, followed quickly by guilt and shame that I’m bigger now than I used to be, a longing to be smaller again, a flash through all the diets I could try, and a hint of envy/sorrow for my tiny teenage self who restricted, followed by sadness that we don’t marvel at and maybe even love, but at least feel kinda neutral about the bodies we’re in, followed by fury at the system which leads us to feel this way and sadness or something for myself that 30 years later I still struggle at times with the same type of thoughts that led me to be a 103 pound teenager who restricted, measured, and weighed like it was her job and was told things like "No no! You're not fat - You're beautiful!" - As though the two are mutually exclusive - and which FED my anxieties about my body and promoted fatphobia.
Every time I see those posts or memes, I want to take the poster by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and say “You deserve something so much better than a(nother) diet. You are being used and lied to. This dissatisfaction you have with the skin you’re in, is manufactured by a 60+ billion dollar industry and a system who wants to keep you pre-occupied. I know it feels real. Like losing weight will solve all problems. I know because I live it too. But it’s all a lie. Losing weight is not the door to health, to freedom, to your dream life. In fact attempting to lose and keep off weight can quickly become a nightmare. I want more for you. You deserve love and joy and freedom and vitality and contentment just as you are. You can be part of destroying these harmful systems for yourself and for those who are marginalized.”
I want to pour out the reasons why weight loss attempts are not only unsustainable (only a VERY small minority of people successfully maintain weight loss over time, despite intense and prolonged efforts), but can actually do more harm than good (would you like a side of disordered eating and increased set point weight with that shake?); why you won’t necessarily feel better or be healthier with fewer pounds on your frame (inflammation hurts people of every size for example and doctors who prescribe weight loss as a treatment are engaged in lazy, fatphobic & harmful medicine); why fewer pounds does not directly correlate with better health (and the science actually backs this up. see also: lazy fatphobic medicine); why we need to learn to make peace with our bodies (because this skin sack you’re in is the only one you’ve got and it is fucking MAGIC!). And not just for our own sake, but as a way of disrupting the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist ableist systems which have driven us to hate our bodies in the first place. If we’re all busy hating ourselves and trying to lose weight/get fit etc, we have no energy left for disrupting the powers who are causing systemic harm and instead we unknowingly continue to perpetuate the racism and other harmful systems which fatphobia is built on.
So today, I’m trying to gather a few of my thoughts both about weight in general and specific to postpartum, and why the real weight we need to shed is not fat from our bodies, but the weight of harmful beliefs from our hearts and minds. While this is kinda long, its really just brushing the surface, so there are a number of recommended books at the end. If you’re not into reading, at the very least find the authors on social media and follow them for snippets of insight. Curating your social media feed in this way can have a profound effect on your mindset.
Here we go!
Lets begin with something that seems obvious but it's implications aren't always. You are a living breathing dynamic person. Your body is not a machine and so mechanistic formulas like "fewer &/or different calories + more movement = weight loss” do not apply, no matter how many experts and books tell you they do. Low carb/no carb/no sugar, low fat, high protein, juicing, shakes, macros, portion control boxes, keto, paleo, points, cleanses, calorie deficits, clean eating .... All fads which are meant to make money for a multi-billion dollar diet industry. Really. Truly. Every one of these may lead to some weight loss for a time for some people, but no one formula works for everyone and no diet formula works throughout your entire lifetime. No matter how fancy a label you put on those diet formulas they are all built on half truths at best and they ALL fail to address the full scope of your humanity. You are not static. Human beings change, we grow, we adapt, every damn day. At a very basic physical level even, most of our cells regenerate over time. It is 100% normal to look different now than you did a year ago, even if you somehow achieved the impossible and did “everything right” while simultaneously not visibly aging, because you are literally not in the same body or the same situation you were in a year ago. Your body in its brilliance, adapts constantly to the environment and circumstances you are in. --Because we’re not machines--. We are by our very nature, resilient and fluid and adaptable and responsive and ever changing…. Which means perfection, a fixed static state, is simply unobtainable. There is no perfect body for you other than the body you are already in RIGHT now in all its complex and ever-changing glory. And diet formulas, all of which neglect some piece of your story - how you breathe, your sleep, your hormones, your genetics, your food history, your intergenerational history, how many fat cells you have, your support network, your economic circumstances, your culture and environment, where you live, how busy you are, pre-existing health conditions, your workload, and your beliefs (both conscious and unconscious) will ultimately fail to make you permanently smaller. Because your body is too smart to fall for a plan that brings you harm. Your body is hardwired to protect you. And that includes not just blinking when something comes at your eyes, or throwing your hands out when you fall, but also holding on to weight when you try to lose it and regaining it after its gone. Our brains and our bodies are SMART. If you feel deprived in **any** way - consciously or unconsciously- then your body will function as those it is deprived no matter how "good" you're eating or what the current number on the scale is, and will flip the switch to starvation prevention mode. The thought that you "can't eat..." signals deprivation to your brain and triggers your body to hold onto calories. That means you actually need to make food choices you *feel* good about at --every level-- of your being. That means you can’t just swap wheat noodles for zucchini noodles and expect your body to go “ooh fewer calories and carbs! Yeah me! Let’s burn fat instead!” when your subconscious believes that you’re depriving yourself of what you really want - a dish of good ol pasta. Your food choices need to bring you true joy and nourishment of body mind and soul or else that 'preservation against deprivation’ switch will get flipped. You also need to be consuming enough calories for your body to have the energy it takes to break down the fat inside your cells. Not enough calories being consumed/? Your body is gonna hold onto the few its getting not waste them burning its stores!
Your body responds today to potential deprivation as it is programmed after millennia to respond - and that includes reaching for calorie-rich foods when they’re available (which in our culture, is ALL the time), and holding onto weight during periods of high stress, in case a food shortage follows. Gained some weight through COVID or during a personal crisis? Amazing! Your body did exactly what millennia of experience held in your DNA taught it to do to keep you alive!
It should be noted too that while people are bigger today than we were say in the 1980s, it is NOT because we are eating more now, or have gotten lazy! People today are about 10% heavier than in the 1980’s even when our food/calories and exercise are the same!! The 3 leading theories behind this are the uptick in chemicals in our environment and diet, the sharp increase in people who are on antidepressants which can lead to weight gain as a side effect that is NOT mitigated by calorie cutting or burning and does not always reverse after discontinuing the medication, and changes in our gut microbiome. There are a hundred and one reasons why you might be bigger than you want to be, that have NOTHING to do with your worth as a person, your discipline, your restraint, your diet, or your exercise.
Because I'm a doula/birthkeeper, I want to talk specifically to that demographic as we are bombarded with messages about losing baby weight and getting our bodies 'back.
Everything you've read so far is even more important to understand if you have experienced a pregnancy. You grew a human and that's damn hard on a body. Your organs, your hormones, your skin, your blood, your muscles, your brain…. Every single part of your body adapted itself to accommodate the creation of a new human and while things will settle into a new normal after a while (a year at least, but if you don’t get the support you need, you may find yourself still depleted even a decade later!), your body will NEVER go back to its full pre-pregnancy state. You can't get that body which had never been pregnant 'back' anymore than you can make a bone that was broken go back to a state where it has never been broken. You might have different sized feet, or breasts. You might hold weight in places you didn’t hold weight before. Your pelvic floor will be different. If you’re struggling particularly with your abdomen, be sure to see a physiotherapist or other professional who can offer a proper assessment and treatment plan or referral for diastasis recti. If your abdominal muscles have separated all the weight loss in the world won't fix that and exercise can make it worse.
If you are breastfeeding, dieting and intense exercise can cause your supply to drop because you simply don’t have the fuel your body needs to feed another human so your body prioritizes your own needs over breastmilk production. There is no magic number of calories we can universally cut or burn that will allow breastfeeding to continue undisturbed for you- we’re too complex for that and everyone has a different limit.
Breastmilk is also a detoxification pathway for the body, which means that what you're excreting baby is eating. Most of what you excrete from weight loss leaves through the lungs which are a primary detoxification pathway for the body - when we “burn fat” it isn’t released as direct energy in the body, but released through our respiratory system. The skin, kidneys, and colon are also detoxification pathways, and the breasts are part of that system too.
While of course, there are circumstances where breastfeeding is not possible or is not chosen, breastfeeding remains the biological norm for feeding infants. Infants who are breastfed for 6 months or more are less likely to experience being “over”weight or "obese" as older children, and the number of fat cells a person has by adolescence largely determines how many fat cells you have for a lifetime. This does NOT mean formula fed babies will all be be “fat” or that being fat is bad!! It simply points out what the biological norms are, and how moving away from those norms alters how we grow.
How many fat cells we each have is largely determined by our weight in childhood and adolescence. If we gain a large amount of weight later on, our body may produce more fat cells which also want to remain filled. When we lose weight, those cells don’t just die off - they sit empty, wanting to be filled up again.
Our fat cells are SO much more than just holders of potential energy. Our fat cells store and create all sorts of shit - good and bad. Hormonal shit. Immune system shit. Vitamin shit. Toxic shit. Food Memory shit. Emotional shit. All in our fat cells. And when you break down the fat inside cells through weight loss, all that shit is released too and has to be dealt with. The things which were happening in your life when those fat cells plumped up will all be 'released’ when the fat cells start to empty. Weight loss is not just losing pounds or inches. Weight loss is also healing whatever sh*tstorms existed for us when that fat cell was filling up. I believe that if your subconscious knows you're not ready or able to process those memories and feelings, it's gonna work to keep them safely stored in your adipose tissue (aka hold onto the weight).
As for emotional eating?? Um - - yeah. We ALL emotionally eat. There’s no way NOT to because again -- we’re not machines--. We HAVE feelings and they are deeply connected to how we fuel our bodies. Food IS love. And food is fuel. But food is not a moral barometer.
Food has been used to convey love and welcome and community, (as well as punishment - like old bread & dank water for prisoners) since the beginning of time and that's not gonna stop just because a program or expert tells you to stop being an emotional eater. We all eat emotionally because our emotions are part of who we are and that doesn't stop at the dinner table.
Food is also fuel. Some bodies work better on one kind than another of course, and yes fresh, local, whole, nutrient dense food is generally optimal, but not everyone can afford or access “optimal” fuel. Food desserts are a REAL problem. Poverty and food insecurity affect millions of people across all ages. No matter what the "wellness" experts say about eating apples being cheaper than treating cancer (which is super privileged, gaslight-y and NOT cool), the fact remains that we can’t all access abundant clean water and fresh whole nutrient dense food, and some people have to take whatever calories they can get because our systems are harmful and don't meet their needs.
If you’re able, figuring out what fuels YOU best in body mind and soul is a good thing, when you can manage it. I don’t eat gluten because my body does NOT like gluten. I tried a bit after an 18 month break and got a week of achey joints, headaches, and a rash all over my arms which is still here almost 2 weeks later. So I don’t eat gluten. I have the privilege of choosing to be on a “gluten-free diet” But I don’t feel 'restricted' on any level so the ‘deprivation’ switch isn’t getting flipped. I’m also mindful of my fat intake because I don’t have a gallbladder. Too much fat at once wreaks havoc on my digestive system and makes me feel gross. My brain does not process the choice to be mindful of fat as a deprivatory “low-fat diet” but as a choice that makes me feel better, as a way to avoid harm.
Before I wrap up, I want to touch briefly on exercise. Let me cut straight to the point:
Humans are not made to exercise for the sake of exercising.
We are made to MOVE as we live. If you hate exercising, or even do it somewhat begrudgingly because you’re supposed to for some reason, I believe your body is gonna perceive that movement (which causes you stressful negative feelings) as a threat to its wellbeing. And when our body feels threatened - - - it hordes calories among many other things. If you want to “exercise” I implore you to choose movement that brings you so much joy you would continue to engage in the activity *solely* for the pleasure it brings you and not for how fit it might make you or how many calories you hope it will burn. By all means incorporate more movement into your daily life if and as you are able (see Katy Bowman's work for more on the concept of Nutritious Movement) but when it comes to exercise specifically, just do what makes you happy. And if it doesn't make you happy to "work out" right now, rest instead. On purpose.
When it comes to exercise, and frankly food too, ask yourself:
“Would I keep doing this if I knew I’d never lose a pound from it?”
If the answer is no - that's a Huge red flag to re-examine your choices and consider instead foods and movements that nourish you deeply in body and soul and bring you joy. Nothing else is gonna work long-term anyway so why NOT choose joy now??
I know this has been a long read, and truthfully, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are many things I alluded to in the intro that I didn't touch on at all. If anything I’ve said here today has resonated with you though, or perhaps has triggered you a bit and made you feel defensive, please, make a cup of herbal tea, sit outside, and lean into what you’re feeling. Then when you’re ready, give yourself permission to follow the authors of the recommended books, and to ask some question as you explore the resources below.
May you find joy and love and rest, in and for, your body. ❤
Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight
By Lindo Bacon & Lucy Aphromor
Radical Belonging: How To Survive & Thrive in an Unjust World (while transforming it for the better)
By Lindo Bacon
Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health With Natural Movement
By Katy Bowman
The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should be Easy
by Caroline Dooner
The Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-being & Happiness Through Intuitive Eating
By Christy Harrison
Body Kindness: Transform Your Health From The Inside Out (and never say diet again)
By Rebecca Scritchfield
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia
By Sabrina Strings
Every Body Yoga: Let go of fear, get on the mat, love your body
By Jessamyn Stanley
The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
by Sonya Renee Taylor
The Body Is Not An Apology Workbook: Tools For Living Radical Self-Love
by Sonya Renee Taylor
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach
By Evelyne Tribole & Elyse Resch