SALT LAKE CITY — Pursuing weight loss can be frustrating, lead to weight cycling, and it doesn’t necessarily promote more healthful behaviors in the long run.
Some research published in the journal Obesity also indicates that, in some cases, it can actually lower people’s metabolisms. Essentially, that means some people can’t eat as much as they may want or are hungry for. As a dietitian, I do not recommend weight loss to my clients.
The way we think about our bodies and food has an impact on how we take care of ourselves. I used to mistakenly think that if I ate the “right foods” and exercised the “right amount,” then my body would look similar to the bodies of celebrities and people in magazines. Even with a nutrition degree and access to a variety of foods, I never felt like I could eat all the “right foods” and exercise as much as I thought I should. That left me feeling like I failed and wasn’t good enough.
I’ve talked to many clients and others about this and found it’s a pretty universal thought. Some might not desire to look like celebrities, but they may want to be smaller than their current selves and believe that pursuit would make them happier, healthier and more worthy of self-acceptance and acceptance from others.
When it comes to giving or receiving compliments for weight loss, our desire to be accepted and receive positive feedback can make it easier to participate in habits that may not benefit us as much as we think. Or, it may keep some people stuck in habits that they know can be harmful.
One way to help ourselves and others feel better in our bodies as they are is to stop complimenting weight loss and avoid talking about weight altogether. Here’s why.
1. Weight loss compliments may teach people that acceptance comes from shrinking their body
Who doesn’t want to get complimented? It feels good and encourages continuing the habits that got a person to that compliment. Because it may feel good and validating to receive compliments, they might encourage habits that don’t promote health/well-being, as explained on the National Eating Disorder Association’s website.
Here’s an example: You notice that your friend is looking thinner so you tell them so, and that they look good. If your friend has felt insecure about their body, or even still feels insecure, this positive reinforcement may be interpreted as acceptance for being smaller rather than a simple compliment.
We all want to be accepted, so if someone interprets compliments about their body as acceptance, they may continue to do what they did to get there — even if was through habits that weren’t enjoyable, or even harmful. There can be a lot of unintended consequences from a simple statement because our relationships with our bodies are complicated and deep.
2. Fast weight loss can actually slow your metabolism
Some may think the faster the weight loss, the better. But a couple of studies that came out from following past participants of “The Biggest Loser,” [including one study published Obesity](ne published in Obesity,), show that their metabolisms actually slowed down after lots of exercise and extreme dieting. Unless you’re someone who could eat whatever you wanted without it affecting your weight or health, that’s not ideal.
3. Someone’s weight could be changing because of a medical condition or medication
There are lots of medical conditions that can affect weight, and even medications or life changes. The Mayo Clinic says eating disorders, heart failure, diabetes, Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases, and depression can contribute to weight loss. Some can also cause weight gain.
Consider this conversation: “Oh, you look great. What diet are you on?”
“I’m doing chemotherapy and it’s zapped my appetite.”
Avoid putting someone who is already dealing with a medical condition in an uncomfortable position by not commenting on weight loss.
4. Weight is hard to control
Think about your own experiences or the experiences of people close to you. Have you ever worked to change your weight? If so, how hard was it? What happened when you eased back into eating the way you did before a diet or lifestyle change? Parts of losing weight or working to keep it off can be extremely difficult, and even miserable for some people.
Our bodies are designed to protect themselves, as research published by the American Journal of Psychology shows, that’s why we get hungry and preoccupied with food when we’re not eating enough. Constantly working against that biological, necessary drive can make things even harder.
5. When you compliment someone for weight loss, what you’re saying is ‘thinner is better’
As mentioned above, trying to lose weight and keep it off is difficult and doesn’t work the same for most people. When we focus on weight, we’re often missing the very important actions of adapting our habits to make us feel better physically and emotionally. These habits will look different for everyone and may not cause weight changes — but, as the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine points out, you can still improve overall well-being and health if that’s something you want to pursue.
One hurdle to practicing beneficial habits is weight stigma. Weight stigma is more defined in an article for Scientific American by Lindo Bacon — who also wrote “Health at Every Size” — which goes on to say, “Fat isn’t the problem. Dieting is the problem.” The concept of losing weight to achieve health and wellness doesn’t look at the full picture, and it definitely doesn’t take the harmful outcomes from weight stigma into account either. Some collateral damage from weight stigma include discrimination, fear of fat and the habits that result from fearing fat, medical misdiagnoses, bullying (including people being harassed to get “healthier”), and a sedentary lifestyle.
Therefore, when you compliment someone for weight loss you may be reinforcing the idea that smaller is better — even healthier — than bigger, and that isn’t always true.
6. Focus on weight skips over habits that can improve your heath and well-being
How do you lose weight? You can do lots of things and boil it all down to weight loss, but is it the weight loss or the habits that change your well-being and/or health that can also result in a change in your weight?
It’s the habits.
And you can still see benefits from changing habits even if your weight doesn’t change. When you focus on a number on the scale, you might be missing the habits and can feel like a failure because you’re not paying attention to those habits you may have changed. Feeling like a failure doesn’t set you up for continuing with habits that make your body feel better or improve your overall well-being.
7. Focus on weight may encourage people to continue with unhealthy habits
Imagine this: You’re exercising for hours each day, you’re hungry most of the time, and you’ve lost weight. You’re not supplying your body with the energy and nutrients you need, and it’s hard. But you get lots of compliments on how your body looks. Is it really better to continue those miserable habits that don’t promote your health if you keep getting little hits of positivity from others?
My suggestion is to just stop complimenting others for weight loss. Many people might be trying to be nice by giving compliments, but it’s important to consider the downstream effects of comments on weight before paying a “compliment.”
And with that, consider not mentioning any weight changes at all. Weight talk doesn’t always motivate people to take care of themselves in the best way. The first step toward true body acceptance is to just become more aware of the way we talk about food, dieting and weight, and start to change the things we say to others and to ourselves.
If you struggle with your body image, or have an eating disorder, check out these resources from the National Eating Disorders Association.
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