Because of these mixed feelings, the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement both attracts and repels me. I want to believe there is a healthier way to eat and live and to pursue balance of food and exercise. On the other hand, I am terrified that the HAES approach just means learning to be happier in size 14 jeans (until those get too tight and I need a 16, and then an 18, and so on...) A recent blog post on "Refuse to Regain" seems to echo the latter view, characterizing HAES as "eat without restrictions."
I read an interview in More Magazine with Linda Bacon that suggested there might be more to the HAES movement than what Frances has dismissively called "Fat Serenity." I asked for and received a free review copy of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. (Though I never read the original version, the version I have says it is "revised & updated.") This post will be an overview of some of the main ideas, but I'd like to start an online discussion about HAES, because there is just so much to talk about here. Linda Bacon's book is thick and information-dense, and she's not the only writer in the HAES movement. I am sure there is plenty of disagreement even within the HAES movement about exactly what it means. However, this book seemed like a good place to start.
The overarching premise of the book is that our bodies are innately tuned to maintain a healthy weight range for us, but that our obsession with fat and weight, as well as environmental factors like highly engineered food products, have helped us to lose touch with our true hunger signals. Our bodies' setpoints probably don't align with the current hyper-thin beauty ideal, but they may be lower than our current weights, especially if we have gotten caught up in the diet-regain cycle or are eating in response to emotions instead of hunger. Our bodies are especially tuned, Bacon says, to avoid weight loss, which makes sense because human beings evolved in a harsh environment where food was difficult to obtain. Our bodies are less sensitive to weight gain because storing a little extra fat was a good insurance plan against famine, especially for women, who needed extra protection from starvation because of the demands of carrying and nursing babies.
The book echoes many criticisms we have already heard from the weight-loss gurus about food politics and processed foods and agrees that they have created a food environment where our "thrifty genes" make it hard to maintain our weight. In our current food culture, food is always available, and the most available food is both high-calorie and low-nutrient. We have also learned to ignore our hunger signals in favor of all kinds of conflicting messages and drives.
External rules, such as belief systems about good foods, bad foods, or appropriate amounts or times to eat, drown out our innate ability to respond to setpoint cues. We eat not because we're hungry, but because we're sad, guilty, bored, frustrated, lonely, or angry. And because food can't take care of our emotions, we eat and eat and never feel satisfied.
Though the environment we live in encourages us to overeat and gain weight, we also are taught to judge ourselves harshly for even small amounts of extra weight. This sets up the diet-regain cycle.
To break out of this cycle, Bacon says not that we have to "eat without restrictions," but that we need to start paying more attention to our body's hunger signals and how different foods make us feel. By decoupling healthy living from trying to attain an unattainable weight ideal, we can definitely become healthier and may even, like Bacon herself, lose some weight in the process. The tricky part, though, is that weight loss can't be the goal. The goal is to increase physical activity and learn healthier eating habits. Any weight loss would have to be a nice but unimportant side effect. Bacon provides tools for those who want to become more in tune with their body's hunger signals, like a hunger scale and journal and a lot of information about food. She also suggests that through using this approach, we can retrain our tastes so that we enjoy healthier, plant-based foods more and crave processed foods less. She also says we need to learn to satisfy other hungers besides those for food, like the need for rest and emotional fulfillment.
The thing this makes this book truly unique is that it includes the results of a scientific study that tested its premise. Women whose weights were in the "obese" range were recruited and randomly assigned to two groups, one that learned Bacon's HAES approach and another group, led by mainstream diet researchers and obesity experts, that followed current "best practices" for weight loss. Both groups were tested for health markers at different points in the study, at the insistence of one of the diet researchers who thought that the HAES approach could endanger the health of the participants. The groups met weekly for six months. The results after one year? Though the dieting group "showed some initial weight loss and health benefits," they ended up regaining the weight they had lost and reversing their improvements in health markers. The HAES group improved health markers like cholesterol and blood pressure and increased their physical activity. They said they were happier and enjoyed their food and activity more. Neither group showed significant weight loss. The message here is obvious: If weight loss is unlikely, wouldn't it be better to become happier and healthier than just more restrictive and negative?
I think that this approach has the potential to liberate women and improve their lives and health. It's a hard sell, though, even to me. It's hard to think about giving up the hope of a smaller body that fits my own beauty ideal, even if I know from experience how difficult it is to achieve and maintain that ideal. It's hard not to want what I want. I do see a lot of promise, here, though, of the kind of life I really want. I want to love my body and treat it well. I want to stop making my happiness so dependent on what the scale says. I want to free my mind from this weight obsession so I can pursue worthier goals.
I think this is going to be a book I will read and reread, and that the process of learning is going to be long-term. Bacon herself admits to struggling with self-consciousness about her weight at times, but says that often those feelings help her tune in to other needs if she lets herself learn from them. She gives the starting to crave richer food and noticing that she was gaining weight while writing the first edition of this book. When she looked her feelings more closely, she realized that she was responding to "fears of vulnerability" about the book, and that led her to make changes to make the book stronger. It's interesting to think of "feeling fat" as a cue to something more important going on.
I know that it's common for bloggers to ask questions at the end of posts as a way to encourage comments. In this case, I don't want the comments for their own sake, but am genuinely curious to hear what you think of this approach. Do you have other HAES writers or books to suggest? Let's start a discussion, because I think there is something really important to learn from this approach.