The world doesn’t need another diet book, another volume of empty promises that’s at odds with the fact that no matter how someone loses weight, they will likely regain much or all of that weight — sometimes even ending up heavier than their starting weight — within about five years.
So if you’ve been gearing up to embark on yet another diet, protocol, reset or reboot come Jan. 1, I have a different suggestion: Hit the pause button on that plan and read Christy Harrison’s new book, “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating,” available Dec. 24.
Harrison, a registered dietitian and journalist, thoroughly and elegantly lays out the strange origins of modern diet culture — a system of beliefs that labels some bodies as “better,” promotes changing body size and shape, demonizes certain foods and oppresses people who don’t match a certain picture of “health” — then presents a path to truly holistic health that’s based on self-care, not self-control.
Host of the popular “Food Psych” podcast (I was her guest on episode 194), Harrison digs deep into the roots of diet culture — including its science, myths and morality — to uncover exactly how we became the weight-obsessed society we live in today. She weaves in experiences from clients and podcast guests, as well as her own path, from a “normal” eater relatively who was untouched by diet culture to a food writer struggling with disordered eating (she worked for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine) and eventually to recovery.
It was those experiences that prompted Harrison to launch “Food Psych” in 2013, and ultimately to write “Anti-Diet.”
“It felt important for me to write this book because diet culture harms all of us,” she said, adding that this is true no matter someone’s size or gender identification. “I’ve seen my clients hurt by it; it’s hurt me. I wanted to call out this harm, I wanted to save people from this harm.”
Dieting’s dark history
Given that Harrison was no stranger to the topics in her book, I was curious if anything surprised her while doing her research. “When I delved into the research before writing, I was looking into things I had heard about, but wanted to clarify,” she said. What surprised her most was the deep vein of racism and classism in the history of diet culture, specifically “how anti-blackness is at the root of anti-fatness.” Also surprising? That our cultural weight bias and desire for thinness started long before any health arguments about body size. “I was stunned by the fabrication of the ‘obesity epidemic,’” she said.
One through line in “Anti-Diet” is the impact of social determinants of health — which include weight stigma, racism, economic disparities and environment, as well as lack of access to health care — on our health. These are distinct from behavioral determinants of health, which include nutrition and physical activity as well as tobacco, drug and alcohol use, seat-belt use, sexual activity and whether we use sun protection. “The way diet culture paints it is that food and exercise will influence 100% of your health,” Harrison said, pointing out that only about 25 to 30% of health is attributable to our behaviors, with 10% coming down to food and movement habits. Excluding genetics, the rest is due to social determinants of health. “It’s shocking to me how little that is understood,” she said.
‘The Life Thief’
Harrison presents diet culture as “The Life Thief” — whether in the guise of weight-loss dieting or “wellness” dieting — and lays out how it steals not just time and money, but well-being and happiness, too. As one example of this, Harrison recounts a personal story, one relatable to many people — especially this time of year. In the most restrictive days of her disordered eating, she was so chronically deprived of food that at parties she would stand by the snack table for hours, compulsively eating and beating herself up for it, unable to fully connect with her friends, because the food felt more important.
She’s been attending the same holiday party at a friend’s house off and on for almost two decades, and her post-recovery experiences are very different. “I can’t really remember the food from the party last year, but the party from almost 16 years ago? I can remember in detail what I ate, mostly things like cookies and cupcakes,” she said. “Now I know that dieters’ brains are more primed and wired to respond to food cues than people who are not dieting.”
Unfolding a better road map
Harrison could have laid out the evidence for why we need to “burn diet culture to the ground,” done a mic drop and left the room (metaphorically speaking), leaving readers to figure out how to fill the void once filled by dieting — but she doesn’t. The second section of the book starts with guidance on how to deal with emotions that come up when it finally sinks in how much people have lost because of diet culture. Then she gives readers a road map for how to care for their physical and mental health without trying to control body size and shape. This includes relearning how to eat intuitively, practicing self-compassion, setting boundaries and looking at physical activity in a new way.
“I’ve been illuminated by a lot of books that present cultural problems, yet don’t offer any solutions. While I like those books as a reader, as a clinician, I’ve seen people have sadness come up and anger come up,” she said. “It’s really natural for people to have these feelings, and it’s important for me to be able to answer their questions and assure them that these emotions are part of the process. I’ve tried to convey some of the messiness of healing, and that there is this other path that’s available to you.”
“Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating” by Christy Harrison, Little, Brown Spark, 336 pp., $28