Will Weight Loss Make Me Happy?

Photo by  Dale de Vera  on  Unsplash

How many of you are yearning for all the good things of summer: long nights on the patio with friends and food, beach getaways, farmers markets over-flowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, early morning hikes in the sun. I am so, so ready for all the beautiful things that make up summer.

What else predictably reappears this time of year makes me extremely upset—the trials and tribulations of attaining a “beach body” or “summer body.” The insecurities people have around the shapes and sizes of their bodies is easy game for social media influencers, “lifestyle” companies, health coaches, and dieting companies, and these insecurities seem to heighten as summer approaches.

Specifically, I am angry about the language used by people tying to promote weight loss. Losing weight means freedom! Losing weight means achieving happiness! Losing weight means loving your body! Losing weight means making your dreams happen! Now that you’ve lost weight you can live your best life!

This language has many harmful implications. It says people in larger bodies cannot be free. It says being fat means you cannot be happy. It says you cannot love your body if it is large. It says you cannot dream, cannot live your best life, unless you are thin.

Fat is not bad. Fat is not inherently unhealthy, just like thinness is not inherently healthy.

Fat is supposed to be a neutral word but society has imparted many hurtful connotations. Everyone has fat and needs it on their bodies, and some have more fat than others. It should be used as a neutral descriptor in the same way “short” or “tall” are descriptors.

If you have not surmised already, I ascribe to Health At Every Size® (HAES®) which posits that everyone should have support in the pursuit of health that does not hinge on body weight or intentional weight loss. Creating health supporting behaviors (like increasing daily movement and consuming more vegetables) may result in weight loss, but that is never the intention. (Additionally, the way I’ve defined “fat” is how many in the HAES® professional community, instructors, physicians, nutritionists, and dietitians, etc., use the word.)

I am sure by now that many questions around the relationships between body weight and health outcomes are running through your mind. Doesn’t a higher body weight mean more bad health outcomes, like heart disease and diabetes? While that is the predominant narrative in Western society, the science is not as supportive as we once assumed. However, that is another blog post for another day (or a conversation to have with me face to face).

I want to return to the topic at hand: does weight loss bring happiness? I know many people who are/were ecstatic when they lost weight. The process of losing the weight is demanding—turning down foods at social gatherings, sacrificing extra time at the gym, and meticulously counting calories and macros—and seeing the numbers change on the scale feels like a large victory. And people are thrilled! They feel like it’s this huge accomplishment; and because society values thinness, these people receive lots of positive attention (and who doesn't love that).

But what happens when the weight returns? Because, let me tell you, it probably will. Diets do not work—not in the long run. And the medical and nutrition communities have known this for a while. Remember The Biggest Loser? In part, its air time ended because the participants, while they lost massive amounts of weight on the show, ended up gaining back the weight, plus some.

The Women’s Health Initiative followed over 20,000 women, all of whom were trying to lose weight and keep it off. This study is the largest and longest randomized controlled trial ever conducted on weight loss and maintenance. After 8 years, the ~20,000 in the intervention group weighed about the same as when they started the trial and even experienced an increase in waist circumference.

According to from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one to two thirds of weight lost is regained after one year, and nearly all weight loss is regained within five years. This is based on the outcomes of many long term studies done on weight loss interventions. It does not matter how strong your will power is or how well you stick to your weight loss maintenance program.

So, if you lose weight now in preparation for summer, but then gain it back by Christmas, are you only allowed to be happy for those few months? Does the happiness dissipate when the weight creeps back on? Weight cycling, losing and regaining weight over and over again, is not only inflammatory, but it is also linked to poorer mental health outcomes, like anxiety and reduced self-esteem. Sadly, I know many people caught in this frustrating weight loss-regain cycle, and I wish I could help them break free.

I don’t believe it’s healthy to attach happiness to something as transient as weight loss, simply because sustained weight loss is not a guarantee. I believe happiness is something that roots deep inside you, a place that is not touchable by changeable objects, events, or the passage of time. (This view is partially informed by information from The Trauma Toolkit by Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW.) Our bodies will change with time—age alone will do that—so I do not want to encourage people to lean on their appearance as a primary source of positive emotions. People can absolutely derive happiness from appearance—but we need and deserve more than that.

So go do, be, and feel what you want, regardless of your body size.

In the future, I look forward to further discussing HAES®, rejecting diet culture, and weight-inclusive healthcare/nutrition counseling. If you are new to any of these concepts, stay tuned for more blog posts!

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Source for this post:

Bacon L and Aphramor L. Weight Science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal. 2011;10:9. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-10-9.