Do you know what your ideal weight is? It may not be what you think. Are you better off to just toss out your scale and take the weight neutral approach? I will explain to you why I am weight neutral, and how it changed my life.
We are at peak January weight loss madness right now.🤪So I thought it may be a good time to give y’all a different angle to think about weight and health. I don’t mean to offend anybody. And each of you is free to choose what you want to do with your food and your body. This is just me sharing my own experience, along with all the stuff I wish somebody had told me years ago.
Because you can’t make the best choice without a full picture of the latest information we know as of today. The latest in weight science suggest that our weight is not as controllable as we think it is, especially in the long term.
I’ll pause for the gasps and head shaking. If you had a negative reaction to that, I hope you will keep reading to see why/ how I draw that shocking conclusion.
Having illusions shattered can be a painful and difficult process. I know, because that is exactly what happened to me. This can be really hard to hear at first, but ultimately it can bring so much freedom.
Is weight loss the wrong goal?
For me, I would say yes at this point. I do want to acknowledge that there is still a lot we do not fully understand, despite what is drilled into us as hard fact currently.
After reading and researching this extensively over the last 4+ years, I have come to the conclusion that prescribing weight loss for somebody has the strong potential to backfire and cause more harm than good. To name a few of the potential harms: food obsession, lower metabolism and higher non-dieting weight (set point – we will get to that in a second!).
I first learned about this from Dr. Sandra Aamodt (plus, many others) and her work in neuroscience as it related to weight management. I encourage you to check out her TED talk for a high level summary/ Cliff’s notes version of her work. She is amazing, and I am so thankful for her willingness to question the official narrative.
How can trying to lose weight harm you?
For starters, food restriction, over exercise and weight loss have a high chance of knocking your body out of homeostasis and putting you in a fight-or-flight stress state. You know – increased cortisol, endocrine imbalance, etc.
This occurs for a variety of reasons, many of which are part of survival mechanisms. Our bodies enact these to try and keep us alive! It totally makes sense, if you think about it. Because food scarcity, not food abundance, has been a much greater threat to our survival over the course of human history.
Implications? Examples of how can this play out in your body? A slower metabolism than what you started with, higher weight, imbalanced hormones, digestive issues, decreased muscle mass, etc.
Additionally, intentional weight loss has the very high likelihood of creating lots of issues with how you relate to food. Ever feel crazy or out of control around food? Food restriction, such as eliminating/ restricting types or amount of foods, can lead to food obsession, emotional eating, disconnect from your natural hunger and fullness cues, binge eating and preoccupation with food/ eating.
Said another way: Restriction, not inherent personal defect, is most likely The Cause for the above “food issues.” Those behaviors our society calls “food issues” are actually biological responses to restriction.
And the cruel irony is that these very behaviors are the very things that are prescribed. Restrictive behaviors are held up as the aspirational goal, when in reality they are the root cause for these issues. 🤯 Does your brain hurt yet at the very thought of that possibility?
Some studies show that even the mere thought of restriction (not even the actual physical restriction itself, but the threat of it) can cause these types of biological responses. When this becomes accepted at large, and I believe it eventually will, medical providers will move away from prescribing food restriction very much at all – for weight loss, or any reason.
Many pro-weight-loss studies argue that being overweight causes bodies to be knocked out of homeostasis. I would submit that we need updated studies! Because correlation does not equal causation.
Said another way: We need more studies that control for factors such as internalized weight stigma, previous weight loss attempts, restrictive pasts, etc. Because these behaviors very likely may be causing the outcomes we are currently attributing to fatness. It is sad, really. Our culture very well may be shaming and blaming fat people for their bodies, and then prescribing actions that make the problems worse, not better. Can you see what a cruel and vicious cycle that can be? 💔
To make sense of the above, let’s dive into the latest science and take a look at how the brain works to regulate our weight.
How the brain regulates our weight
You must know that our weight is managed by three different regions of the brain (that we know about, anyway): (1) the executive center, (2) the punishment reward system and (3) the energy balance system.
The executive center is the region we are most familiar with. It is the part of the brain that directs our action and our choices, and it is the only function our current culture acknowledges with regard to weight management.🙄
The executive center is like the CEO, and it takes on very structured, masculine type energy. It sets goals and makes choices to achieve those goals.
The resources in the executive center of the brain are finite and limited, meaning that you only have so much focused attention available on any given day.
This implies that if you devote a large amount of executive function to your food and/or exercise, you have less to devote to your family, career, social life etc.
Overuse of the executive function to try and manage weight may also cause you to become overly preoccupied with functions that (in healthy-minded, balanced people) are largely subconscious. When you relax around food and exercise, this frees up your executive energy for other things. You can read more about how this might play out in a post from my archives: 10 things that are worse than being fat, all caused by dieting.
So why on earth would you want to loosen the reigns on food, exercise and weight management?
Weight set point theory
Scientist are starting to see evidence that our brain chooses what weight we need to be behind the scenes, apart from our conscious mind. The brain chooses a safe weight, more likely a weight range of ten to twenty pounds or so. It can vary from person to person.
We don’t get am official memo, of course.😜 So if you want to know your set point, eat and move normally, without restricting or trying to create a calorie deficit. Eat intuitively and with your natural hunger cues. You will most likely arrive in this range where your body wants to be.
It is the weight that is effortless for you to maintain. It is the weight where you can get ice cream with your friends, or enjoy dinner out occasionally and live your life without stressing and obsessing over food or exercise.
When the body dips below this range, our brain may enact several behind-the-scenes mechanisms to help restore us to its desired weight.
Here is the rub, though: Our brains have little regard for BMI charts or cultural preferences. Individuality and body diversity are real.
Furthermore, the body has the ability to raise its preferred set point. Also, it is more likely to see set point rise than it is to see it fall. Perhaps (again) this is due to most of human history, where food shortage was much more of a threat than over abundance.
Want to know what the most likely way is to raise your brain’s preferred set point weight? Prolonged restriction, weight loss or calorie deficit.😳 Yes, you read that right. It’s a cruel but true reality. Calorie deficit and over exercising has the high likelihood of raising your brain’s preferred weight. And hardly anyone is talking about this.
So what are the behind-the scenes parts of the brain that do this, and how do they work?
Punishment reward system
This system will probably sound familiar to you, once I verbalize what takes place. When our body dips below our brain’s preferred weight range, or even if it sense the possibility for restriction, our brain will start sending out extra signals to try and entice us to eat more!
It does this by releasing certain hormones into our bloodstream. You can read Dr. Aamodt’s book (Amazon affiliate) if you want to know all the glorious science-y details.🤓 I’ll try to stick (mostly) to laymen’s terms over here.
Food will taste so much better to you, and you will feel physically hungrier. Food will have much more of a pull than it does for somebody not restricting. Emotional eating (as a coping mechanism) will become almost certain because you have primed yourself for it with restriction.
Not only that, but our brains will change our preferences to be drawn toward foods that will put weight on us the fastest. Yes, really. Sounding familiar yet?
Ever feel out of control around food? It is worth repeating: Restriction, not inherent personal defect, is the most likely cause.
You want to hear something interesting about the coping mechanism referred to as “emotional eating?” People who have never attempted to diet or lose weight don’t turn to food to cope with difficult emotions. In fact! They tend to turn away from food when stressed.🤯People who cope with difficult circumstances by eating more food are the ones that have a history of dieting, restriction or food scarcity.
The best solution I have found personally: chill out around food. Like, seriously, drop all the restrictive tendencies toward any types or amounts of food. It sounds terrifying if you are somebody who has micromanaged your food for a long time.
Intuitive eating is what the buzz word is, and it actually get misused a lot to try and sell weight loss.🙄 But true intuitive eating is a great tool to developing a peaceful relationship with food. And true intuitive eating can only exist when an attitude of weight neutrality is adopted.
Ironically, chilling out around food has granted me the most calm and healthy vibe with food I have had my entire life. When left to my own preferences, I generally make very good choices. And I don’t feel the least bit of guilt when I do enjoy “fun foods.”
Honestly, I am not all that drawn to them anymore. I barely even notice the bowl of cheap candy in front of me at a conference. I do not much care if there are cookies in the house. If I truly want some, I’ll have some and move on. It takes up very little mental energy or “will power.”
For illustrative purposes, I’ll share that peanut butter cups used to be one of those foods that I could not resist. I would sit on my hands, trying not to eat them, y’all. And I just could. Not. Stop myself. I used to make my husband hide them from me. 😂
Well! I am happy to report that we still have peanut butter cups from Halloween (nearly 4 months ago), and I could not care less. I actually forgot about them until just now, as I was trying to come up with an example. I had some on Halloween night, and I honestly forgot about them. They just don’t pull me like they used to.
So if you want to calm down and work with your punishment reward system, focus on enjoyment. Find foods that satisfy you and nourish you at the same time. Enjoy fun foods without feeling guilty. Tune in to how you feel during and after, and tweak as you wish based on that.
But what about those people who have amazing will power? You know, those people who can power through and stick to a rigid eating plan no matter what, even when they are not satisfied. That leads us to the next part of the brain.
Energy balance system
Our energy balance system is arguably the least controllable part of our weight management system. It has the ability to completely undermine our executive function, and it can override a really strong-willed person who ignores those enhanced hunger and reward signals.
It is controlled by our subconscious and parasympathetic nervous system. This works in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet.
When our weight drops below our brain’s preferred range, the energy balance system has the ability to turn down our thermostat. Some people will refer to this as slowing down our metabolism. This is likely what is happening with all those Biggest Loser contestants who regained all their weight and ended up with slower metabolic indicators and higher weights.
Here are some of the noticeable ways that can play out. People have been shown to move less, such as fewer nervous ticks, and even drop core temperature. Fatigue and lethargy may take place. Also, hair may fall out, and women may lose their menstrual cycles.
This is the body’s way of prioritizing functions in order of importance. In short, it is helping you stay alive.
To optimize your energy balance system, you have to feed yourself and eat enough. It’s the exact opposite of what we are beat over the head with, unfortunately. Having enough energy (food) is super important to your energy balance system.
So what is the solution?
What works for me is to focus on (1) common sense and (2) feeling good. And to focus on behaviors that I know serve my highest good, without any regard for weight loss. True weight neutrality, if you will.
So what does that look like, speaking in practical terms? I know that vegetables are good for me, and so I eat them. I don’t eat them to try and control my weight. I eat them to nourish myself, and to help my body function well. I make them taste good too, y’all. 😎👊🏻
I know that exercise is good for me. I find ways to add in exercise that feels good and that I actually look forward to doing.
These things are easy for me to add in to my life in ways that are enjoyable. The way I approach it feels very abundant and relaxed. Once I removed all the restriction and rigidity around these things and focused on enjoyment, life got a lot more peaceful and enjoyable.
Also! It is worth mentioning that managing stress is the number one way to impact your health for good. Stress is The Top Cause for most disease. Learning how to recognize and care for your own emotional and mental health, plus maintain good relationships with others can do far more for your health than micromanaging your weight or your food.
These aren’t always popular opinions. Probably because there is nothing to sell you.😜 People who are insecure and fretful are a marketer’s dream. Confident, competent people are less likely to fall for these schemes that try to hijack something that is innate (eating) and sell it back to you in the form of a product or service.
I don’t feel the need to defend myself or explain my life choices, y’all. My hope is that maybe you learned something you did not know. Or perhaps I made you question the official narrative a bit more. I am a big fan of questioning everything, in case you haven’t noticed.😂🤷🏼♀️
It is not my intention to insult anybody or make you feel foolish/ bad for trying to lose weight. Quite the opposite, actually! You are doing what most of society tells us to do.
And I used to be you. I grieve for all the time I wasted micromanaging my food and exercise. I had no idea how counterproductive it could be. And y’all! I was very level-headed and “responsible” about it. I did exactly what is held up as “responsible” by the current paradigm. The problem is that I started see that the paradigm was/ is likely incorrect.
Stepping into this way of operating can be tricky. You might gain weight, especially at first as you are making peace with food. That process can take months, or even years.
You will be bombarded with opposing messages constantly. There are a lot of beliefs and assumptions operating in your mind (and in society) that will crop up as you start to change. It really is a process to unwind all of that stuff.
Is it hard sometimes? Yep. Is it worth it, though? For me, heck yes. I just feel so much better. Life is more enjoyable. And my energy and awareness have been freed up so that I am free to focus on things that are much more valuable to me. Four years later, I still think it is one of the best gifts I have ever given myself.
I am not low key at war with myself anymore. I am not in a constant state of resistance like I used to be. My mind is not trying to beat my body into some sort of submission. I work with myself in a way that is full of freedom, ease and grace. No food has power over me. I am free. And ALL of that is infinitely more valuable to me than any number on a scale.💖
Interesting ideas here! I love the concept that devoting one’s focus to enjoying life and health is far superior to what the scale says, and I totally agree with you there. But is it possible to look at healthy eating as a matter of substitution rather than restriction? If I’m honest, going for ice cream with my friends would be a daily occurrence if I wasn’t looking out for my health. But taking walks, playing tennis, meeting friends for coffee or a healthy lunch – all these are substitutions that still fill the need of socializing, while maintaining healthy habits. I don’t feel restricted and can happily treat myself once in awhile.
I would disagree that having a structured, managerial energy is the same thing as “masculine” energy, as you describe it. How do moms manage to juggle household duties, motherhood, and (for some) work? Executive function is about the idea of planning and organizing to work smarter, not harder – a worthy goal for any gender identity.
Just to clarify, do you think that medically prescribed weight loss for people who are obese is not worthwhile? I worry about my morbidly obese family members who may have shorter lives due to their lack of balance with their eating habits.
Marjorie @APinchOfHealthy says
I love hearing this feedback, Clementine. You get to choose is the bottom line. I’d personally get tired of ice cream if I ate it every day. It is more about the state we are choosing from than the actual choice, if that makes sense. A person could order a salad for lunch because it sounds yummy and nourishing. Or they could order from a state of resistance and anxiety because it doesn’t feel safe to order anything else. A person could order a burger because they are craving it and it sounds good. Or they could order the burger with lots of guilt, worry about gaining weight and belief that it is a “bad” choice, and tell themselves how they’ll make up for it later.
Any person, regardless of size, would benefit from exercise. If somebody is immobile and/or struggling with mobility, it would be helpful to get them moving in a way that is enjoyable and fun. Their “lack of balance with eating habits” is likely caused by a disordered relationship with food, usually intensified by a history of restriction. And perpetuated by lots of internalized weight stigma and self hate related to the size of their bodies.
And all people have both masculine and feminine energy, regardless of gender. Masculine and feminine energy are just words people use to describe structured vs unstructured states of being. In western society, structure is encouraged, and freedom/ flow (feminine energy) is ignored or downplayed. It is equally valuable, though. We need both to be a balanced being.