Last year, I set out on a mission to figure out what was really making it difficult for busy women to get their health and fitness back on track. I ran multiple polls on Twitter, Facebook and even a survey. I thought the answers to my question were: struggling to maintain motivation and lack of time. I was hearing both of these themes time and time again.
So I set off to test my idea – like all academics do – and created a short course on motivation, along with a few freebies to help with time and establishing a healthy routine.
How could I have got it so wrong?
After a few deep conversations with students on this course, a few more polls and even a focus group, it dawned on me that I had it all wrong and that my original plans for The Health Mindset Programme were going in the completely wrong direction! Actually, during my research, I went one step further and concluded that my entire blog had been going in the wrong direction and completely scrapped 99% of 5 years worth of content (more about that in my FAQs).
After months of further researching, this is the realisation which smacked me right in the face and crapped all over everything I thought I knew:
Women aren’t struggling to get back on track because of time or motivation. They’re struggling because someone (society) told them there was a track in the first place.
And the biggest problem with the ‘track’ suggested by society is that it only has one destination: weight loss.
Our society is convinced that the only way to become healthy is to lose weight. Regardless of your current weight. Regardless of any history, you may have with eating disorders. Regardless of any battle, you may have with chronic illness or disability.
Society and them oh-so-concern trolls on social media, don't want to listen to anything that contradicts the messages rammed down our throats by the media on a daily basis:
"weight loss is the answer"
"you'll feel better when you lose weight"
"life will be better when you've lost weight"
"its ok to be fat as long as you're doing something about it"
"if you're overweight you should go on a diet"
"It's a simple as eating less and moving more"
Listen, I understand where the concern for health stems from, I really do. Both from looking at statistics published by the NHS and also having watched my father suffer from diabetes type 2, high cholesterol, hypertension and 3 strokes - the last of which has turned my family's life upside down as we watch the man we once knew fade into vascular dementia. If there was ever an effective advert in my life for looking after my health, this has been it.
I myself have had my own scrape with health issues. When I was 19 I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and hypertension and set off on a mission to reverse it before I followed down the same path as my father.
So I get the importance of health, I really do. But there's a lot about diet culture which I don't get. For example:
Why do we think weight loss is more important than mental health?
When the lengths an individual goes to on their quest to lose weight ends up resulting in eating disorders or patterns of disordered eating, abuse of laxatives, self-induced vomiting, potentially lethal diet pills, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts... why the actual f**k do we think this is preferable to remaining overweight?
Why do we think dieting is the answer?
When we know that diets only result in weight loss for the short-term and that two-thirds of people will regain more weight than they've lost within four to five years.
When our bodies put up a huge fight against intentional weight loss via a plethora of tactics: slowing down metabolism, increasing appetite, reducing muscle mass, raising the satiety threshold and increasing our brain's responsiveness to food (see references 1-11).
Why do we think body shaming is somehow motivating or helpful?
When fat people already know all too well that they're fat. Seriously, I don't need some keyboard warrior to tell me what dress size I am. Or some teenager leaning out of his brother's Nissan Micra to shout abuse.
Why, sad little trolls of the online world, do you think that pointing out a person's weight or size to them is 1) groundbreaking information 2) a worthy use of your finite time on the planet.
And it's not just online trolls. It's personal trainers too. Why can't I just be at the gym to feel strong, energised and mentally calm? Why must my workout be about 'melting away fat', 'carving my body', 'sculpting my bum', 'chiselling my abs'. Stop assuming I'm unhappy with my body. Consider 'sculpting' your approach to health and 'melting away' your prejudices.
As for my P.E teacher in high school who shamed me for having large breasts which bounced when I ran because it was "distracting the lads playing football" (tell them off for being unfocused?!), I'd love to let her know that that single humiliating experience in my childhood lead to me avoiding all types of exercise for the entire decade that followed - as well as almost going through with breast-reduction surgery.
And how about the time my father told me I had 'big fat white thighs', a comment that stuck with me and played on repeat through my mind each and every time I hid 'illicit' food in my room, binged on in secret and then refused to eat around other people.
See? Body shaming very rarely motivates people to change their health around at all. It usually accomplishes the complete opposite. My mother's 30-year-long battle with anorexia is a testament to that whenever she tells me about the fat-shaming names she was called all through school.
Why do we think fat is the worst thing a person can be?
To quote J K Rowling:
"I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?"
Putting my anger to good use
As you can probably detect from my last few paragraphs (and my other blog posts) I have a lot of anger towards our society for it's obsession with weight and appearance.
In 2017, I wanted to take all of this anger and turn it into something positive. I wanted to create a healing, safe and empowering space for other women, who like me, wanted to get off the dieting rollercoaster. Who deep down knew that diets were a load of bullshit, but at the same time felt like it was the only option and that they had to do something about their health without having to sacrifice their emotional wellbeing and mental health or running themselves into the ground trying to battle with the scale.
I began researching body confidence, knowing that I had to start with self-acceptance in order to care for my health, and stumbled onto the body positivity movement. From there, I also stumbled onto the Health at Every Size movement and noticed that this was being led by a growing number of registered dietitians and nutritionists who were all sharing the same message "diets do not work and are damaging to your mental health, physical health and self-esteem".
I began to read around the subjects of intuitive eating, body positivity, gentle nutrition, joyful movement, and clinical research on dieting, weight and health. I knew I had finally found what I had needed for nearly all of my life.
I put together a free recommended resources guide to all of the books, blogs, podcasts and apps I had come across which helped me heal my relationship with food and improve my body image.
But I knew that there would be a lot of women who were simply too busy and overwhelmed with information to absorb it all before taking action and escaping the dieting cycle. I also knew firsthand how isolating it can be to do something as radical as quitting dieting and body hatred, in a culture that tells you that this is 'just the way it is'.
Introducing The Health Mindset Programme
After months of research, focus groups, and chats with like-minded women, I put together an online programme for busy women just like us - who wanted to leave the dieting world behind, reclaim the space in their mind which had been taken up with weight anxiety and food rules, feel in control and at peace with food and after many years of hating their bodies, become accepting and compassionate towards themselves.
I launched the programme in October 2017, just to a small group of subscribers and already I've had so much positive feedback from members on how free and at peace they feel, now that they have an alternative to dieting and can recognize and tune out from the diet culture nonsense.
We chat 1-on-1, monthly over email and compare notes on the exercises within the programme and have so many personal breakthroughs. It's been incredibly rewarding to be a part of their recovery journeys and I'm so grateful for them sharing their stories with me and helping to shape the programme into what it is today.
We haven't just 'got back on track' with our health and fitness, we've completely redefined what the track looks like: listening to our bodies tell us what they need, giving ourselves permission to eat and also to feel. Taking a gentle approach to nutrition and engaging in movement which feels good to us, instead of adhering to rules and 'shoulds'. Throwing out the scale, tape measure and all the rest of it. Accepting and respecting our bodies, and showing ourselves self-care and compassion. Prioritising our happiness, emotional well-being and mental health.
This is what changes lives. It isn't at all about the number you see in between your feet.
If any of this post had resonated with you, you can join us right here: >>> Join The Health Mindset Programme <<<
Stice, Eric, Kyle Burger, and Sonja Yokum. “Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable foods.” Neuroimage 67 (2013): 322-330.
Bacon, Linda. Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight.BenBella Books, 2010.
Sumithran, Priya, et al. “Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss.” New England Journal of Medicine 365.17 (2011): 1597-1604.
Kern, Philip A., et al. “The effects of weight loss on the activity and expression of adipose-tissue lipoprotein lipase in very obese humans.” New England journal of medicine 322.15 (1990): 1053-1059.
Leibel, Rudolph L., and Jules Hirsch. “Diminished energy requirements in reduced-obese patients.” Metabolism 33.2 (1984): 164-170.
Fothergill, E., Guo, J., Howard, L., Kerns, J. C., Knuth, N. D., Brychta, R., Chen, K. Y., Skarulis, M. C., Walter, M., Walter, P. J. and Hall, K. D. (2016), Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity, 24: 1612–1619. doi:10.1002/oby.21538
Bennet, W and Gurin, J., The Dieter's Dilemma: The Setpoint Theory of Weight Control, Basic Books; Reprint edition (2 Aug. 1983)
Keys, A., Brožek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O., & Taylor, H. L., The Biology of Human Starvation (2 volumes), University of Minnesota Press, 1950.
Todd Tucker, The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved so That Millions Could Live, Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York, ISBN 978-0-7432-7030-4, 2006.
Leah M. Kalm and Richard D. Semba, "They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment," Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 135, June 2005, 1347–1352.
Crabbe, Megan Jayne., Body Positive Power, Vermillion (2017)
Dulloo, A.G. & Jean, Jacquet & Solinas, G & Montani, Jean-Pierre & Schutz, Yves. (2010). Body composition phenotypes in pathways to obesity and the metabolic syndrome. International journal of obesity (2005). 34 Suppl 2. S4-17. 10.1038/ijo.2010.234.
PwC, The Costs of Eating Disorders, https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/uploads/documents/2017/10/the-costs-of-eating-disorders-final-original.pdf (2015)