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Are you dreading the thought of summer and displaying any part of your body at the beach? Did the New Year’s diet resolutions not quite work out as hoped? Sick of yo-yo dieting? How about trying something completely different this spring and forgetting about dieting altogether? Welcome to the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach.
The HAES approach is not another diet. It’s a lifestyle choice that is based on cultivating a healthy mind, body and spirit. It advocates treating your body as your friend and listening to it rather than fighting against and trying to discipline your body and her appetites. Research has shown that the HAES approach facilitates stabilization of weight, with the added bonus of significant improvements in health and self-esteem.
In 2005, Bacon et al did a 6-month study on the HAES approach, using 78 women aged 30-45 years old and a 2-year follow-up. The HAES group’s results showed that they were able to maintain their weight at the 2-year follow-up mark, while the diet group regained the weight loss. The HAES group also showed a marked improvement in self-esteem and body acceptance, whereas the diet group initially showed an improvement that was followed by a worsening in self-esteem by the 2-year mark. Finally the HAES group showed significant improvement in physical measures of health like blood pressure and cholesterol.
So what is the HAES approach?
A basic tenet of the HAES approach is to promote acceptance of the body, regardless of body size, shape, or weight. It is against there being a rigid body ideal that every individual should strive to achieve. Size diversity is celebrated and fat discrimination is fiercely fought against on the grounds that it is harmful to both fat and thin people alike. Fat discrimination promotes fear of fat in people of all sizes and does not foster body love, acceptance or self care. In American culture today body hatred and dieting behaviors are now considered a normal part of development. Unfortunately, people who are at war with their bodies rarely are motivated to take care of them. Let me assure you that shame and self loathing, which most diets use as a motivating factor, do not promote loving care of the body—quite the opposite!
So how can one apply the HAES philosophy on a personal and practical level?
The HAES approach advocates these 4 steps in the care of the body and her appetites:
1) Eat when you’re hungry.
2) Eat nutritious and delicious foods.
3) Stop when you’re satisfied.
4) Find an exercise you enjoy and do it regularly.
These four steps might seem deceptively simple but they are far more easily said than done! For instance, I can’t tell you how many women (and men) I see who have completely lost touch with their body’s natural appetite. The HAES approach advocates a practice called ”intuitive eating,” which is to listen very specifically to when your body wants to eat, what it wants to eat and when it is satisfied. Aside from not knowing when we are hungry or satisfied, the idea of letting our bodies decide what to eat is a scary concept for many who have been on and off diets for years. For most of us, stepping outside of the realm of “good” foods versus “bad” foods and actually listening to what our body wants is a completely foreign concept!
Contrary to popular belief, letting go of the diet mentality around food and allowing free access to all foods makes the “forbidden” foods less special and the healthier foods more desirable. Why? Because foods that are no longer taboo lose their power over us, and in the long run healthier foods make our bodies feel better. So when we really listen to our bodies we will find that we naturally gravitate towards what is nutritious and delicious.
In my practice, when I first introduce the HAES concepts I usually hear: “What—I can eat whatever I want? I would never stop eating!” However, time and time again I have witnessed that as people start to practice listening to their bodies, trust in their body and their self comes back.
One client started with her most taboo food: chocolate. She was sure she was going to end up on a chocolate binge but found that just knowing she could have as much as she wanted allowed her to slow down and really taste the chocolate. This was very different from her normal routine, which was to stuff down the chocolate guiltily, without tasting it. Because she was actually enjoying it and allowing herself to experience pleasure from the chocolate, she found, to her surprise and delight, that she needed to eat a lot less chocolate to satisfy herself!
Once chocolate was moved out of the taboo category it lost its power over her. She found herself listening to what her body wanted and gravitating towards the more nutrient dense foods that made her feel better and gave her more energy. If she did eat for comfort she allowed herself to really experience the comfort of the food instead of beating herself up for “slipping.” As a result, her binges stopped. Slowly she started to feel that her body was working with her instead of seemingly against her. She started to feel that her body was a friend and an ally instead of her battleground.
It can take a while to fully embrace the HAES concepts because we have been steeped in the dieting culture for so long. The thought of loving acceptance of our bodies regardless of size or weight, and working with our bodies instead of trying to punish and shame them into submission, is so far off our radar that it is easy to convince ourselves it’s not possible or perhaps only accessible for the enlightened few.
The truth is that the HAES philosophy and practice is very applicable to everyone, regardless of size, age or weight. Some initial guidance and ongoing support are recommended because to try something so counter-cultural and different from your normal dieting routine can be hard to sustain on your own. Find a practitioner and nutritionist who embraces the HAES philosophy, and by this summer, with your body as your friend and ally, you will be well on your way to stabilizing your weight and finding a happier, healthier you. At the very least, your self-esteem will be vastly improved and self-confidence greatly enhanced! Now isn’t that really what’s sexy and attractive? Try it! What have you got to lose? (Pun intended..;)