Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss by Sandra Aamodt
“If diets worked, we’d all be thin by now.”
You may already be familiar with neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt from her lauded TED talk Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I suggest giving it a listen, as it is essentially a condensed version of this book. The single best thing about Aamodt’s ideas is that they are based on scientific fact. In our culture, it can be easy to be swayed into believing unsubstantiated ideas about thinness being achievable via dieting, health being predicated on body weight, and the virtue of certain foods and eating patterns. Sandra breaks all of that down by citing study after study proving, essentially, that for most of us significant and permanent weight loss is not the likely outcome of dieting and that our thin ideal has absolutely nothing to do with health.
Her main argument stems from studies showing that each of our brains have a unique set weight range in which it tries to keep our body weight via regulating hunger and satiation hormones in the body. If, via willpower, we try to keep our bodies lower than this range our brains will respond with a host of actions intended to raise our body weight–triggering hunger, slowing down our metabolism, decreasing energy levels overall to preserve energy. I would wager that anyone who has ever dieted has experienced these effects. I know I did.
The best part of reading this book was simply the gratification of seeing scientific research backup my own personal experiences and struggles with weight regulation. Everytime I dieted I was left with a feeling of “this shouldn’t be so hard. Why is this so hard?” This book answers this question brilliantly, and left me with a solid understanding of why it’s so important to stop wasting my time on futile attempts to reduce my body weight via willpower.
Aamodt concludes: “From my perspective, most of us could find better uses for our willpower— to improve our relationships with friends, partners, and children, our work achievements, and our contributions to society— rather than spending it on trying to fit into smaller pants.”
I honestly think that this book should be required reading for every woman–perhaps every person. The Beauty Myth was published in the early 90s but the truths laid bare in its pages are still highly relevant today. Essentially, The Beauty Myth describes the way in which women are oppressed by impossible and ever-changing beauty standards. That might sound like a familiar refrain, perhaps so familiar as to be useless, but I can’t stress enough how well articulated Wolf’s arguments are about the subtleties of how and why women are censored, victimized, and brainwashed by standards of beauty.
I’ll be honest–reading it was a big part of why I decided to reduce my focus on fashion, post less to this blog, and devote more of my time and energy to my friends, family, and career.
“Hunger,” her chapter on the idealized thinness we see everywhere, was particularly elucidating and moving for me. She highlights in clear terms just how unhealthy the ideal has gotten, and how unnatural it is for us all to be starving ourselves and trying to make our bodies smaller. She highlights the fact that having fat is part of what makes women’s bodies, well, women’s bodies. We naturally have a higher percentage of body fat than men do, and yet we strive endlessly to reduce the size of those very physical features that define our sex. Dieting, Wolf asserts, is a feminist issue. How can women, she asks, achieve true equality in our society if all we can think about is how many calories we’ve eaten that day, if we’re so dazed by hunger that can’t think straight.
“We do not need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules.”
If you’re struggling with your body weight as I was, locked into an endless cycle of gaining and losing weight, I encourage you to read at least this chapter. Too many of us live lives totally drained of self esteem, energy, and health because of ridiculous ideals imposed on us about what a woman’s body should look like.
As Wolf says, “The larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them.” Let’s change that.