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January is full of pressure to diet. Experts say these messages can be harmful.

Illustration by Raul Alonzo
Texas Standard

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Kristi Koeter’s epiphany came while driving in the car with her daughter in Austin. Her daughter had recently relapsed into anorexia and it was time for her to eat a protein bar.

“She was refusing to have a snack. And we were getting into this really escalated argument over eating, you know, this bar that I had brought for us,” Koeter said. “And she ended up taking the bar and shoving it in my face and screaming at me to eat it. 

Kristi Koeter had an epiphany about the effects of diet culture during a conversation with her daughter who was struggling with an eating disorder.
Courtesy Photo
Kristi Koeter had an epiphany about the effects of diet culture during a conversation with her daughter who was struggling with an eating disorder.

They ended up sharing the bar.

“She said, it helps me when you eat with me,” Koeter said. “And so from then on that was like the light bulb for me, like I was done with dieting and restricting and I was going to do, you know, whatever it took to help her.”

Our culture is chock full of messaging that we need to lose weight to be healthier. These messages reach a fever pitch during New Year’s Resolution season, when a lot of people turn their focus to things like diet, exercise and weight loss.

But increasingly, research shows that the relationship between body size and health is not as clear cut as most of us have been told. And messaging about weight loss can have its own negative impact — not just on people who are vulnerable to things like eating disorders, but on everyone.

Dr. Susan Mengden works at the Esperanza Eating Disorders Center in San Antonio.

Mengden says kids can be especially vulnerable to this messaging and people should be mindful of how they talk about their own weight and diet within earshot of young people.

“If a mother is talking about her own body in a negative way or about dieting behavior, that gets passed down to the young children,” Mengden said. “It just makes them aware of things at an early age that they don’t need to be aware of, really, like the need to change their body somehow. So I would recommend that people really not talk about dieting behavior at home.”

Koeter knows first hand how challenging it can be for a parent to instill body confidence in their kids while still working on it for themselves. But she says it’s absolutely possible.

“All of us want our children to grow up and feel good about themselves,” she said. “And so every parent, I think, is coming from a place of well-meaning and wanting the best for their children and openly talking about dieting and openly talking about body size and openly talking about good and bad foods and all of those kinds of conversations are just extremely harmful to children.

I mean, they’re harmful to everyone. Let’s be real. They’re harmful to everyone. But kids are internalizing that very early.”

An example of the sort of dieting flyers that many receive during the New Years Resolutions weeks.
Sarah Asch
Texas Standard
An example of the sort of dieting flyers that many receive during the New Years Resolutions weeks.

Experts say it can be healthy for people to take notice of how they think about their weight and diet for themselves, not just for the sake of kids.

Neathery Falchuk is the founder and CEO of the Ample + Rooted therapy practice in Austin, which specializes in working with people around disordered eating, chronic dieting, and body shame.

“Lots of folks tend to approach January with, ‘health goals’ that are unsustainable,” Falchuk said. “Research shows time and time again intentional weight loss, and if it’s not where your body is supposed to be, 95% of people can’t sustain any weight loss that they’ve tried to achieve.”

Falchuk says chronic dieting — or yo-yo dieting — can lead to a pattern called “weight cycling.”

“You try to lose weight, you might lose weight for a little bit,” they said. “Likely you’re going to gain that weight back and then some people gain more weight.”

A common pervasive message holds that being fat is unequivocally unhealthy, but Falchuck says it’s more complicated than that. In fact, weight cycling can cause the negative health outcomes we associate with obesity — like risk of heart disease.

Falchuck says one of their goals is to help the people they work with reframe how they think about their weight.

“This starts with the basic belief that your weight does not equate to your health,” they said.

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Mengden recommends people who want to limit diet talk set boundaries early in the New Year.

“Setting a boundary with people’s conversations to you or telling people like health care providers that that is not a conversation you want to have with them,” she said. “Or also limiting the social media that you watch that suggests all the dieting behaviors.”

Koeter says that for those who are trying to step away from a cycle of dieting, the next steps are scary.

“It’s terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying because you don’t know what’s going to happen to your body,” she said. “I gained weight. And so I had to, even though I’ve dealt with, struggled with my weight all my life. It’s different because you’ve committed to not dieting.”

Koeter didn’t fit the specific criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis – her daughter did.

But Mengden says for everyone the health and mental health benefits of transforming our relationship with food and exercise can be huge.

“If you are thinking in your head all day long about what you’re eating and how you’re moving your body, that there is more to life than this and you can get treatment that can help you focus on the other things in life that are more important,” Mengden said. “It’s a very stressful, unhappy life for people that live their whole life dieting.”

Falchuk says the most important thing is to trust your body.

“It’s not to shame anyone who does engage in diet culture. It is the soup we swim in,” Falchuk said. “We are born knowing what we want when we’re full, when we’re hungry… And we can return to that trust in our bodies.. And my hope is that in 2024 we all can continue to take up space and live an embodied, abundant life.”

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