HAES: An Introduction
“They had spent years viewing their weight as evidence of their own personal failing.” When Linda Bacon, Ph.D. conducted the first Health at Every Size (HAES) study in Davis, California, participants stared at her blankly when she suggested that their weight-loss failures might not actually be their fault. The possibility that the diet might have failed them was a completely foreign concept.
Over time I’ve seen this idea slowly infiltrating our culture. This seemingly backwards and vague idea that “diets don’t work”. But without really understanding why diets don't work, I think it's easy for diet-culture to rush in to offer their own skewed interpretations. Diets don’t work, you can't lose and keep the weight off, because…
You are too weak to make it work
You haven’t tried this diet
You have to make it a lifestyle not just a diet
You have to have a motivation other than just weight loss to be able to sustain weight loss
You have to pray harder and deny yourself more until you build up enough self-control
You're just not good enough
All of these interpretations miss the point entirely. All of these still make it our own fault. They all shift blame (once again) away from the very act of dieting itself. Health at Every Size digs deep into the science of weight regulation. Without specifically pointing out the caring creative genius of our Creator, HAES points out how marvelously our bodies are designed to take care of us by keeping our weight within a healthy range. There are a lot of things that our bodies are not designed to do.
One thing that our amazing bodies are purposefully designed to do is to take care of us. That means, in part, making sure that we have enough energy stored and available to keep our minds and bodies functioning. We'll shortly see how our bodies care more about our health and well-being than they do about our diets.
Important side note: “Healthy range” does not mean whatever number you choose. Or a number that somebody else chooses for you. Whether it’s your Doctor, personal trainer, BMI, nutritionist, friend, family or spouse. Only God and our bodies know exactly what weight is right for us at any given time. That number changes as we change, grow and live life.
The message of HAES is that fixating on a certain number is not only fruitless, it is damaging. It is harmful to us as individuals and as a society. It actually destroys health rather than promotes it. I know that's a pretty radical idea, "isn't dieting what I'm doing for my health?!" It's okay. We're going to spend quite a bit of time looking at how this wild idea could be true.
Today we’re starting with the Health at Every Size (HAES) introduction. (If you missed my introduction, check it out here. It explains the purpose of this whole series.) We’re going to be diving into some of the nitty-gritty science of weight regulation right off the bat in the first chapter, so I wanted to make sure that we have the big picture in the forefront of our minds heading into it.
A great follow-up to HAES is Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight", also by Linda Bacon, PhD and Lucy Aphramor.
The big picture is Freedom. It’s freedom to be us, unrestricted, uniquely imprinted individuals, free to make the choices that God has given us to make. Choices about how we are going to take care of our bodies. About how we are going to spend our lives. About what we are going to devote our energy and power to. Freedom to live unapologetically unashamed of our bodies. To not spend the precious little time that we have here on Earth hyper-focused on getting our bodies to be something other than what they are and fighting every bite to keep it that way. We are made for more. So much more.
We are each here for a purpose. As God’s kids we are on a mission. We have family business to be about. We are meant to be overflowing with mutually reciprocating love for God, our neighbors and ourselves. We are supposed to be known by our love. We are made for life. Instead, diet-culture has us trapped hating ourselves, comparing with others and feeling like failures in God’s eyes.
Kelly, one of the original HAES study participants...
"Described the ways in which her inability to lose weight and the subsequent self-hatred controlled much of her life… she rarely ate at restaurants because she dreaded the looks of other diners as she ate, feeling their judgment and disapproving looks at her body and the food she chose… She kept returning to the refrain that she had tried to lose weight, she had really tried, but she was just too weak to keep up the regimen of dieting or exercise.” (Health at Every Size)
So here is where we change the narrative. Where we inject the truth. There is hope. Hope for more freedom. More love. More peace. More joy. More enjoyment with food. More peace and laughter in our physical movement. Hope that we can appreciate, respect and love our bodies. Hope that we are not doomed to manipulate, control and demean ourselves for the rest of our lives. If you just scoffed at that, take a minute to sit with that. Does this really sound so ridiculous? Okay, maybe it does. But that is only because it is so absolutely counter to the culture that we’ve been raised in. I wish I could say that this culture is different inside American churches. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not all that different.
Here’s what I wish we were believing more in church…
"You can feel better about yourself. You can feel loved, accepted, and vital- and you can improve your health- regardless of whether you lose weight."
These ideas of hope and freedom (regardless of weight) aren’t just nice dreams and they aren’t just for somebody else. These are realities for you. Of course, they’ll require letting go of something to take a hold of something that you probably can’t even really fathom at this moment.
So here are some quick encouragements. Sister, this will be a lot to take in, but man is it worth it. If you have Holy Spirit with you, you are never alone. Never. You have probably felt very alone when it comes to food and your body. For this, I am truly so sorry. It feels that way, but you are not alone.
So, I just said a lot and I don’t want you to get through this second post wondering… “What exactly is Health at Every Size?” So here you go.
Health at Every Size is not a weight-loss book. It’s not a diet book. It’s not an exercise program. Health at Every Size is a book about healthy living, one designed to support you as you shift your focus from hating yourself and fighting your body to learning to appreciate yourself, your body, and your life.”
It’s simple, yet revolutionary. It is not the end goal. It is the next step. It renews our minds and gives us permission to live beyond dieting. To live as our true selves in Jesus. When we live like that, all kinds of amazing God-things happen in and around us.
Before we call it quits for the day, let's make this personal. Where do you need freedom in your food, body and exercise? Where do you need hope? If you aren't sure, ask a friend. Somebody who knows you and loves you and wants you to live joyfully in as much freedom as possible. Could they maybe see something that you don't? What if you asked God? I bet He's got more freedom and hope for you than you could even imagine. He's kinda awesome like that and He loves you a whole bunch.