In Zen and the Art of Weight Loss: Part 1 I said “The question of how to lose weight is one of the great American koans. Many people have meditated on it for years, desperate to determine the answer. The unsuspecting dieter comes up with a plan, such as a fortified resolve to eat less and exercise more, but eventually returns to the bathroom scale, mirror, or feelings of lack of self-worth with a sense of failure. Then, an imaginary master takes out a teaching stick, whacks the dieter on the shoulder, and sends the dieter back to try again. Because although the efforts made may have been based on a slightly new approach, the dieter’s fundamental way of thinking about the question had not changed. The dieter tries harder, just as students do with koans, but the dieter’s basic assumptions don’t change, and the same cycle will be repeated. Here are 2 more basic assumptions that are worthy of serious challenge!
Assumption 2: If You Work Your Diet, Your Diet Will Work
Most people think diets work and that it is the dieters who “don’t work.” However, any review of unbiased research literature not done by the diet industry leads to the conclusion that, in fact, diets don’t work. Professor Steven of Brigham Young University says, “You would be hard-pressed to review the dietary literature and conclude that you can give people a set of dietary guidelines or restrictions that they will be able to follow in the long term and manage their weight successfully.” Dr. Glenn A. Gaesser, in his groundbreaking book Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health concluded that 90 percent of dieters regain all the weight they lose. Similarly, Professor Traci Mann of UCLA, after conducting a comprehensive analysis of thirty-one diet studies, concluded that most dieters would have been better off never dieting at all since the majority of them gained all their weight back and more. In fact, study after study concludes that you are more likely to gain weight as a result of dieting than lose weight. In the ten prospective studies Mann et al located, only one showed weight loss over time, two found that dieting had no relationship to weight loss, and seven found that dieting led to weight gain. A large study of adolescents including almost 15,000 subjects concluded that weight-loss efforts were a clear risk factor for future weight gains. The conclusion: The more you try to diet, the more likely you will gain weight! Sounds like a Zen koan to me! (See Post 1 to read more about Zen koans.
Nonetheless, those who favor logic more than the crazy wisdom of the Zen koan argue that people still need to try to lose weight because of the health risks. However, here, too, the problem is more koan-like than people might realize. While being overweight, in and of itself, is associated with certain health risks, eating certain foods, not moving or exercising, and having prior health issues may be more significant factors in people’s health than being overweight itself. One of the largest studies, conducted at Harvard University, found that the rate of heart disease and type II diabetes increase significantly with big weight fluctuations such as those experienced by yo-yo dieters (one of the most common results of dieting). In fact, many studies have concluded that repeatedly losing weight and then gaining weight again may be more dangerous to your health than being overweight!
Clearly, while many people are led to believe that if they work their diet program diligently they will lose weight and become healthier, much data suggests that this assumption does not survive careful scrutiny.
Assumption 3: If You don’t like your body, try to change it
Most people look at their bodies and don’t like what they see; in short, they feel ashamed. Such shame is fostered by families; ever-present media images; ignorant cultural assumptions about women, beauty, and health; denial of the prevalence and role of sexual abuse in creating body shame; and a burgeoning $60 billion dieting industry ready to exploit all believers, banking on our failure. They hope to rid themselves of their shame by losing weight.
The logic is simple—simply dangerous! In actuality, diets motivated by body shame are not only unsuccessful, but also the voices of criticism and feelings of shame will rarely disappear for more than a short time. However, if people address the underlying shame psychologically, in a more direct and successful manner, they may no longer be motivated to diet at all. What’s a girl or fella to do? Does that mean people should never try to lose weight? Psychotherapists Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter, in their groundbreaking book Overcoming Overeating, suggest that only after giving up dieting can people free themselves from the never-ending cycle of criticizing themselves, controlling themselves, and then breaking free and binging. Hirschmann and Munter explain how people shouldn’t be ruled by raging self-abuse and criticism, but that is what motivates most people to diet.
The main conclusions I drew from my own research that inform my current view of dieting and body image are: 1) Most people diet as a result of shame and self-hatred. 2) Shame and self-hatred rarely generate positive results. 3) People’s stories of pain and struggle regarding body image and eating patterns provide a window to understanding the motivation and meaning of their behavior. 4) Learning to respond to internal and external criticisms helps people learn to love themselves. In short, successful weight loss begins with building a new relationship with our bodies, our eating habits, and ourselves, one not based on losing weight! (For more about my research click on the link to my website: The Diet Project.)
Nonetheless, most of what people hear, much of which is funded by the diet industry, never suggests that people consider not dieting as a way of beginning a better relationship with their bodies and themselves. The dieting industry depends on people, particularly women, disliking their bodies, feeling ashamed about themselves, and trying to lose weight to remedy the situation. The agenda of loving ourselves, which includes loving our bodies, is so radical that most of us can’t fathom the possibility that this will help us find a way of eating that nurtures and supports us. We have come to believe so firmly that the way to happiness and well-being is to meet certain cultural standards and make appropriate changes that the notion of loving ourselves the way we are seems almost pathological. We simply don’t believe that loving ourselves, not fixing ourselves, is a worthy path.
Recently, my partner, Lisa, told me that Jada Pinkett Smith’s daughter, Willow, had cut and colored her hair in a way that garnered much negative attention. Many people questioned Jada Smith’s judgment as a mother asking how she could let her daughter wear her hair that way. She responded, “This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination.” She went on to say, “Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.”
Thank you Jada for standing against the power of cultural standards to shape and shame girls, women, and the rest of us!
 Amanda Spake, “Stop Dieting! Forget the scale, the calorie counting, and forbidden foods. They may be doing more harm than good,” U.S. News and World Report, posted January 8, 2006, accessed October 31, 2011, http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/articles/060116/16diet.htm.
 Traci Mann, A. Janet Tomiyama, Erika Westling, Ann-Marie Lew, Barbra Samuels, and Jason Chatman, “Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer,” American Psychologist, 62, no. 3 (2007): 220-233.
 Field, A.E., Austin, S.B., Taylor, C.B., Malspeis, S., Rosner, B., Rockett, H.R., et al. Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics, 112, 900–906 (2003).
 Glenn A. Gaesser, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health (Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books, 2002 ), 77.