The data is clear. Diet culture is toxic, and it can be a risk factor for body dysmorphia, disordered eating and other mental health issues. While we all intuitively know this, it is still a problem. Dr. Jenn Salib Huber, a naturopathic doctor and registered dietitian shares with us why diets fail 95% of the time, why we still try them, but also that we can achieve our health goals by un-dieting our lives.
Georgie Kovacs: Let’s start with your concern about influencers and the role they play in this toxic diet culture.
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: Oh, where do I start? So I know it's a big question.
Let me first give everyone a little bit of background about where I come from. I've been a dietitian for 21 years, I've been a naturopathic doctor for almost 17. For the first part of my career, it was traditional and conventional - calories in calories out. This means we control that equation - we control weight, we control health. But then I realized that it's not quite that simple.
As I entered midlife and my practice really started to focus on women in midlife, I realized that something wasn't working. It wasn't that women weren't doing “dieting” well enough. It was that diets didn't work. The more that I dove into the science and the research around dieting, and the success and failure rates, and how we define even as success, I realized that we had been sold a bill of goods professionally, personally, culturally. We were told that we could control our weight by controlling food and controlling exercise, but that's not most women's experience.
Most women have the experience that they do all the "right things." They try hard, they try it over and over again. And while things might work in the short term, they're unlikely to work. The data that we have around dieting is really clear that intentional efforts to lose weight will fail, meaning that any of the weight that is lost is regained, upwards of 80%, and some studies even suggest 95% of the time, so that there is no kind of clear path to easy, sustainable weight loss, which is the unicorn that everyone's looking for.
What’s happened over the last five or six years on social media is that we really have these dietary tribes, which have taken hold where people have very strong beliefs, very strong opinions, and whether or not they're truly qualified to give advice about food and nutrition and health. It’s out there. Thus, women in midlife who are struggling with the body changes that we all experience, who maybe have spent a lifetime trying to lose weight, are at the point where they're literally willing to try anything because they still believe with all of their heart and believe, unquestionably, that they should always keep trying to lose weight, no matter the cost. And that is where I draw the line.
Even if the diet works, meaning that it produces weight loss, the side effects of those restrictive diets where people can’t or won’t have cake at their child's birthday party, where they have to count every meal and every calorie, where they have to say no to foods they enjoy and eat foods that they don't enjoy, is never going to be healthy. And that is the part of the conversation that I think is left out when people are talking about "Does keto work?” Or “Does intermittent fasting work?
Sure, in the short term, they work like any other diet in that in the first three to six months, it will probably result in weight loss. But after that, it's unlikely to work in the long term. And as a result of that, women are often left feeling like there's something wrong with them, that they haven't tried hard enough, that they need to do more. And all of that leads to a very disordered relationship with food, which is where women land in front of me - no longer knowing what to eat, how to eat, or what's wrong with them.
Georgie Kovacs: I think generally people hear things like, “diets don't work.,” but then you see all these companies and products popping up, the Instagram and other social media outlet pressures that are coming up. So how can someone internalize the fact that diets mostly don’t work? There's the knowing, and then there's that deep, intuitive, "you get it." And it's a journey.
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: There are a couple of different situations where women land in front of me.
Tried Everything: “I've tried everything, nothing is working. This is the last thing left. Help me.”
Messy Midde: Trying intuitive eating, read the book, may have heard some podcasts and friends who are trying to un-diet their lives, but get stuck in what I call the “messy middle,” which feels like quicksand. It's like you're going along, you're not following any rules, things are going great, and then something happens. You sink right back into diet culture, and you feel terrified about what's happening.
The diet cycle is the predictable series of events that happens, where women feel the desire to lose weight, whether that is driven by health, by how their clothes are fitting, or how they feel about their body. The thought or the feeling enters their mind that they need to lose weight. As a result, they start restrictive dieting, following a plan. Initially, that feels really exciting. It feels like you're in control, you're doing something, it's proactive. Even if you've done that 100 times, it feels like this time it will be different. There's that novelty factor of this.
After a while, it becomes uncomfortable for any number of reasons - you don't like what you're allowed to eat, you miss the foods that you used to enjoy, you've had to make too many sacrifices, you feel like you're missing out, or you're tired of calculating and counting.
As soon as it becomes uncomfortable, because of the restriction, the gates begin to open, and that is when we jump all in and say, “Okay, screw it. I'm just going to have whatever I want. I can't do this anymore.” Initially that feels good. There's relief.
After a while, and sometimes it's as little as a few hours, we're right back in that diet cycle because we've now entered blame and shame.
Why couldn't I stick to the plan?
What's wrong with me?
There must be something wrong with me?
The rules are really simple. Why can't I just do this?
And so that diet cycle is repeated for some women hundreds of times over their lives.
Where I come in is that I try and get women to see that we can interrupt that first thought and we can stop and say, "Okay, why do I feel like I need to lose weight. Why have I made weight loss the pinnacle of my health journey and a proxy for health?" Whether it's childhood beliefs, whether it's your experience growing up, as an adult, whether it's your friends, whether it's just diet culture in general, when we can understand what needs need to be met in other ways so that you can feel safe and secure in your body.
When we can understand what it means to be attuned to all of your needs, not just the need for nourishment, but the need for pleasure and connection, and rest and movement and joy, then we can eat intuitively, which, strictly speaking, some people interpret as eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. But that's really the tip of the iceberg, because it's really about eating with permission, just being able to eat any food that you find enjoyable and satisfying and pleasurable.
Some people worry that, with that kind of unrestricted box, that they're just going to eat whatever they want. While that is true, it doesn't mean eating whatever you want to the point of not feeling well or not honoring your health. There’s so much more to the intuitive eating piece.
Georgie Kovacs: We're in a quick fix culture. I can totally see how someone might see something on Instagram where that's the quick snapshot, they don't see all the work that goes behind how somebody looks. "No, No, No, I'm just going to try that. I don't need a psychological analysis. That takes too much time. I need to change what I eat right now." What would you say to them?
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: Again, I think it's that diet culture, a bill of goods that we've been sold, that we can diet and exercise our way into someone else's body. However, if we all ate the same thing, we would all look differently.
We know that 70% of our body size and shape is genetic. That comes as a big surprise to people because we've been told that you can shape and mold your body into whatever you want it to be, but there's a limit to that.
I’d like to share a story from my own life about this where in 2018, I found out that I was donor-conceived in the late 70s. As a result, I now have this relatively large family. One of the half siblings that I have and I actually look quite a bit alike and lives here in the Netherlands, about three kilometers from me. We look more like than many full siblings I know. We are within half a centimeter of each other, and neither of us knows our weight, but we can shop for each other. It was just such an incredible real-life reminder to me of how important genetics are in determining how we look.
When we start to realize that we really can have health at every size, and that weight isn't a proxy for health because there are many people in smaller bodies who are not healthy and many people in larger bodies who are, it really gives us the freedom to explore what health actually is. If weight has been the primary way that you or your medical provider or anyone else has been defining health, then it can be really liberating to realize that walking every day is a fantastic health promoting behavior, even if it never changes the scale.
Georgie Kovacs: What would you say to people who are on that ride of, "Hey, I'm on keto, let's all be in the keto group and the Whole30 group.” It's understandable because you're a part of something. But there's a flip side.
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: Finding a dietary tribe feels like, initially like you found your village, but for most women, it ends up feeling like a cult because you're only welcome as long as you're following the rules and you can't question them.
It invites comparison, and we already have so much of that in our life, right? A village should really be someone who meets you where you're at and supports you in the way that you need to be supported and not just following the rules.
Georgie Kovacs: What is the solution, then? How do women feel good in their bodies and get out of the diet cycle and diet cultures?
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: How we feel is really all that matters. Glennon Doyle's recent podcast was her podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, was on bodies, and how we feel about our bodies. She really had this amazing concept that "we can either control our bodies, or we can love our bodies, we cannot do both." The things that we need to do to control our body are not loving, it's restricting.
That’s where the framework of intuitive eating really is a safe place for women to land because it says, “You know what, I acknowledge that you have lived in diet culture and are so indoctrinated into this diet mentality. That it is what you live and breathe, and you do not know how to function and have a relationship with food that doesn't involve following a set of rules, counting, tracking, and using the scale as a measure of success. That is culture.”
But there is another way to do that.
We need to undiet your life.
We need to examine those beliefs.
We need to really understand them.
And it's not that you will no longer ever desire weight loss.
I'm always really clear with women that I don't think anyone, including me, can ever get to the point where that's completely removed from your consciousness, but it can become less important. Whether or not you fit into pants you wore two years ago no longer takes up the space in your body image and self image that they may have once been used to.
Georgie Kovacs: For those who might be wondering, can intuitive eating lead to weight loss? Can you achieve both feeling good and losing weight?
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: That's such a great question, and thank you for asking. Intuitive eating is not anti-weight loss, but it is against the pursuit of intentional weight loss for the purposes of health.
The goal is to get you out of the diet and blame-and-shame cycle. You haven't failed at dieting. It's dieting that has failed you. That's the most important take home. We would never prescribe a drug knowing that it would only work 5% of the time, but we do that for diets all the time.
Georgie Kovacs: What should the conversation around health, dieting and body image acceptance look like?
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: A part of that conversation needs to be normalizing the fact that bodies change. We start by telling girls in puberty that they're going to get softer and rounder and curvier. That's normal. Their body percentage has to double in order for them to achieve and maintain menstruation. We need to normalize that. We need to shout that from the rooftops. We need to tell women of all ages that there is never the expectation that they stay the same number or the same dress size for their entire life. That does not predict or measure health.
5% of women meet that thin ideal, but they take up like 90 plus percent of the media, We need to start showing people, not just women, but we just started showing the diversity of the human body, doing the things that the human body can do, that is not dependent on meeting the standards of the thin ideal.
Georgie Kovacs: Tell us about the programs you offer women looking to undiet their lives and understand intuitive eating?
Dr Jenn Salib Huber: Beyond the Scale is a seven-week program, which helps women on diet their lives over 40 or women over 35 who are also in midlife. It addresses some of the unique challenges that I think women experience as they're going through perimenopause and menopause and the body changes and life changes. It’s a step-by-step program: lots of contact with me, weekly group calls, weekly modules, a daily chat and just an amazing small group of women that really are just there to walk with you as you go through this process.
For those who may not be into the one-on-one or not into the group support, I do have some one-on-one options as well for undieting your life, especially if you need a little bit more support through that process than what a group can offer.
Georgie Kovacs: What is your greatest hope for women's health?
Jenn Salib Huber: My greatest hope for women's health really comes back down to food and for many women, I think the “food is medicine” message has been their guide, but the reality is that food can't cure everything. I would really like to see food become part of the discussion around women's health that doesn't involve introducing shame when women can't use food as their only medicine.
Discounts & Resources
Beyond the Scale: 6-week group program helping women "undiet" their lives after 40
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Peri/Menopause: online, self-study program
About Dr. Jenn Salib-Huber