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Why It’s OK to be Dieting {And Why I’m Still Anti-Diet Anyway}

Why It’s OK to be Dieting {And Why I’m Still Anti-Diet Anyway}

Jes Baker was recently on Food Psych promoting her upcoming book, Landwhale (Amazon Affiliate link) when she shared a profound idea: It’s OK to be on a diet.

Welcome to Dietland & Donutland

Jes explained (based on a model from therapist and fat activist Dr. Deb Burgard) that we all exist on a pendulum that swings between “Dietland” and “Donutland”. Most people in our culture live in Dietland – we might not be counting calories or obsessing over the number on the scale, but we’re “watching what we eat” or “watching our waistline”. We admire those who seem to have the “willpower” to look or live a certain way, and make “lifestyle changes” of our own in an attempt to follow suit.

Over time, some of us realize that Dietland is not the place that we want to be. We’re tired of spending most of our day thinking about food, only to see that our weight is not coming down. We’re sick of having our value tied to how well we “perform health”. We want to be free from all the counting and measuring.

It makes sense that at this point, our pendulum swings all the way over to Donutland.

Wheeeeeee!!! (via GIPHY)

Donutland is where the rebels live. Whereas Dietland is full of (constantly changing and often contradictory) rules around eating and living, Donutland doesn’t just have zero rules, it actively rejects them. It’s about revelling in all the high-sugar, high-carb, high-fat, high-salt, high-calorie foods that are shunned in Dietland. It’s about embracing your so-called “flaws” and loving, heck, celebrating your body as it is.

Donutland might be all icing and sprinkles, but over time, we start to… miss Dietland. We miss the structure and certainty of having rules. We miss the way that we looked and felt when we were dieting, the compliments and support we got. Donutland just isn’t a lot of fun when everyone we know and love is still over in Dietland.

So, we swing back to Dietland, and we’re sure that things will be different this time. We’re determined to stay for good. Then, slowly but surely, the rules and the guilt start creeping up, and we remember why we left in the first place.

And so, the cycle continues.

Despite its nonsensical, sometimes harmful rules, Dietland is a pretty safe place. Like I said, most people live here, so this is the place to be if you just want to blend in and be accepted. As Jes Baker puts it, “I think that when we’re in Dietland, we are searching for control and validation and worthiness. We’re searching for something.” There is nothing wrong with being in Dietland.

Donutland is fun and carefree, but it’s still another extreme, and it’s exhausting. You can’t help but wonder whether people actually want to be there, or they’re just reflexively doing whatever is the opposite of what they used to do in Dietland, even if it still makes them feel awful. There is nothing wrong with being in Donutland.

The Real Problem with Dietland

While there’s nothing wrong with being in Dietland, Dietland itself is filled with often well-meaning, but ultimately harmful ideas. First, diets never seem to deliver on what they promise. Evidence consistently points to the fact that diets don’t lead to long-term weight loss for most people, and in fact are correlated with weight gain. If they can’t even achieve their original intention, how can we expect them to bring also us health? Happiness? Confidence? Control? Validation? Worthiness?

Second, Dietland does not welcome people in larger bodies. Fat people are constantly and loudly told that they “need to” lose weight directly from loved ones, health professionals and strangers alike, and indirectly via unaccommodating spaces, not having their voices heard or respected, and other forms of weight stigma.

Worst of all, the powers that be know that we are getting restless and trying to get out of Dietland, and so it tries to use “sensible” language—even “anti-diet” language—to keep us in. It’s not just the diet industry that’s spreading this 💩 around, it’s our family, friends, colleagues, health professionals. I’m embarrassed to admit that even a past version of me has held and shared some of these ideas:

“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.”

“It doesn’t matter what you weigh, as long as you’re healthy.”

“Living a healthy lifestyle will help you move towards a healthy weight.”

“Once I stopped dieting and hating my body, I lost weight!”

Dieting is harmful enough, and Dietland simply adds fuel to the fire by keeping us hooked on something that simply doesn’t work, by creating a system that consistently values thin, fit, young bodies over all others.

Anti-Diet is Not Pro-Donutland

Contrary to popular belief, being anti-diet or non-diet is not about bringing people to Donutland. Sure, Donutland is anti-Dietland, but many of its inhabitants are still recovering from being in Dietland and aren’t ready to take in anything that even remotely sounds like a diet, regardless of intention. Genuinely like the taste of chicken breast and broccoli? You’re told you’re a liar. Plan your meals? Prepare to be called a traitor. No wonder people are running back to Dietland all the time.

via GIPHY

So, if Dietland and Donutland both have their flaws, then where exactly do you go?

You do remember that we’re on a pendulum, right? Pendulums eventually stop in the middle, and nestled between Dietland and Donutland is a third “D”: discernment.

Merriam-Webster defines discernment as, “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure”. In this context, I feel like it’s about not taking Dietland or Donutland at face value – rather, examining the experiences we’ve had and the lessons we’ve learned from both of those extremes to create a set of values and a way of living that is our own.

Swinging between the extremes can be dizzying and frustrating, and for those of us who have started settling more in the middle, it can be tough seeing other people stuck in the cycle. But if we tried to force the pendulums to stop, it would require a ton of effort and probably generate a lot of pushback. Worse yet, the pendulum itself might break and go flying off into the distance.

Dietland and Donutland are just part of the path of the pendulum, and with gentle resistance, it will eventually—even if it means months or years of trips back and forth—slow down and spend more time in discernment.

Where has your pendulum taken you? Please share your adventures in Dietland, Donutland and Discernment in the comments below!

10 Comments

  • Kirsten Oilund on May 18, 2018 Reply

    Vincci!! I love all your work, but this is by far my new favourite post. So articulate and insightful! Thank-you for writing it.

    • Vincci Tsui on May 18, 2018 Reply

      Thanks, Kirsten! Really, all the credit has to go to Jes Baker and Deb Burgard, who originated these concepts.

  • Anna on May 08, 2018 Reply

    Thank you so much for this article Vincci! It articulates something I’ve been trying to explain in my Dietitian work, but feel like it has still come off as very “diet-y”. Discernment is the perfect word!

    • Vincci Tsui on May 08, 2018 Reply

      Thanks, Anna! All credit goes to Deb Burgard for the concept of “discernment”

  • Beva Dudiak on May 03, 2018 Reply

    I’ve been in donutland for some time now and I’m finding the need to move on and add some structure without ending up 100% in dietland again. My memories of dietland are not good ones. But too long in donutland has me longing for a change. I liked this article as I felt it gives me options to implement some diet type ideas without going whole hog diet scene. So I can give myself that longed for structure guilt free.

    • Vincci Tsui on May 03, 2018 Reply

      Thank you so much for your insight, Beva! I’m so glad this article was helpful.

  • Shelley on May 03, 2018 Reply

    Hi Vincci, I agree with your comments here, but am curious about your statement about “It doesn’t matter what you weigh as long as you are healthy” being harmful. I see how the other statements are weight related, but this one is more focused on health. In my opinion, each of us works each day towards better health. The scale moving may be irrelevant to the outcome of better health for many, but better health is still the end goal of our work as health professionals.

    • Vincci Tsui on May 03, 2018 Reply

      Hi Shelley, great question! I absolutely agree that as health professionals that we value health and that people come to us seeking better health. Why the “It doesn’t matter what you weigh as long as you are healthy” statement has the potential to be harmful is because it implies that a person’s value is tied to their health, and more precisely, our society’s narrow view of health. The ideal version of the phrase should be “It doesn’t matter what you weigh.” Full stop.

      You wrote “each of us works each day towards better health”, and I question whether that is actually true. What about the people who don’t have the means to, or actively choose not to? What about the people who are “doing everything right” yet are still diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or some other condition?

      I agree that our goal as health professionals is to help people achieve better health, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced definition of “health” and permission for people to not be “healthy” as it’s currently defined.

  • Lori on May 03, 2018 Reply

    It’s funny. I recently came to a similar conclusion about my relationship to food. I rejected dieting and went to Donut Land. That didn’t work for me either. And by “work” I mean it didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel right. One day it occurred to me that I don’t live that way in any other area of my life. There are things that I do, don’t do, try to do more of or less of. It didn’t make sense to live in Donut Land full time. So I went back and instituted some rules and guidelines for myself around food and I’m settling in. I like it. It feels good and right. I think both lands are good places to visit but neither are good places to live.

    • Vincci Tsui on May 03, 2018 Reply

      Thanks for sharing your insights, Lori!

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