The Anti-Diet Movement


Wendy O’Neil says she has eternity to be bone-thin. In this life, at 250 pounds, the executive director of the YWCA in Roanoke, Va., is finally at peace. That’s because she has stopped dieting.

“I don’t spend my life thinking, ‘Oh my Lord, can I have any salad dressing on that salad?’ It’s an interesting sense of freedom,” said O’Neil, who added that she is healthy despite being obese.

O’Neil is one of a growing number of people who are fed up with dieting, losing weight and then regaining all or more of it, only to compound the problem with a sense of failure, negative self image and more eating.

Many believe the drawbacks of dieting fall disproportionately on women, who are born and raised into a culture that marks female success by pencil thinness.


“The real tragedy is that millions of American women walk around all day long in a cocoon of self-hatred,” said Jane Hirschmann, co-author of “Overcoming Overeating” (Fawcett, 1988). “They think about what they should eat, what they shouldn’t eat, what they should wear, what they shouldn’t wear. It zaps their energy.”

The notion that diets don’t work is not a new one -- it just keeps gaining ground. Evidence presented at a National Institutes of Health conference in April showed that diets fail the vast majority of the time. Even most people who embark on a sensible approach including behavior modification, and no powders or other gimmicks, return to their original weight after five years.

The NIH panel stopped short, however, of saying that people should not lose weight. The researchers stressed slow and modest reductions, which they said could have a meaningful impact on those with weight-related health problems.

Yet some therapists are taking it a step further. They believe that since diets don’t work, overweight people need to learn to accept themselves for what they are, free themselves from the obsession of losing weight and get on with their lives. In taking the pressure off, they often lose weight, but that is not the goal.


“Most people stop bingeing once they accept themselves,” said Joseph McVoy, director of the eating disorders clinic at Saint Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford, Va.

McVoy, who last year formed the Assn. for the Health Enrichment of Large Persons, said he tried unsuccessfully for years to help people lose weight and maintain the loss. AHELP, a group of health professionals who want to provide a more supportive environment for large people, held its first conference in mid-May.

McVoy does not prescribe any eating plan to patients but advocates exercise, assertiveness and self-esteem. As an overweight child, “kids call you ‘Jell-O butt.’ You learn to take it and be invisible. You learn to not show anger even if you feel it,” he said.

When these people grow up, they continue to let others disrespect them, for fear that becoming angry will draw attention to themselves, McVoy said.


The anti-dieting movement is by no means monolithic. There are different definitions for what a “diet” really is. And there are vast differences in dieters -- some are already thin, others are continually battling with five or 10 pounds, some are quite overweight but healthy, others are overweight but have conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or high cholesterol.

Among them are those who are heavy because of genetic or metabolic predispositions, or who are at a greater risk because of their body shape and composition.

But some researchers, who agree that dieting has its downfalls, believe that disbanding the notion of weight loss -- at least for some people -- is equally inappropriate.

“The pendulum has swung,” said Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University. “We’ve gone from a complete embracing of dieting to a wholesale rejection of dieting,” he said. “We have evidence that repeated dieting may be dangerous, but also that dieting is likely to improve the health status of many thousands of people. We have evidence now to be right in the middle.”


Brownell said that the most important questions are who should lose weight, who can lose weight and how they can be helped to do it, not whether dieting is good or bad.

“Hogwash” is how Brownell describes Hirschmann’s anti-dieting approach, which advocates that compulsive eaters stock large amounts of the very foods they continually crave. “I know of no evidence that shows providing people with unlimited access reduces the appeal of those foods,” Brownell said.

According to Hirschmann, putting all foods on a equal psychological plane makes the binge-producing ones less desirable, and compulsive eaters eventually relearn how to eat out of physical rather than psychological hunger.

“You have to surround yourself with your most forbidden goodies, because you have been taught to be afraid of those foods. It’s unbelieveably rewarding for a woman to have ice cream in the freezer and not eat it,” Hirschmann says. If you eat three bags of chips at a clip, she recommends you buy 15. “It’s scarcity that makes people anxious,” she said.


Maxine Gold can attest to this. Gold, communications consultant to the Women’s Therapy Center Institute, a Manhattan collective of feminist therapists, said that “having sweets in the house and not wanting them is new for me. Every time I feel it, it’s empowering.”