Is the Anti-Diet Trend and Intuitive Eating Leading to Weight Gain?

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In today’s culture, “diet” is often synonymous with restriction and deprivation. Ironically, the word originates from the Latin word “dieta,” which simply means anything you eat or drink in a day. But social media influencers have taken the word to a whole new level.

Scrolling through social media, you’ll find #whatieatinaday videos featuring individuals telling you which foods you should and shouldn’t eat to look like them. These videos promote unrealistic goals and potentially unhealthy food choices, pushing specific diets that restrict or eliminate certain nutrients. These constant reminders also highlight a huge issue in our society—the obsession with looking thin. This mindset has become more important than a healthy relationship with food.

This pressure to be thin and look a certain way has also caused a rise in disordered eating and a focus on finding the right diet—any diet at any cost—to be thin. While the drive to be thin isn’t new, the growth of social media, especially videos, has made more content readily available than ever before.

In response to these trends, some registered dietitians advise a different method coined the “anti-diet.” The aim is to bring about a healthy connection with and enjoyment of food—rather than focusing on every morsel you eat and categorizing foods as “good” and “bad.”

Below, you’ll find an explanation of the anti-diet trend as well as the pros and cons of following this method. Several registered dietitians also weigh in on using this approach and how to determine if it’s right for you.

What Is the Anti-Diet Trend?

Generally, the anti-diet or non-diet trend does not support dieting for weight loss or any non-medical reason for the sole purpose of achieving a smaller body, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian. “The anti-diet trend is a rebellion against the harms of diet culture.”

This form of nutrition counseling opposes the idea of calorie counting, restrictive meal plans, and tracking and measuring every morsel you consume. Instead, it promotes overall well-being, defies attaching morality to foods (“good” vs. “bad”), and opposes preoccupation with food, says Christy Wilson, RDN, a registered dietitian.

“The anti-diet movement may be ‘trending,'” she says. “But for practitioners, this is a lifestyle approach that rejects the shackles of diet culture. Contrary to what some may think, the anti-diet movement is not an anti-health approach; it’s an acknowledgment that health and wellness can be achieved in ways that allow for flexibility with eating and physical activity.”

The anti-diet trend also honors people’s preferences, lifestyles, cultural diets, and joyful movement. While it’s true that you may see a registered dietitian occasionally say, “I felt like eating a bowl of M&Ms for dinner, and I did,” this isn’t typically the norm. These statements take the anti-diet approach in the opposite direction, and that isn’t what the concept is about.

An integral part of the anti-diet movement is intuitive eating—an approach that promotes eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you feel full. It also promotes enjoying every morsel of food as you chew it and sitting and eating at a table or near a window when you’re relaxed versus in front of your computer. This approach improves psychological health and lowers the risk of disordered eating behaviors.

Why Is This Trend So Popular?

In simplistic terms, diets have been canceled. People are tired of restrictive diets, meal plans, and diet culture’s obsession with body image and body size, says Wilson. Plus, they find it liberating to hear that you can eat what you want while improving your health.

The truth is that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to achieving long-term health, and “healthy” isn’t attached to a particular size or look. With this in mind, the anti-diet approach honors body neutrality and the fact that everyone’s bodies are different.

“Freedom from tracking and food restriction is a relief for people who have been told by medical providers, family, friends, partners, and others that there is a single path to losing weight and achieving health,” says Wilson.

The anti-diet approach focuses on lifestyle modifications rather than short-term fad diets that deliver short-term (and, in some cases, dangerous) results. It’s also a weight-neutral approach to health that encourages people to establish a healthy relationship with food rather than looking to a number on the scale.

But, this approach takes time to achieve. For this reason, it’s important for people to establish care with registered dietitians and healthcare providers trained and educated in this practice.

Pros and Cons of the Anti-Diet Approach

Pros:

  • Focuses on lifestyle modifications that can positively influence long-term health
  • Accounts for the whole person and not just food, weight, and body size
  • Takes into account personal preferences for food, movement, sleep, and stress management, which can promote positive lifestyle changes that are more likely to stick
  • Removes the moral value many people place on food (“good” versus “bad”)
  • Avoids restrictive dieting, permitting people to allow any food in their overall diet to minimize guilt and shame
  • Reduces the likelihood of the restrict/binge cycle associated with limiting or eliminating certain foods

Cons:

  • Can be misinterpreted with people believing it gives them permission to eat anything and everything they want in any amount
  • Doesn’t work for everyone—tracking and planning work better for some people

What Do Experts Say?

According to Harris-Pincus, there is nuance in the anti-diet conversation, and it’s much more complicated than just listening to your body and eating what you crave. For instance, people with metabolic obesity have a dysregulation of energy metabolism and altered signaling between the brain and the fat cells. She says that when hunger hormones increase due to this signaling issue, the advice to “listen to your body” doesn’t always work.

Some dietitians also have voiced concern that this trend can lead to weight gain, which can be bothersome for some. But, according to Wilson weight is not the sole predictor of health. “Health is a state of well-being—a collective, not a body size. If someone is coming off of highly restrictive or perhaps disordered eating behaviors and they begin to adopt an anti-diet approach, weight may initially trend up, then stabilize.”

Besides, when people make diet changes to reach a particular number on a scale, changes are often short-lived, adds Wilson. Temporary diets that result in rapid weight loss can ultimately lead to weight cycling, which research reveals can be detrimental to health.

Wilson says anti-diet counseling aims to help people change their attitudes toward food, establish consistent meal times, improve food variety, and encourage eating for nourishment and enjoyment. This is a long process and may result in weight fluctuations over time. 

Is It Right For You?

The anti-diet approach aims to build or rebuild a healthy relationship with food, but it’s not for everyone, explains Harris-Pincus. “Each human body is unique, and every individual’s needs will vary based on medical history, food preferences, cultural influences, access to food, culinary skills, time constraints, and more.”

She recommends consulting a registered dietitian trained to work with anyone looking to lose weight in a healthy, patient-centered way. You also can use other resources like MyPlate, a simple and effective model established by the USDA in 2011. The website offers information, helpful tools, and recipes to help people of all ages get started on a healthy diet. This model can also be adapted to include cultural and regional foods.

The Mediterranean Diet is another option that has been promoted by health experts for years due to positive health outcomes from its plant-forward and balanced nutrition approach. For heart health and cardiovascular wellness, the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is an evidence-based, sodium-controlled diet that includes a variety of foods like the Mediterranean Diet.

If brain health and cognitive wellness are particularly important, the MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines the two aforementioned diet approaches. It’s also plant-forward and can be adapted for vegetarian, flexitarian, and vegan lifestyles.

The above approaches promote long-term health and are inclusive of all food groups. They are also flexible and adaptable to accommodate cultural foods and are sustainable for health and wellness. They even fit seamlessly into the anti-diet approach because they are long-term eating plans focused more on what to include in your diet for health rather than how to restrict your diet to lose weight.

Bottom Line

The anti-diet approach encourages eating for enjoyment and health and focuses on what to include in your diet for optimal nutrition rather than what to remove or restrict to lose weight. It also helps establish a healthy relationship with food.

But if building (or rebuilding) your relationship with food and all that goes with the anti-diet approach isn’t your thing, other science-based approaches will also work. As an RD, my motto is “you do you”—do what is right for you, not because you saw it on TikTok.

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