We're Giving Dieting Too Much - Weight in Wellness Communication

Most wellness committees deliver frequent messages about food-tips sent with good intentions that prescribe what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Employees who receive this communication (and thousands of other food-related tips, advertisements, and images from various media) are conditioned to believe they'll feel better if they simply pay attention and act accordingly: Apply these steps! Avoid these foods! Want to feel better? Go on a diet! Get in shape! Instead, we need to reshape our relationship with food. We're giving it way too much power.

The Obstacles at Work

"Dieting is a $52 billion industry with a 92% failure rate," points out Ronda Bokram, a registered dietician in Michigan State University's Health Education Department who serves as an adjunct faculty member. "It's an industry built around the fear of obesity.  

People are so afraid of becoming fat-the word has such a stigma attached to it-that the idea of food becomes all-consuming. To avoid being labeled as fat or obese, many students here and many people in general start restricting themselves to certain foods, or start working out for three hours a day. Wellness goes by the wayside when food gets that much attention."

The concept of dieting is a popular ingredient in health communication for multiple reasons:

  • The diet industry's presence: The diet industry has thousands of methods and plans, diet clubs, and weight loss programs. Big-name authors write diet books because they know they're seducing a captive audience.
  • Quick-fix mentality: Our can-do culture loves fast solutions, no matter if they're realistic. Many of us have little respect for the change process, and for concepts such as gradual, incremental, and progressive.
  • Diet-oriented medical professionals: Many health care professionals bombard patients with nutritional information, lecturing about the importance of weight loss and encouraging surgical procedures to reduce obesity.
  • Difficulty of changing behavior: Relatively little psychology is used in educating people to take better care of themselves around food. Until we address the conflicting and (more often than not) contradictory emotions and motivations people have about eating intuitively, we are not going to see much change in mainstream thinking or behavior around food.

Genetics, temperament, biochemistry, and neuropsychology have as much to do with eating and weight as do proper nutrition and exercise. In fact, research shows that more people engage in thoughts about their weight and eating habits, the more likely they will be prone to negative emotions, distress, and psychological ill-health.

A recent paper published in the journal Eating Behaviors (Masudo and Wendell, 2010) indicates that how we relate to the fear of weight gain and the importance of being thin makes a difference in how we feel and behave.

The Value of "Intuitive Eating" Messages

To become physically and mentally healthier, Bokram says, companies and communities shouldn't deliver information about food and nutrition in judgment terms of "good" and "bad." And instead of trusting newfangled diet crazes or instant-gratification concepts, we should start putting some faith in ourselves, trusting what our bodies are telling us. Bokram says each person has an intuitive sense of hunger and appetite.  

Following those normal-eating cues, rather than a harsh calorie restriction, shifts the focus on food inward, where it belongs. "People crave external forces-they love diets because they're told what to do," Bokram says. "It's the equivalent of getting a good math grade without actually understanding the material. After a while, you run into the same kinds of problems, and you really haven't learned anything."

Bokram should be applauded. She tries to help Michigan State students become at peace with their bodies, and to delight in the pleasures of food. In addition to scheduled appointments, her department publishes educational fliers and other printed material, holds empowering meetings and events about wellness and nutrition, and trains students to help others in a peer-to-peer way.  

The university's Health Education Department also distributes a customized version of an electronic newsletter quarterly. It, too, takes the focus off food and instead includes a department called "Outer Aisle Fresh." Another proponent of intuitive-eating messages is Dr. Lynn Rossy, a health psychologist who teaches a series of "Eat for Life" classes at the University of Missouri.  She founded the university's Mindfulness Practice Center.  

Her basic philosophy on food is refreshingly holistic, incorporating mindfulness, the intuitive wisdom of the body and mind, and educational insight.Rossy encourages wellness committees to use the acronym "BASICS" to deliver messages about intuitive eating. It stands for Belly Check, Assess Your Food, Slow Down, Investigate Your Hunger, Chew Your Food Thoroughly, and Savor Your Food.

Nix the Notion of a Quick Fix

Wellness committees can play an important part in stopping the madness propagated by our culture of dieting, bodily discontent, and the prevailing belief in a quick fix. Let's start by simply giving food less weight.

About the Author

Shawn M.  Connors is president of Hope Health.  He believes behavior change requires a mix of both art and science. He founded the International Health Awareness Center, Inc.  (IHAC) in 1981, which focuses on the importance of communication in positively affecting workplace cultures. Recently, he worked to develop a workable, realistic health communication system.