Considering a New Year’s Resolution to Lose Weight? 5 Ways Weight-Related Resolutions Normalize Disordered Eating

December 23, 2023

by Sam S

The arrival of a new year offers the rare opportunity to reflect on the past year and commit to actions and goals that might serve us better in the future. Historically, New Year’s Resolutions have largely been focused on weight, and more specifically, weight loss. In today’s culture, however, openness about dieting and attempts to lose weight have become increasingly unpopular and have been replaced with a more acceptable and trendy pseudonym: wellness.

Wellness practices, while appearing to be a modern—and sometimes fun— way to focus on health, are about as convincing as a wolf in sheep’s clothing to eating disorder experts. While daily matcha lattes and sauna baths respectively taste and feel amazing, these wellness practices are not only inaccessible to the average person, but are also touted as ways to achieve the “perfect” body. Today’s social media trends further elevate the pressure to achieve this so-called “perfect” body and attain beauty standards, leaving the new year rife with potential for eating disorder risk. That said, please consider the following 5 ways that wellness or weight-loss related New Year’s Resolutions may contribute to and normalize disordered eating.

  1. Dieting and body dissatisfaction are some of the strongest risk factors for development of an eating disorder (NEDA, 2023). Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and/or low self-esteem can further increase risk of developing an eating disorder (NEDA, 2023).
  2. Difficulty or inability to achieve the weight loss goal may contribute to lower self-esteem and body image concerns. This puts those with already low self-esteem at risk for a host of other mental health concerns, such as the commonly co-occurring disorders stated above.
  3. Extreme weight-loss measures may backfire, resulting in weight gain and/or food obsession. Physiologist Ancel Keys and his colleagues, in the famous Minnesota Starvation Study (1945), demonstrate restriction as a strong precursor to binge-eating. If the body’s energy needs for calories, macro-, and micronutrients are not met, biology is likely to take over; as a result of the starvation effect, this has been shown to result in less-than-desirable effects, including the bypassing of fullness cues and an intense preoccupation with food (Keys, et al., 1945). Additional negative psychological impacts included decreased libido, increased emotional distress/depression symptoms, and increased social isolation (Keys, et al., 1945). Your body doesn’t know you are on a diet— it thinks you’re in a famine, which has adverse impacts on both physical and mental health.
  4. Efforts to change body shape/size make it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with food and your body. Signs of an unhealthy relationship with food and body may include: obsessive macro/calorie-tracking, labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” compensatory exercise, and/or difficulty respecting and honoring internal hunger/fullness cues.
  5. Public praise for weight loss continues to idolize thinness as the peak of beauty and health, and shames individuals who may not be able to reach that standard. Weight alone may not be the best indicator of physical or mental health, as evidenced by a recent study on BMI and all-cause mortality (Visaria & Setoguchi, 2023) and supported by experts at Yale (Katella, 2023), Harvard (2022), and the American Medical Association (2023). People may lose weight for many reasons, including grief, depression, or intense food phobias, and may gain weight in their recovery from an eating disorder. The research does not conclude that weight does not matter to health— only that it is not the sole factor involved in determining our health, of which mental health makes up a large part.

Eating disorders are severe and deadly mental illnesses— they hold the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, surpassed only by opioid use disorder (NEDA, 2022). Considering the severity of their impact on mental and physical health, it is important to view cultural practices that may increase eating disorder risk— such as New Year’s Resolutions— with a critical eye. But perhaps there is a way to reclaim New Year’s Resolutions in a way that serves our best interests when it comes to preserving a healthy relationship with food and body. Non-diet New Year’s Resolutions could include using descriptive and nonjudgmental language to describe food, eating a variety of different colors of foods at each meal, or mindfully focusing on each bite of food to increase satisfaction at meals. Positive, healthy, and fulfilling relationships with food and body can be prioritized at any time of year— not just around the New Year. Perhaps the reflection that often accompanies the start of a new year can be redirected to consider your personal relationship with food and your body, and how you might be able to prioritize this very important relationship with yourself.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or poor body image/self-esteem, please reach out to a licensed therapist specializing in eating disorder treatment for support. You are not alone in your struggle and you deserve to get the support you need.

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