Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison

If you’ve been visiting Grab the Lapels for even a short month, you know that I am on a mission to find books with fat women who are not apologetic about their bodies, who don’t accept themselves only after restricting their eating or dating someone who reassures them they are worthy, and who are treated respectfully. That mission is . . . not going great, which I need to write about more in the future.

One food movement that is becoming more popular in the media is Health At Every Size® and Intuitive Eating. Since I’m already on board with both, I thought it would be hard for me to review Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison. However, keeping mind what I used to teach college students about reviewing and rhetoric, I’ll do my best to stick to my own lessons and keep my feelings about the topic separate from the quality of the book.

Harrison’s book, published in 2019, covers how the Western world became obsessed with smaller bodies only in the last 150 or so years and the way diet industries have capitalized on that. What looks like health is often a diet in disguise, she argues, and provides evidence, including a list of sources and further reading section, to support her claims. The second part of Anti-Diet gets into intuitive eating and moralizing health, and answers readers potential objections. Although diet may be a dirty word, “wellness” is the new diet. Your mom may have loved Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, and Slim Fast, but today’s diet market wants you to do whole foods, delivery meal prep, and clean foods. And if what you’re eating is designed to make you lose or maintain a weight, that’s a diet. Any type of food restriction beyond something with legitimate medical reasons is a diet.

Firstly, a book that discusses bodies, food, and health need to be written by a trustworthy author and not a charlatan. Harrison is, according to her bio, “a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and journalist who has been covering food and nutrition for more than sixteen years.” Some readers may feel like being certified in intuitive eating counseling would make Harrison biased in her research, and that’s possible. However, Harrison used to be one of those journalists who wrote about the “obesity epidemic” and espoused that children would no longer outlive their parents. After time as a journalist, she wanted to further her education to help fight the “obesity epidemic,” only to learn that the research didn’t add up and many of her classmates (along with Harrison herself) exhibited disordered eating. In fact, the teachers and students were often talking about their latest diets between lessons. Because she is able to confess to her past as a pro-dieter and her own journey to make peace with food, in addition to her credentials, I trust Harrison is the right person to write such a book.

This is meant to be funny, but people do invent strange rules to restrict their eating and lose weight.

The evidence in Anti-Diet will work for you depending on how much you want science explained to you. There were times when I felt like Harrison wanted me to believe her because she had cited a source, but wasn’t quite explaining her evidence to the depth that I want as someone who used to teach composition. Without that clear, detailed explanation of her evidence, readers are left to simply believe the author’s interpretation of the evidence — scary, when she notes how journalists typically create stories and headlines based solely on the bullet points or summary of a scientific study, and I felt occasionally like she was giving us bullet points. There could be a few things going on here: 1) I’m reading a book through a rhetorical analysis lens and scrutinizing too hard, and 2) Wading too far into the science weeds isolates the general public. This fact is acknowledged by Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl, in an interview with NPR in response to scientists who criticized her for not using the most scientific term for everything she wrote about. If you’re not the type of reader to pick over every piece of evidence in a book, you’ll really enjoy Anti-Diet for its readability and trustworthy author.

And the book moves forward in a natural progression, keeping it from feeling like a textbook. Looking at history, Harrison explains how white Americans viewed Native people and African Americans as differently shaped, so white Americans decided anything that wasn’t slim was “savagery,” creating an argument that fatphobia started in racist waters. And clothes that don’t fit fat people? Prior to clothing factories, people sewed their own clothes — and if you could measure properly, they always fit. Today, we feel that we don’t fit clothes when clothes should fit us. A single image in the media could change how an entire country felt about body shape, and studies show that campaigns to get thinner always increase during periods when women fight for their rights. (Frequently, Harrison reminds readers that correlation isn’t causation, so I wonder if this is actually true). Skimming her sources, I think I just need to simmer down. Harrison cites publications like the Nutrition Journal, the Journal of Obesity, American Psychologist, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, along with books by fat activists, popular magazines and news outlets, and encyclopedias of culture and history.

After her history and studies, Harrison goes into what readers can do about diet culture, including crafting your online experience very carefully (surprise: I have zero social media other than Goodreads); how to remove yourself from diet talk with family, friends, co-workers; and finding a community that supports your goal to remain diet-free. I have to say, being diet-free is the most liberated I’ve ever felt, and thus had to be cautious writing this review. Watching almost everyone around me be anxious around food, police what other people are eating, talk about what they’re craving, and mentioning something about “getting in their steps” is exhausting, sad, and triggering.

I recommend Anti-Diet for its honesty, clear writing, and list of sources that you could examine yourself. For many people, they’re so stuck in “health” and “dieting” that they continue to be miserable and looking for the source. Anti-Diet may help them find it.

1/26/2020 Update: ya’ll have a lot of medical-type questions in the comments. I’m not a doctor. I’m a person who read a book and been on the HAES journey for years. It’s hard. It’s lonely. Everyone wants to challenge what you’re doing, in spite of medical evidence, your general happiness, and personal autonomy. They want to question what you’re eating and reassure you that you can’t be happy yet. I can be part of your community on your own anti-diet journey, I can recommend this book as one of many that discuss pervasive, insidious fatphobia. But given that every journey is unique, as is every human body, despite our deepest wishes for a universal “normal,” there isn’t one and you’ll have to work what’s best for you through your own research.

43 comments

    • It shows you how we’ve been screwed with as a society when a new image of the model woman is invented — and she changes every 20 years or so! There’s no way to keep up with the changing ideal of the female body. There is also an increase in changing the male body, though historically it’s women who are affected.

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  1. As you know, I am also anti-diet, after many years of berating myself, comparing myself, weighing myself, trying various “plans”, etc. etc. I have never felt happier and better about myself than I do right now, honestly. I still sometimes think “diet-y” thoughts but that is to be expected after 42 years of marinating in diet culture. I like how you are trying to analyze the book aside from your feelings about the topic. Good distinction. I haven’t written a review of this yet because I’ve been trying to figure out how to best do it. But it’s coming. I loved it, of course. I think you’re right, she’s not going into the science too hardcore in order to speak effectively to a non-science audience.

    Also, if you decide that you want to get into Instagram, I will say that I follow Harrison and many other HAES/Anti-diet nutritionists, counselors, writers, activists, etc, and it has made SUCH a difference to see their encouraging messages every single day. It’s good to know that there’s this growing community of people out there resisting diet culture and loudly protesting against its damaging messages. I understand not wanting to participate in social media, but (for now) I am very happy with my carefully curated Instagram experience. It pains me that Facebook owns Instagram, though. Oh well.

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    • It was one of your update posts, about future books you planned to read, that brought Anti-Diet to my attention. The more you get into intuitive eat, the more pronounced diet culture, and diet thinking become. I’m currently reading a biography of Shirley Jackson. She, her mother, her friends, even her biographer, are constantly mentioning what size she is and when. What is the point of this?? The biography came out in 1989, which really was a diet crazy time, which is part of what Harrison discusses in reference to why we were fatter 10 years later. We’d basically dieted our way up to higher weights.

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  2. This sounds really interesting. I haven’t looked much into intuitive eating but from what I know, it seems like something I’m on board with. As a parent, I make a concerted effort to always speak positively about my own body and not focus on my weight and it’s been one of the best things for my own health and self-image. That and getting rid of my scale!

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    • Yes! Getting rid of your scale is so important. It blows my mind that we can become such slaves to the scale that when we are a pound or two heavier our whole day, and the way we feel about ourselves, is ruined. One thing that I liked about Anti-Diet that I think is both interesting and likely frustrating for parents is the way we are born eating intuitively, but because it doesn’t fit into how society wants us to eat (at certain times, certain amounts, etc.), kids seem picky when they are not. We’re so obsessed with food that we tend to linger over meals and continue to think about food, whereas when a kid is done eating, they immediately run off and do something else because they’re not preoccupied with food like adults steeped in diet culture are.

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      • The only time in recent years I’ve weighed myself regularly is during pregnancy and then at the doctor’s office. But because I had only a vague idea of what I weighed beforehand it didn’t really mean much.

        I see that in my own kids and it can be hard to break my habits of thinking to encourage their natural good habits. We never make them empty their plates but I struggle with how much to let them snack between meals. My girls tend to want to sample the food while I’m cooking and sometimes I don’t like it because it’s not the “right time” but in reality, they’re munching on veggies and they’re clearly hungry. I do see a slow shift toward encouraging those good, natural habits in kids with things like baby-led weaning.

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  3. OMG that last gif is hilarious. I will say that once I finished reading this post, and as I write this comment, I am eating a chocolate bar. LOL It’s delicious, a cadbury ‘twirl’ (they’re only available in the UK, but my local safeway brings them in and i pay 2 dollars each for them, which is outrageous but whatever it’s worth it they are delicious).

    I actively try not to ‘diet’, but I also try to eat healthy most of the time, with chocolate thrown in regularly for good measure. I do enjoy working out, being active, fitness stuff etc, and it also helps me feel less guilty about eating lots of chocolate-I suppose thats the way I find balance in my habits? I don’t know…I think I need more time to think about it…

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    • I think eating food that feels good in your body isn’t the issue, it’s that guilt part! Why feel guilt if you eat some chocolate? Is the world going to end? Are you hurting someone? And if you didn’t feel guilty, would you enjoy the chocolate EVEN MORE? Sounds like you’ve got your body figured out in a way that a lot of people don’t, and can ignore the diet chit chatter. Because I gotta say, there is nothing more boring than listening to a woman talk about what she won’t eat, am I right?

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  4. Huh. You just showed me that I’ve always been into intuitive eating. XD I’ve never understood the diet craze. While my body isn’t perfect, I know that calories in vs. calories out will help change our weight so that’s all I’ve ever done (well, until recently, when I started a doctor-prescribed diet. But that’s different, as we’re trying to save me $1500 through scientific diets rather than testing and pills) I’m not trying to say I’m not susceptible, though.

    We are ALWAYS talking about food in this culture. It’s so weird. And we have access to all sorts of food filled with additives and chemicals while surrounded by all this crazy media… it’s no wonder we’re all obsessed with how we look. Lately, I haven’t felt pretty. My theory? I got out of the habit of exercising regularly with the move. Motion helps my mood so much more than food. I wish we had better nutrition and exercise science information available to us all.

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  5. To start with the last comments first, my scales are in the middle of my bathroom, constant accuser of my rising weight. Do I diet? Probably, though mostly I just eat healthy, though obviously too much, too much for my current level of inactivity anyway. I enjoyed your analysis of the book, we must all remember to read critically, especially as reviewers. I’m sure body shape issues are different for women, and more oppressive. But I don’t deny that I’m as upset about my current shape as I am about the lack of fitness which is at least partly causing it. I won’t chase up the book, not for myself nor for the three generations of women I live amongst, we read too much about eating and ‘healthy living’ already.

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  6. What a wonderful review – this looks so interesting! I’ve struggled with weight and food issues for pretty much my entire life. It wasn’t until recently, when pregnant and then after giving birth, that I stopped worrying about food so much and started to eat the foods my body was telling me it needed. Although I worry that with our culture I’ll easily fall back into old habits eventually. This sounds like it would be well worth a read!

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    • Anyone who says they’ve struggled with food seems to be caught in diet culture, in my opinion. And I hear everyone say it — myself included. Thus, we’re all trapped. It’s awful. Weirdly, when you give yourself permission to eat, you realize that some foods that are supposed to be yummy aren’t even for you, but you want them because you’ve been denied food for so long. It’s donuts for me. I’m not really a fan of donuts, but I used to idolize them in my head.

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  7. I do “do my steps” however that’s just to do with the proven dangers of sitting immobile for too long, and also the proven benefits of getting outside and near trees. I don’t diet, and I had a bit of trouble recently when I was on anti-anxiety medicine which made me hungry all the time, as usually I will just eat when I’m hungry, but I could have eaten all day long and never been satisfied. So that was a weird time and I’m glad I’m off the pills and back to normality (sometimes I have to make myself eat but that’s because I’m an endurance runner and sometimes you don’t want to refuel and you have to!). Good division between your feelings and your assessment of the book.

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    • Getting steps in doesn’t bother me quite as much simply because everything we do now is geared toward sitting, so I don’t feel like we have an accurate idea of how much actually move around. Step counters can help with that. However, I know there are people who berate themselves when they don’t get the right number of steps in, and then there are people who don’t have the ability to add steps into their day for a multitude of physical, emotional, and even economic reasons. Thus, I like to view step counters as a tool, even if that’s not how some people use them.

      The author talked about something you hit on: sometimes we have to eat when we’re not hungry because we have to plan ahead. Her example was eating before a really long meeting in which there is no food, for example. Thanks for your kind words, Liz.

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  8. I am not sure what I think about this book or concept. The intuitive diet makes some sense in terms of not doing the yoyo diets and such. But does it still stress more balanced eating? Or calorie intake watching? Or what? I do understand that women in general have issues with their bodies and food. I am a person who does get tired that so much of the conversation around me is always about plotting the next meal, or restriction of calories, or body-shaming, or whatever. I miss the days of being in either London or Italy where I could linger at the pub or cafe for hours talking and eating and relaxing. Not as much food pressure there in me mind. Plus exercise was a more natural way of life. That said, I am now on a medical related diet that I will have to follow for the rest of my life. So finding the correct food is rough and everyone feels the need to comment on my food or act like I am doing it because I am on a diet to stay thin. Does this book address people with health issues like diabetes and how weight loss can help manage the issue? I tend to avoid all food related advice books because of the contradicting advice and lack of science based facts. And yet with all the new food struggles I have, I have no choice but to do some reading on the topic these days because accurate information seems next to impossible to find.
    x The Captain

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    • Basically, your brain is designed to keep you alive. If you restrict calories in an effort to lose a weight lower than your body wants you to be (which may be some degree of fat according to society), your body will send out chemicals from the brain that are designed for you to find the most calorically dense food you can find because your brain thinks you’re starving. Your brain doesn’t know what a diet is. So, dieting people get nervous and controlling around food because they’re brains are telling them EAT THE DAMN FOOD, WE’RE DYING. “Successful” weight loss folks (which is only about 3-5% of the entire population) spend their entire existence in this state — with their bodies thinking they’re dying and ignoring what their bodies say. When you stop restricting, your body is still confused for a long time. You have to slowly reassure your body that you will feed it when it’s hungry, that you’re not starving. It’s hard, and it takes years, and you’ll want to give up a thousand times. Dieting seems easier. There are rules and society rewards you. You reward yourself because you know society is happy to see you now, and oftentimes we feel smug because we have more “control” over ourselves. The author of Anti-Diet does discuss how many Americans get food related tests to see if they’re allergic to something in food. Oftentimes, it’s done in an effort to find out why the dieter is so miserable and what’s wrong. It’s easier to think you’re sensitive to gluten than steeped in diet culture. Some tests are not very scientific, but people still get them. Then, there are genuine medical tests that demonstrate the person has an actual food allergy, or diabetes, etc. There are LEGIT medical concerns, and then there are efforts to make people thin. Diabetics don’t never eat sugar; they eat the right amount at the right time with the right combo of other foods. Calorie restricting isn’t going to change a person’s blood glucose levels. Ask yourself this question: if you were completely healthy while following your medical diet but fat, would you be upset?

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      • Thank you for your response. I have to admit that I’d like to believe that if I was completely healthy and fat I wouldn’t be upset. But I know I can’t say that for sure. I do know that changing shape as I have gotten older and the weight gain that has accompanied it has felt weird and did take some getting used to. Seriously having larger boobs is so strange! And aye lots of people use the food tests or restrictions about gluten etc. to diet which is unhealthy. I ultimately feel that unless there is a food allergy or medical reason, you should eat what you want when you want. But I do have friends whose relationship with food is so unhealthy that they can’t just eat when they are hungry because it would be all the time. The body clocks are messed up from a lifetime of dieting struggle. My one friend is working with a nutritionist to establish better patterns. I do think our dumb society doesn’t get that people come in all shapes and sizes. Thinness doesn’t guarantee happiness or is even healthy in all cases. I guess for me, I look at all of the relatives of mine with diabetes who are majorly overweight and don’t follow any guidelines for their medical problems and then live in pain with both sadness and grumpiness. If they lost weight, it wouldn’t cure my family members but it would certainly help the doctors in terms of illness maintenance. I guess it’s partially my fear that I am going to develop diabetes given how rampantly it runs on both sides. Having been sick for so long and only now being on the mend, I want to be healthy. For me that means regaining muscle mass and trying to increase my endurance levels so I can get back to long hiking trips. So aye, the weight on the scale doesn’t matter to me if I can never feel like my heart is going to explode from a basic walk. I am not sure I am making any sense. It get that restricting calories could make the body go into starvation eat more dense food mode. What does the book recommend the eating pattern to be? I am apparently going to have to read more about this.
        x The Captain

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        • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I must admit that the comments for this book review are tearing me up a bit, both in the sense that some people are gently advocating for dieting because it’s all they know, but also the real fear that people feel around food and health. Here are some things I know: a lifetime of dieting oftentimes takes an amazing and unwavering support system to bring it to an end. A therapist who specializes in intuitive eating can be a life saver, and that can also take years. Learning about how blood sugar works can help people make good choices; oftentimes, folks forget the role fiber plays in food digestion and sugar (e.g. an apple is one thing, an apple pureed is another because you’ve destroyed all the fiber). Your genetics certainly play a role, and while none of us want to face that, sometimes we have to. Even the most fit people have ailments from their genetics, and things like economic status, race, and gender play a role, too. When you stop dieting and start eating intuitively, which (again) is a long struggle, you’ll find you’re much calmer. My coworkers bring in snacks all the time. 10 years ago I would have been nervous and mad all day that someone brought in cookies. These days, I check out the cookies to see if they are even the kind and consistency I like and then if they meet my standards, I have one and really enjoy it — and then that’s the end of my thinking about the cookies. Have you ever had the weird thought, “I could really go for some spring leaf lettuce right now?” Weird things like that start to happen as you listen to your body. Food that your body doesn’t want starts to not sit right with your stomach, and you have to listen.

          You should move in ways that make you happy to be moving, not as punishment for being fat. I will walk at a plodding pace for AGES, but I’m not going to hustle. I like doing yoga and swimming. I won’t do any physical activities that I don’t enjoy.

          Anti-Diet is not the first book that I’ve read that contains a lot of the information Harrison discusses. You may wish to start with Intuitive Eating by Resch and Tribole and also Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Anti-Diet uses the principles in these books in addition to the history of dieting.

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  9. Great review! I’m not into dieting so when I saw the title I thought “well, I don’t need to read this one.” But then everything you had to say about it all sounds very interesting! I really like that there’s a historical element, which probably helps give the book a more informational feel than an instructive one? I resist being told what to do, lol. And it’s intriguing that the “health craze” of recent years with the meal prepping and whatnot is also technically considered a diet- fit is the new thin apparently, but counting calories is counting calories. That’s surprisingly easy to forget. I wouldn’t mind being fit or thin, but just being comfortable generally wins, for me at least. Even so, I’m curious enough to add this one to my TBR!

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    • The book starts with how being larger was associated with wealth and having enough food to eat, but then Harrison gets into the Christian feelings about greed and food, how white Americans started to see immigrants and black Americans as different sizes from themselves and shifted their feelings about fatness through a racism lens. Suddenly, being fat meant not being white. And it goes on from there! It’s an interesting book.

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  10. Oh wow- excellent review! I didn’t even realize this was a thing! (I mean- I’ve been doing it personally for awhile but I don’t talk about it much because I feel like it results in immediate judgement). I won’t ask you any medical questions- but thanks for pointing this book out!

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    • Many of my readers have been following me for years, so I think they felt comfortable asking questions that lean toward medical advice. The other half of it is lots of people want hope; I think most people feel broken in some way, and that came out in the comments. It was a challenging week at Grab the Lapels! However, I don’t forget that people mean well and want to be part of the conversation. Did you find intuitive eating through a book or podcast or something, or is it something you’ve simply always done?

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  11. Brilliant review – I have been trying to work on intuitive eating for a while (as a teenager I had difficulties with an eating disorder that have subsequently made it pretty dangerous for me to do even sensible, non-faddy diets), and it’s really hard, but I am so much less anxious than I used to be and I think it’s partly a result of that.

    I find it difficult to explain it to people in a way that they understand, at least without getting uncomfortably into my own personal journey, so I might give this a try in case it helps me to do that – though the lack of critiquing the evidence would bother me!

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    • The author does make commentary on the evidence she uses, but since I am neither in the health field nor trained in reading studies, I personally cannot vouch for Harrison’s interpretations of the studies she used. However, I think you would be a great fit for it. Two books that everyone reads together are Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. They’re the dynamic duo. I agree that it’s hard to get into this subject without getting uncomfortable. I answered as many comments as readers shared here, but the more I answered, the more turtle-drawing-its-limbs-in about everything.

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  12. This is an interesting sounding read! I found the line you mentioned about removing yourself from diet talk fascinating. While I don’t tend to hear diet talk from my family, which is something I’m increasingly grateful to my mom and the way she & my dad raised me in regards to food, I do hear it all the time from my co-workers and the industry I work in (healthcare). And I try to ignore it, but it’s hard… I don’t understand why people constantly have to discuss what they eat vs what they don’t eat and worry about one pound here and there. It just seems like a lot of wasted energy. Many times I can ignore it, but other times I have to leave the room before I say something I’ll regret! Maybe I need to read this book to see how the author recommends handling diet talk… and it also sounds fascinating about the history of the industry as well.

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