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.
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.