Fostering a culture of mental and emotional health with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives has become a top organizational priority. It warrants a fresh look at employee well-being offerings to ensure programs align — and truly support skills plus habits that lead to long-term well-being, without unhelpful patterns. Weight-neutral wellness programming moves you toward this goal.
What Is Weight Neutrality and Why Does It Matter?
Though daily walking, eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, and practicing relaxation techniques are universally accepted well-being practices that promote physical and mental health, they do not guarantee weight loss. A weight-neutral approach removes the focus on weight, instead emphasizing habits to help participants thrive, regardless of body size.
Weight loss continues to be a popular pursuit in the US and other nations, but it’s generally not a successful one. For most people, intentional efforts to lose weight are in vain, as illustrated by a 2020 meta-analysis with data from nearly 22,000 people: modest weight loss (about 10 pounds) at 6 months plus significant but temporary improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol. After 12 months, the majority were no better off than when they started.
Wellness programs that tell participants to do this or that to lose weight contribute to a detrimental experience of unrealistic expectations, weight cycling, disappointment, and self-blame. While you may receive giddy feedback from those who do lose weight during the program, you don’t know:
- The lengths they went to for earning points or coming out ahead on the weigh-in
- Whether that weight loss came at a significant personal cost
- How long it will last.
Ditching Diet Culture
Here in the US, women and girls are bombarded with constant messages that we’re valued based on how we look. Men and boys are not immune to these body-shaming measures, either. We’re all taught that it’s normal to restrict what we eat, ignore hunger signals, and punish ourselves with exercise in an attempt to control body size. Instead of viewing food/eating as a source of enjoyment to nourish ourselves, we learn food is our enemy. And many have had it with these deeply harmful, entrenched cultural norms.
Workplace weight loss programs often fuel unhelpful messaging around fat grams, carbs, “cheat” days, “clean” eating, and weigh-ins — creating even more diet-related noise to fend off. It takes a substantial effort to escape and overcome these damaging ideas; many people now actively avoid diet culture and reduce their children’s exposure to it. Read Diet culture is everywhere. Here’s how to fight it for more on this (NPR, 2021).
Wellness and HR leaders have good intentions when implementing weight loss programs or contests. People sign up eagerly, despite decades of evidence that they don’t result in sustained change. But those who’ve thrown off the shackles of diet culture can see them as presumptive, not inclusive, and tone deaf. Every workforce almost certainly has people who:
- Are fed up with those unhealthy messages and are already on board with weight neutrality
- Have chronic physical or mental health conditions and/or medications that make weight loss extremely challenging/unlikely or personal circumstances that make it unrealistic during your program’s timeframe
- Have experienced an eating disorder or subclinical disordered eating behaviors.
Help Participants Feel Better Now
Research by motivational psychologist Michelle Segar reveals the ineffectiveness of linking behavior change activities to health goals like weight loss. Instead, she recommends emphasizing the immediate rewards of healthy habits so we see them as gifts instead of chores, enhancing motivation. Examples:
- Feeling invigorated or more upbeat after a brisk walk outdoors
- Tuning in to pleasant sensations that accompany satisfying food
- Savoring company and relaxing conversation at mealtime
- Welcoming a feeling of calm during/after mindfulness practices
- Noticing more energy and optimism after a refreshing night’s sleep.
Healthful lifestyle habits are beneficial… regardless of body size or weight. A weight-neutral approach to employee well-being is a long overdue upgrade in the interest of mental/emotional health as well as DEI. Physical activity, balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, stress coping skills, strong relationships, and avoiding risky substances are the pillars of lifestyle medicine. They help people flourish and move toward the healthiest version of themselves without focusing on weight — a welcome change and huge relief for many.
Well-being consultant, educator, writer ｜National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach ｜Certified Lifestyle Medicine Coach｜ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist ｜25+ years in wellness ｜Jazz enthusiast.