Assumption 1:  People Diet Because They Need to Lose Weight

As I said in my first post, koans are questions that have no logical answer, given by a Zen master in order to challenge students’ assumptions and lead them on a road to insight. When first faced with a koan, people almost always respond by being rational and reasonable, not knowing that those answers, by design, simply won’t work. The same is true for dieting. People are urged to try (or buy) ever-new approaches to losing weight but invariably fail. The dieter, like the Zen student, is trapped within walls made of his or her own unexamined assumptions.

Perhaps the most basic of all assumptions made by dieters is that they actually need to diet. While the American culture bombards us with the message that we need to lose weight, the truth is that many of us, especially women, need to either stop dieting or reassess our motivations for dieting. Consider the following facts: while about 25 percent of women are overweight, 75 percent say they are overweight and feel ashamed of their “failure” to change.[1] Young girls between age eleven and seventeen are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents.[2] Ninety percent of high school girls diet regularly, even though less than 20 percent are over the weight recommended by the standard height-weight charts.[3] Negative body image is associated with suicide for girls but not for boys.[4] Fifty percent of girls between age nine and ten feel better about themselves if they are dieting.[5] The most common behavior that leads to an eating disorder is dieting.[6] About eight million Americans have eating disorders, seven million of them women.[7] Seventy-five percent of women choose an ideal body size that is 10 to 20 percent underweight.[8] And women’s magazines have ten times more articles and ads promoting weight loss than men’s magazines.[9]

While messages about the harm caused by obesity and the need to lose weight are almost ever-present, messages that speak to the pain, shame, and dangers of dieting are relatively rare. The basic assumption that people need to be fed (pardon the pun) the message that they need to lose weight may seem straightforward, but may also perpetrate a kind of illness of its own.

[1] Janet Melcher and Gerald J. Bostwick, Jr., “The Obese Client: Myths, Facts, Assessment, and Intervention,” Health and Social Work 23, no. 3 (1998): 195-202.

[2] Monica Persson, “Fat and Feminist Large Women's Health Experiences,” Feminist Women’s Health Center (1996) accessed October 31, 2011,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Danice K. Eaton, Richard Lowry, Nancy D. Brener, Deborah A. Galuska, and Alex E. Crosby, “Associations of Body Mass Index and Perceived Weight with Suicide Ideation and Suicide Attempts among U.S. High School Students,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 6 (2005): 513-19.

[5] L.M. Mellin, C.E. Irwin, and S. Scully, “Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle-class children,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. (1992): 851-53.

[6] Catherine M. Shisslak, Marjorie Crago, and Linda S. Estes, “The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 18, no. 3 (1995): 209-219.

[7] “Eating Order Statistics,” South Carolina Department of Mental Health, accessed October 31, 2011,

[8] Hilary Rowland, “Obsessed with Thin: Has the Media Gone Too Far?” Urbanette Magazine, accessed October 31, 2011,

[9] A.E. Andersen and L. DiDomenico “Diet vs. Shape Content of Popular Male and Female Magazines: A dose-response relationship to the incidence of eating disorders?” International Journal of Eating Disorders 11 (1992): 238-87. 

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