Every now and then, there’s a post which really stirs controversy. UK personal trainer Rebelfit posted a meme claiming there’s a difference between ‘weight loss’ and ‘fat loss.’ Apparently, while weight loss due to diet culture influence is a bad thing, trying to lose ‘fat weight’ for sports performance, fitness competitions, or medical reasons is not part of diet culture and therefore A-OK. Pandemonium ensued when HAES professionals protested these claims, and the thread descended into pretty wild allegations about HAES being a ‘fit shaming cult’. This week on All Fired Up!, I am joined by some fierce HAES warriors – Rebecca Scritchfield and Melissa Toler – here to set the record straight on the difference between weight loss and fat loss, and to take a deep dive into the HAES perspective on fitness and athleticism. This is a brilliant conversation about so many issues: splinter-arsing, oppression, biology, sparkly bikinis that you can’t swim in, working with elite athletes, the many faces of diet culture, why Linda Bacon isn’t a cult leader, and so much more!
● My amazing guests this week for the final podcast for 2018 are Rebecca Scritchfield, dietitian, exercise physiologist, marathon runner and eating disorders specialist, and Melissa Toler, writer, ex physique competitor, ex wellness coach, and HAES warrior.
● They are SUPER fired up about people on the internet talking smack about HAES! Recently a UK based fitness trainer known as Rebelfit (AKA Liam Sartorius) posted a meme in which basically said that if people are trying to lose weight because of diet culture pressure this is not ok, but if people are trying to ‘lose fat’ for reasons of enhancing their sports performance, for body building competitions, or for medical reasons, these are not influenced by diet culture and therefore ok.
● Very quickly this meme was questioned by HAES aligned health professionals, and basically all hell broke loose. Rebelfit repeatedly claimed that HAES is anti-fitness, and anti-athlete, which is not true, and it’s important to be able to have a discussion about the HAES perspective on fitness and athleticism. HAES has 5 key principles, the 5th of which is all about joyful movement – hardly anti-fit!
● Rebecca is steaming about Rebelfit’s smack talk about HAES on this thread. Rebelfit is saying a bunch of untruths about HAES – like we are a cult, that we don’t understand science, and negative things about Dr Linda Bacon which is really disrespectful.
● There was a lot of anger coming from Rebelfit after many HAES people commented protesting the accuracy of his meme. Like Robin D’Angelo talks about in the book White Fragility, he became erratic, angry and apparently is now offering to give webinars to ‘educate’ HAES folk. Rebecca didn’t comment on the thread, because she feels that he is just spewing hate about HAES, and is instead encouraging HAES practitioners and supporters to use their own voice to help clear up misconceptions about HAES.
● Rebecca is here to talk about HAES from a social justice viewpoint, as well as discussing the biological aspects of Rebelfit’s claims about fat loss. As a qualified dietitian, exercise physiologist, as well as being an athlete herself (marathon runner), AND having worked with elite athletes herself, Rebecca is the woman to talk to about this! And she asked Melissa Toler to be here too, because not only is she an amazing writer and HAES activist, she also used to take part in figure competitions.
● So, Rebelfit kept on claiming that HAES people don’t understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss.
● Ultimately, it seems that Rebelfit doesn’t understand the history and roots of HAES, and why it exists.
● If he did understand, he’d recognize that weight stigma is an independent risk factor for health issues, that weight stigma gets internalized for many higher weight people. Oppression has many intersections, and a myriad of factors impact on people’s ability to engage in health supportive behaviours. Weight stigma impacts people in larger bodies’ ability to get jobs and to just live a normal life. He’s missing a giant piece of the puzzle in understanding these issues, if he did understand he’d be able to understand HAES as a social justice movement. He’d still be able to do some sports specific work that would be meaningful in his life, but also to support the movement in a deeper way.
● It’s true that he doesn’t understand the roots of HAES, in one of his posts he references a paper critiquing HAES, and he says that it started in 2010 with Dr Bacon’s book Health At Every Size! (Not true – HAES has its roots in 1960’s social justice groups, including fat acceptance and feminism, and over time included many people in the eating disorders field).
● From the standpoint of saying there’s a difference between “oh I don’t like what I look like in the mirror, and I want to lose weight” versus “I’m an athlete, and I want to shrink my body fat %” – our brains and our biology don’t see any difference, starvation is starvation, deprivation is deprivation.
● Our bodies do not see any difference based on our motivation, our reasons to lose body fat do not make any difference at all on our biological reality. Efforts to lose weight or to adjust our body fat % are achievable only in the short term, and regain and return to baseline is the experience of the vast majority of people, regardless of their motivation to lose weight or fat.
● So many people want to lose weight/fat ‘for medical reasons’. But their story reflects the yo-yo: short term changes, followed by regain. The reason does not change the outcome. To say “oh, for medical reasons I’m going to convince my biology to act differently” – it’s just not true.
● The body of research – 70 years of weight science research – is huge, and uniformly shows that weight loss leads to weight regain.
● Melissa’s story: In 2011, Melissa began training for ‘figure competitions’, which is like a beauty pageant with muscles and bikinis which you can’t swim in. She was part of this world for 3 years, until @ 2014. She said it was a lot of prep, and a lot of dieting to get your body fat % down.
● To be completely honest, Melissa’s primary reason for doing this was to lose weight.
● Rebelfit claims that sculpting like this, for competitions, is not weight loss but adaption, and that the changes will last forever. But this was not Melissa’s experience, she said that her biggest lesson from the fitness competitions essentially reinforced what she’d learned from 25 years of trying to lose weight – in order to keep the ‘results’, you have to keep doing the thing that yielded those results. Melissa no longer works out several times a week, and her diet isn’t as restricted as it was back then, and her body doesn’t look like that anymore.
● It is really normal, really human, for our bodies not to look like that permanently. These kinds of behaviours are not sustainable.
● Melissa had that faulty thinking, that her body would stay like that forever. But when you sit down and think about it, it absolutely makes sense that it won’t.
● In 2012, Melissa became a health and wellness coach. At the time, her primary objective was to help people lose weight – in a ‘non-diet way’ – like Rebelfit, she was straddling the fence.
● Initially, this made sense to Melissa, it was based on her experience. Then she became aware of HAES, of intuitive eating, and found social media connections talking about issues of social justice, ideas she’d never heard before. Over time, she stopped selling weight loss. Because she realized the harms that she was doing. The basis of selling weight/fat loss was that being fat, or having fat, was bad. And that people needed to do something to get rid of it. Melissa didn’t want to contribute to that anymore, so that was her first big step into HAES.
● It’s a process, and a brave process, to step away and just change. It’s not easy to get to that point, especially if you have a history of selling weight loss.
● Shifting paradigms is not easy, it can be confusing, both for you, and to your clients. It can also impact your bottom line. Melissa thinks that is a big reason why a lot of people are offering HAES type, body positive services alongside weight/fat loss.
● Melissa’s bottom line took a hit, because she took a break from the wellness coaching. Looking back, she can see now that some of her clients were significantly impacted by weight stigma and diet culture, and by trauma, and her wishy-washiness with fence sitting didn’t help them. As Melissa got more into social justice, she came to recognize the body hierarchy in our culture, based on skin colour, ability, size, gender, and she saw diet culture in that whole matrix. This became really important to her.
● Once you see how giant diet culture is, and how it links to oppression generally, you can’t unsee it. Rebelfit is not seeing it.
● He’s saying that when it comes to sports and performance, none of this diet culture stuff applies.
● Rebecca points out that of course, diet culture is diet culture and it affects everything!
● And it may not change in our lifetime. So the question becomes, how can I try in my life to change the culture, and also how can I do my work ethically?
● You will have body composition changes within marathon training because of the work it necessitates. But the body composition change isn’t the point!
● You can find a HAES professional in any quadrant of that meme.
● There are plenty of HAES informed dietitians who work with athletes, even in weight class sports. And that can be tough! As a HAES embracing health professional working with athletes, first you’re making sure they don’t have an eating disorder. You’re also ensuring you’re working within someone’s genetics and biology.
● If an athlete is in a weight class sport and they love it, and that’s their life, and the weight class sport suits their biology and genetics, it is personally meaningful – and that’s one of the tenants of HAES.
● If you’re a HAES health professional, working with an athlete, you won’t let them do anything that is long term harmful to themselves.
● If they need to get to a weight point for a particular event, you’ll be looking at their hydration, making sure they’re adequately nourished, that they’re not over training, and all of this is within their genetics and biology, which means if you see something that’s just not do-able, you’re going to have the cahones to talk to the sports psychologist, to the coach, to say ‘this is not good for this athlete, and here’s the evidence’ – you’re going to be able to help them.
● But this kind of situation is very extreme – with athletes at this level, there are teams of professionals involved, and everything is super tailored. And all around that athlete, diet culture exists!
● You’re not being ‘anti-HAES’ if you help athletes in a weight class sport, you’re being pro-HAES by looking after them in this artificial and temporary environment. Making sure they’re not extreme and not harming their mental health.
● Rebelfit’s meme was about ‘fat loss’ to run better – well, Rebecca has done 15 marathons! She noticed that she a) had to run A LOT OF MILES, and as she did this you get hungrier, so you fill the hunger with food! Even though Rebecca was covering her training well (ie she was eating enough to cover the intensity of the exercise), and her body fat % may have changed a little bit, and she built up muscle, it was all still within her biological and genetic footprint. AND she had more body fat % than people who were winning!
● Working within people’s genetic and biological blueprints did not come across in Rebelfit’s meme. He seems to be saying if you are pursuing fat loss for sports or medical reasons, don’t worry it’s not diet culture.
● This can be confusing: there’s a lot of nuance for people in each of the quadrants Rebelfit references. But you can find a HAES professional to help guide you through that nuance! Find a HAES professional to help guide you through weight concern brought on by medical advice. As Rebecca says, that’s what dietitians DO, and they don’t forget their medical nutrition therapy just because they’re HAES!
● People like Rebecca, many HAES people who commented on the thread have Masters degrees, PhD’s, and Rebelfit is saying he’ll ‘lecture’ us on this topic???????????
● He is acting like a supremacist, and Rebecca wants everyone listening to know, you can find a HAES professional to help you with any of these issues, who will not paradigm straddle.
● Trying to push your body beyond its natural biological set points can get us into trouble. Yes you might win a race, but you might do some real damage.
● Rebelfit isn’t marketing to elite athletes, he’s marketing to the average person. It’s an aspirational thing. And we can get into trouble when we put an ASS into ass-piration!
● We can’t pretend that what we perceive as fit or healthy isn’t influenced by diet culture.
● The message of ‘you can be body positive and still shrink body fat’ is very attractive. Because it tells people that I can have this ‘body I’ve always wanted, and I don’t have to “diet”’.
● This is just a gaslighting message.
● The amazing psychologist and HAES warrior (and our last guest!) Deb Burgard said some amazing stuff in the Rebelfit thread. She reminds us that we’re not trying to blame individual people, we’re trying all the time to pull back and look at the structures of oppression here. And of course, there is still 100% body autonomy and we’re not trying to control anyone’s individual choices. Because diet culture is oppressive, and people are nicer to you in this society if you are smaller.
● Nobody is trying to say that Rebelfit shouldn’t be allowed to run his figure competition business. That’s his choice. But to say that it’s ok because it’s for figure competitions isn’t helpful at all to social justice movements! Social justice movements like HAES are all about challenging structures so there is less body oppression. Ultimately it’s about treating people who may be at a higher weight like they are normal human beings. This is what it’s all about, and this is the thing that Rebelfit isn’t getting.
● Deb Burgard’s FABULOUS post on the Rebelfit thread! We love you Deb Burgard!
● What Rebelfit does with his business is his business, but to mix up everything he is doing with body positivity is not helpful and just muddies the waters. People don’t need more confusion.
● Rebelfit’s reaction to the thread is worrying. He basically spread misinformation, got very angry and made claims about HAES that are both factually incorrect, and inflammatory. “HAES followers are brainwashed to hate body builders and tar them as diet culture scum”. That we are “a cult led by Linda Bacon”. “HAES is a movement created and launched by fit shamer Linda Bacon” – this is just harassment and it’s not ok.
● The back story – Linda shared one of Rebelfit’s posts, then when he thanked her she took a look at his website and said actually I regret sharing, as you are a straddler. And he took offence to that as he had previously admired her work.
● HAES is anything but fit shaming! There’s a fb group called Fit Fatties, led by Ragen Chastain, who holds the world record for being the heaviest person to complete a marathon!
● Fit shaming? Hardly. You can be fit – at any size!!
● Typical diet culture constantly shames larger people who are trying to be fit, always bringing it back to size.
● What do you have to lose by just letting the body be? What do you have to lose by giving up on fat loss? It’s the easiest way to stop the internalized weight stigma, and it makes everything more enjoyable!
● We all know how lovely it is to enjoy eating and fitness through a HAES perspective.
● Rebelfit’s tagline is turning ‘dieters into athletes.’ Which is a red flag, as people with eating disorders can easily morph from an obsession with food to an obsession with exercise.
● Rebelfit isn’t an eating disorder expert. Eating disorder specialists have a giant list of athletes with eating disorders.
● Eat this way ‘for performance’ – isn’t changing anything! Changing the reason just gives us a ‘fitness halo’ – which we can’t criticize, because exercise is always good. It reflects the intricacies of diet culture and how it morphs traditional dieting into messages which are just as dangerous.
● Body positivity is now super mainstream and distorted. It can confuse people, make people think they’re doing something different when they’re not.
● HAES is a social justice movement. If we have this broader framework, we can look at everything through a critical lens.
● Rebelfit is a PT and nutrition coach. He sells 30 day ‘missions’. But no details are on the website at the time of publishing, as everything is ‘starting in January”. The most concerning program is the six pack – ‘6 months to your leanest physique’. This clearly centres leanness, which is problematic on a site which also talks about body positivity and weight stigma.
● It’s unnatural to have a six-pack, in nature only a very low percentage of people do. A lot of restriction is involved in order to achieve this aesthetic.
● Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist who talks about dieting, talks about our bodies preferring to defend it’s highest weight range. So during our lives, there may be times our bodies are at lower ends of our defended weight range, but it’s not where they are without effort or circumstance. The ‘leanest physique’ goes beyond that.
● Fat is good, it’s how we’ve survived and thrived as a species. Fat has always been life saving and beneficial, we’ve been in survival mode for much longer than we’ve been in abundance mode.
● He wouldn’t be selling 6 packs if people weren’t buying it, but people are buying it because of diet culture!
● This whole issue isn’t about Rebelfit. It’s about how people can embrace HAES and the anti-oppression message. If people have come to HAES because of the Rebelfit thread, this is great.
● It’s okay to be HAES unaware, but you have to continue growing.
● Ask yourself – how can I ethically help?
● HAES practitioners are not anti-fit, or fit shaming. We are pro anti-oppression, pro-critical thought.
● Selling a six pack is part of diet culture, just being re packaged in a different bow, but the same product.
● Rebelfit is a very aggressive arguer. He goes in circles, deflects, changes topics – there’s not much point arguing. I hope he listens to this podcast and gets something out of it. The probability might be low for him, but for others who hear what he is saying as somewhat enticing, this is for you.
● In many spaces, body positivity is looking a lot like diet culture.
● Melissa’s life is now a lot less restrictive. She’s trying to get back into movement that feels good for her.
● Louise will not be doing any half marathons any time soon – it’s walking for her.
● It’s a giant myth is you’re HAES that you hate exercise, or hate vegetables. Even these ideas are based on diet culture beliefs.
● There are so many determinants of health that aren’t taught in certificates or degrees. We need to look at this through a non-elitist lens. It’s not all about food and exercise. It’s about equality.
● If Melissa knew all of this when she was coaching, it would have been very different! If your health professional doesn’t think or know about these topics – that could be a red flag!!
Rebelfit’s meme that started the controversy:
● The HAES Principles
● The book White Fragility
● Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt
● Find out more about Rebecca Scritchfield at BodyKindnessBook.com
● Find out more about Melissa Toler at MelissaToler.com