Name a diet and chances are Jocelyn Steinke has tried it.
For years, the 38-year-old Minneapolis woman obsessed over her weight, cutting calories, pushing herself to run even though she hated it and depriving herself of certain foods — all in the name of good health.
“Every time I would diet, I was trying to get down to 145 pounds. But I could never get below 155,” said Steinke, who stands 5 feet 7 inches tall and says she weighed 270 pounds in February at her last doctor’s appointment.
Some diets worked at first. But always, she would regain everything she’d lost and more.
“You get to the point where you kill your metabolism,” Steinke said.
That’s when she decided to take a different approach: She stopped trying to lose weight.
Steinke has lots of company. Fewer Americans are trying to lose weight compared with three decades ago, according to a surprising study published recently in the Journal of American Medical Association.
This comes at a time when obesity rates nationwide are still climbing, along with chronic diseases linked to obesity. And while researchers aren’t sure why there is so much ambivalence about weight loss, they suggest it may be due to skepticism about diets in general and the growing number of people who view being fat as socially acceptable and even healthy.
Groups such as the Association for Size Diversity and Health and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance are challenging doctors to focus on other health indicators besides weight.
They cite research such as a study published in JAMA in 2005 that found that people considered overweight — body-mass-index ranges of 25 to 30 — actually had lower mortality rates than those deemed to be of normal weight.
“We should be taking the focus off of weight, and widening the lens of what is really health,” said Nicole Eikenberry, a registered dietitian in St. Paul who teaches her clients to take a mindful approach to eating and listen to their body’s internal hunger cues. “When you take the focus off of weight, you can take away the shaming and the stigma.”
She said the stress of living in a culture that promotes thin as the ideal body type can trigger health problems for larger people, too.
“A lot of women are saying ‘I’m not doing this anymore, I want my life back,’ ” Eikenberry said of the no-diet revolution. “The diet industry was always able to say you failed when actually it was the diet that failed.”
The intuitive eating model that Eikenberry follows and uses to coach her clients doesn’t use weight as a measure for success.
“It’s ditching the diet mentality,” she explained. “A lot of dieters are listening to external cues about what and when to eat. I liken it to GPS. You lose that skill of tuning into your own body cues. Our bodies are really good at maintaining a stable weight by letting us know when we’re hungry and when we’ve had enough to eat. I work with clients to improve their relationship with food so they can trust their body and listen to themselves more about when to eat and what to eat.”
It’s not always about the number on the scale, agreed Natalie Ikeman, a physician’s assistant at Hennepin County Medical Center’s Golden Valley Clinic, where she runs a weight loss program called “The Great Slimdown.”
Simply choosing to eat healthy and exercise your heart will extend your life expectancy, she said.
“When patients are making those good choices, I say that’s an accomplishment in itself. Sometimes when I’m counseling patients with weight loss, if their number hasn’t changed I say I don’t care about the number. Do you feel better? Are you getting better sleep? Do you feel like you have more energy? It’s not just about the number.”
Still, although weight isn’t the only measure of good health, it should not be ignored, Ikeman said.
“It’s good that it’s become socially acceptable to accept who you are. But from a medical standpoint, it concerns me because of the impact of obesity on chronic diseases. I’m trying to gather anyone who is overweight to help them understand the severity of it,” she said. “It’s not all about the number, but if they end up losing weight and decreasing their BMI that’s a positive thing in terms of avoiding chronic diseases.”
After a lifetime of dieting, Steinke was skeptical at first about embracing the intuitive eating approach. No foods were off limits.
“My body was so messed up that I couldn’t even hear my own hunger signals,” she said.
Since then, she’s learned to listen to and trust her body’s cues. She rarely looks at the scale anymore. And instead of forcing herself to run for exercise, she chooses activities she enjoys including yoga and walking.
One afternoon last week, she walked a few blocks from her home to Minnehaha Falls for a midday workout. She was dressed in a sports tank top and leggings with the words “goal digger” written down one leg. Sweat beads formed on Steinke’s forehead as she jogged up the stairs in the park, paused to look at the rushing water, and then climbed more stairs — her legs swallowing two steps at a time.
“It works your glutes,” she said at the top of the stairs.
Her approach to fitness, like eating, does not rely on numbers. She doesn’t wear a fitbit, preferring to pay attention to her body’s signals instead of counting steps. “This feels good,” she said at the end of her workout. “I’m sweating but I don’t feel I’ve exhausted myself.”
She pushes back on what she sees as hyped warnings from some health professionals about the link between fat and mortality.
“The message is: If you are fat, you are unhealthy and you are going to die. But my blood pressure is perfect,” Steinke said. “My health markers are all good. You can still have a happy life if you’re fat.”