Diet is a Four Letter Word


STORY BY Rebecca Kirkman      PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella

As a child, Elizabeth Owens struggled with her weight and was often picked on. Like nearly a quarter of men and more than a third of women in the U.S., she went on and off various diets as a teen and young adult. In search of a more sustainable solution, she began studying health sciences.

“I had tried a bunch of fad diets before I studied nutrition and actually learned the right and safe way to make sustainable changes—not just for the number on the scale, but for overall health and wellness,” says Owens, now a certified nutrition specialist and adjunct faculty member at Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) in Laurel. “So I think that’s what piqued my interest to be in the health field.”

With more than two out of three adults in the U.S. considered overweight or obese, the dieting industry has gained a strong foothold, tripling its annual income over the past 20 years to more than $60 billion. But despite that growth, a mounting anti-diet movement is gaining momentum.

Owens hopes that her students will go on to help people to make healthier choices, she says. While fad diets may show quick results on the scale, she points out, “They are not sustainable long term.” Furthermore, such diets are difficult to maintain. “Nobody wants to live their lives that restricted,” she points out.

While dieters who fail often blame themselves, they are in the majority. Most wind up gaining some—if not all—of their lost weight back. In fact, frequent dieters may be more likely to gain weight than those who don’t diet at all. A study following more than 4,000 twins from ages 16 to 25 found that frequent dieting reflected susceptibility to weight gain, independent of genetic factors.


People on fad diets don’t feel well, Owens points out. They may be cutting their calories too drastically, or eating prepared, packaged, non-nutritious foods, leaving them feeling low energy and irritable, she says. “They may be seeing a shift on the scale, but they may not actually be well.”

Fed up with yo-yoing between diets, more Americans are shifting their focus to wellness rather than the number on the scale. The mental shift has found its way into the mainstream media and pop culture, from the language on the covers of health and fitness magazines (Covers that once said “Lose 10 pounds this month!” are now imploring us to “Get strong!” and “Be Your Healthiest.”) to celebrity-backed wellness brands like model Elle MacPherson’s WelleCo super-green supplements and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand. And it seems the growth is just getting started—the global alternative and complementary medicine market, valued at more than $40.32 billion in 2015, is projected to nearly quintuple, reaching $196 billion by 2025.

While wellness may be a trending term for marketers, what does it really mean to focus on wellness? To Owens, health refers to “The absence of disease. So it’s just a point in time.” On the other hand, wellness, she says, “is a continuum.”

As part of this shift in perspective, more than a third of U.S. adults are turning to complementary health approaches.

The Maryland MUIH, formerly known as the Tai Sophia Institute is a leading post-graduate academic institution and one of only a handful in the nation devoted to integrative medicine.

“You can look at wellness versus sickness as positive or negative motivations, says Abigail Aiyepola, associate dean of the MUIH School of Naturopathic Medicine. “Sickness tends to compartmentalize what’s going on.” For example, in the western model, she says, “If your stomach hurts you might go to a gastroenterologist. If you have a headache, you can pop an Advil.” The wellness model, she says, “Means if I have a patient with a headache, I’ll say, ‘Are you hydrated? Have you eaten? Did you get enough sleep?’ We look at the whole person.” While naturopathic medicine emphasizes prevention and healing through natural remedies, Aiyepola is clear that sometimes a western approach is required. “If I break my right arm, get me to the doctor,” she laughs. “I don’t want your homeopathy.”

Like many who work in integrative fields like naturopathic medicine, Aiyepola started her education in a more traditional field. She was on the pre-med track at UMBC and majored in biology. But she also studied sociology, anthropology and women’s health. “It was a mix of the hard and soft subjects,” she says.

After receiving her degree in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, she began a midwifery practice. “I speak with women and young girls about understanding their own bodies,” she says. “We’re looking at the spiritual and the emotional as it relates to health.”

Often, patients come to MUIH after being referred by their doctor, or when conventional Western medicine isn’t working for them. “People are getting sick of being sick,” says Owens. “There are more and more people who are getting sick, and they’re looking for answers that make them feel better, not just mask their symptoms.”


After seeing a high volume of clients who came to them feeling defeated after following numerous diets, a group of dietitians at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, a private practice with three locations between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., published Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel Against Dieting Workbook in 2015. The workbook includes strategies for breaking free of diets, including recommendations for healthy food options, recipes and grocery lists.

The nondieting approach advocated by the Rebels (as they call themselves) attempts to help practitioners rebuild their relationships with food into something more positive. And this means “not basing your whole identity and self-worth on your weight and what you’re eating,” says Alex Raymond, a Columbia-based registered dietician nutritionist with Rebecca Bitzer. “My goal as a dietician is to make people feel better about themselves. And on a diet, ultimately, they’re going to feel worse.”

Raymond, who works mainly with eating disorder clients, points out that while nutrition is a big part of the workbook, the program goes beyond the physiological to address the mental and emotional aspects of wellness. “A huge other part of it is how you’re eating, when you’re eating, and why you’re eating,” she says.

Even as people fed up with dieting cliché aim to break free of the yo-yo by focusing on wellness, Raymond cautions that some programs may be diets hiding behind “wellness” branding. “The wellness approach is catching on, and sometimes I wonder if it’s going to be the next diet, kind of like a diet in disguise,” she cautions.


Jennifer Palmer’s success with Nourishing Journey, her wellness, detox and spiritual center in Columbia, prompted her to move to an expanded location with an on-site organic café on Guildford Road in August. It’s a business and spiritual community that might not have even existed 20 years ago, much less flourished. “There has been a huge expansion—what we call the awakening—of the awareness, the consciousness of who we are as beings,” says Palmer. “With so much going on in the world right now, we’re kind of being forced to look at those things within ourselves. It’s time for people to wake up and see a greater, bigger picture.”

Offering services ranging from massage therapy (Nourishing Journey’s most popular treatment) and yoga to meditation and energy healing, Nourishing Journey aims to create a place for acceptance. Palmer sees her business as reviving something lost. “Western medicine has a beautiful purpose, and I’m thankful and grateful that it’s around,” she says. “But I also think there are many other traditions that we’ve lost along the way that are making a comeback,” says Palmer, whose interest in integrative health and spiritual treatment began after conventional medicine failed to treat chronic immune and digestive issues that plagued her in her late teens and early 20s.

Palmer is optimistic about the future of holistic medicine and its embrace by mainstream society. She likens its evolution to a boat changing course. Integrative, she says, “Is a big, giant ship that is kind of hard to turn. I think as a culture, we’re finding it and we’re shifting. I think 20 years from now, it’s going to be hugely different than it is right now.”


The movement that values wellness over weight

In 2008, Linda Bacon, a health, nutrition and exercise expert, published Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, a seminal fat-acceptance book based on peer-reviewed research challenging long-held perceptions about fat’s impact on health and examining weight-related biases in the medical industry.

Since then, a community has grown around the Health at Every Size, known as HAES, encouraging people to make peace with their bodies through respect, critical awareness and compassionate self-care.

The six tenets of HAES:

  1. 1 Good health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being.
  2. 2 Human beings come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
  3. 3 There is no ideal body size, shape, BMI or body composition.
  4. 4 Self-esteem and body image are strongly linked.
  5. 5 Each person is responsible for taking care of his/ her own body.
  6. 6 Appearance stereotyping is wrong.

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