Where We Lack Connection, Weight Loss Groups are Filling In

Written by Kristina Bruce

As we grow older it can become harder to make new friends.

Our days are occupied with work and family, and we don’t often meet friends like we did when we were in school. It can be lonely, and as human beings we do well when we feel connected to others - especially when that connection includes shared values and interests.

Enter weight loss groups.

One of the similarities dieting companies like WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and Slimming World have in common (aside from selling weight loss), is that they offer connection. Whether it’s in-person group meetings or online forums, signing up for a membership provides a built-in community and support group.

Weight loss groups are alluring because they connect people through a shared goal and common purpose - there is this feeling of ‘being in it together’. They also come with a ready-made cheering section to support and validate people when they meet their goal. Like any group where ups and downs are shared, real friendships are born from the inherent intimacy that comes with being vulnerable with others. It’s easy to see why these types of weight loss programs are so popular - they offer a forum where real emotional needs can be met.

But, is the common goal of weight loss how we want to foster social connections?

We live in a fatphobic society that is judgmental of larger bodies, and weight loss groups by their very nature strengthen the stigma associated with being fat. It’s not sold to us that way, but the underlying message of weight loss programs is, ‘your body/life would be better if you lost weight’. The main thing connecting everyone in weight loss groups is an underlying sense of their bodies not being good enough or needing to be fixed. That’s a destructive mindset.

Of course, that’s not how weight loss programs frame it. They sell their service as a means of helping people achieve health and well-being. Except, mounting evidence shows that weight loss itself does not improve health, rather it’s a change in health behaviours that improves health, regardless of body size. (Read Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor to learn more.)

What about the people who do lose weight on these programs and feel good as a result? Unfortunately, keeping the weight off is almost impossible long-term. Research shows that of people who pursue intentional weight loss, 95% will gain all the weight back within 2-5 years (Australian National Medical Health and Research Council). So, what happens when inevitably, the weight lost, comes back on?

Likely, weight loss group members will be supportive and encouraging of their fellow comrades to get back on the wagon. But as we can see from the research, the pursuit of weight loss is a never-ending cycle. In order to keep the weight off, the amount of time and energy required can be all-consuming, and that’s what these groups end up encouraging - an all-consuming focus on body size. Instead of fostering engagement based on common interests that nourish the mind and soul, precious time is spent tracking points and sharing tips on how to make/keep one’s body smaller.

Social connections are important and healthy for us. In a 2017 Harvard Health Letter publication, eight decades of research on social connection showed that those who nurtured positive relationships were happier, healthier, and lived longer lives. So, while weight loss groups can fulfill a need for connection, they lose their appeal when we see that the reason for being in one (the pursuit of weight loss) isn’t so positive after all.

What if instead of communing with the shared goal of weight loss, we gathered together with the intention of accepting all body sizes, rather than shrinking them?

Body positive fitness classes are popping up all over Canada. Body Positive Fitness in Toronto and Big Girl YYC in Calgary offer environments where people can enjoy the pleasure and health-benefits of movement and connection with others, but in a place of size acceptance, rather than change.

With all the free time that’s become available from not counting points and measuring food, what other interests could be pursued that fulfill the desire for positive social connection? Perhaps a knitting club, or tech club, or spending time giving back to your community through volunteer work.

When we remove the pursuit of weight loss from our agenda and live from a place of body acceptance, we discover that the confidence we thought a thinner body would give us is available to us right now. With that confidence, we can connect with others who would love spending time with us, just as we are.

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