by Michelle May, MD
A paradigm is a way of thinking—a belief system that filters everything we think, hear, see, and read. The filter screens out any information that doesn’t fit the paradigm so we continually reinforce what we already believe to be true or possible (whether it is or not) and discard new ideas (even when they might be life-changing).
A paradigm that I frequently come up against is a tendency to focus on eating and exercise for the purpose of weight loss. This paradigm is flawed yet so pervasive that millions of people are trapped in outdated beliefs and behaviors despite all of the evidence that it is not moving the majority toward healthier, happier, more vibrant lives. Health professionals, the media, the Internet, and friends, spouses, and parents everywhere continually feed the pipeline with biased information that supports the paradigm—not because they are malicious or ignorant, but because it is their paradigm too.
Is Your Paradigm Showing?
This paradigm is often invisible to those who hold it. Only by noticing, examining, and questioning your own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions can you unveil the source. For example, do you think about eating and exercise in terms of calories in and calories out? Do you think of food in terms of whether it is “fattening”? On some level, do you believe that one of the primary goals of exercise is to counteract the food you eat?
Questioning the Paradigm
At the risk of being screened out and discarded by your filter, let me ask you: Isn’t the fundamental goal of eating to fuel and nourish your life? Isn’t the fundamental goal of exercise to have fun and increase your stamina, strength, flexibility, and health so you can enjoy your life to the fullest capacity?
Staying stuck in this paradigm of making decisions about eating and exercise in the pursuit of thinness results in futile yo-yo dieting, feelings of deprivation and punishment, rebound overeating, exercise avoidance, low energy, poor health, damaged self-esteem and self-confidence, and on a societal level—unfair stigmatization, mounting health care costs, decreased productivity, chronic disease, and distraction from what is truly important: living a healthy, vibrant life without weight, dieting, or food obsession.
A Paradigm Shift Doesn’t Come Easily
It is difficult to shift a long-standing or deeply ingrained paradigm until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. Despite all of the pain this paradigm has caused, it has persisted, even exploded, over the last couple of decades. The challenges we might face as we change this paradigm include fear of making a mistake; admitting we were wrong; having to learn new beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors; making the effort to do something new; going against the tide—and the list goes on.
If you made it this far into this post, you may be ready to shift your paradigm toward Health at Every SizeSM. Begin by noticing, examining, and challenging your own beliefs about eating and physical activity. Then, notice, examine, and challenge the paradigms around you. Perhaps our culture is preparing for such a shift as the evidence mounts that America’s (and increasingly, the world’s) pursuit of thinness is distracting us from more meaningful and sustainable lifestyle changes.