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Listening to The Science

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Don't Fall Victim To The Semmelweis Reflex


Imagine working at a hospital in the 1800’s. You realize the medical staff who washes their hands between patients has significantly less rates of sepsis and death among their patients, compared to those who do not wash their hands. You gather data and present the findings to your medical peers. You are mocked and ridiculed. Your evidence is rejected because it goes against the standard way of practicing. You are the laughing stock of the medical community. You end up in a Psychiatric hospital, where you die, sadly and ironically, of a wound.


That’s the real story of a physician in Austria in the 1840’s. His name was Semmelweis. His story is one of many examples of groundbreaking evidence being presented with science to back it up and being rejected as it goes against the current beliefs. This phenomenon is called the “Semmelweis reflex.” Of course, we all know his research turned out to be true. Can you imagine if your surgeon didn't wash her hands in this day in age!


The Semmelweis reflex has happened with most scientific theories and advancements that turn out to be true, including gravity, relativity, Pangea, evolution, discontinuing bloodletting as a cure-all for disease, and the list goes on and on. Sadly, people often initially reject anything that contradicts the status quo. I understand why people are reluctant to come forward with or even just support evidence that opposes the norm. Backlash can be fierce.


Sadly, the Semmelweis reflex can be seen in the response to the anti-diet and Health At Every Size movement. There is strong evidence that shows diets and weight loss are not sustainable and most often result in weight regain, decreased life satisfaction, disordered eating, eating disorders, and shame. We have studies that show health can very much improve without focusing on decreasing a person’s body size. People can be, and often are, physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally healthy while living in a larger body. Weight loss is not the cure diet culture promises it to be. In fact, weight stigma and yo-yo dieting, leading to decades of weight fluctuations, is what causes not only psychological harm, but physical harm to our bodies.


The anti-diet and Health At Every Size community gets plenty of pushback. People do not want to believe we, as a society, can forgo our attempts at dieting and discover a truly healthier way of living. If that’s still your line of thinking, too, that’s ok. I get it. I used to practice as a weigh-centric clinician. I would counsel individuals on weight loss because I was educated and trained to believe that. It was hard to admit I was wrong.


More important than all the research articles I could throw at you is this question to consider: How has dieting served you thus far? If your answer emits regret, a financial drain, or a feeling of defeat I hope you find some relief in knowing there is a better, more science-backed way of living.


Just as we now view hand-washing as a standard expectation of all surgeons, I hope one day society will accept Health At Every Size with open arms. For now, let's start with you and see how rejecting diet culture can benefit you.


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