** Content warning: Dieting behaviours and body image discussed**
Breaking Free From Diet Culture
“I’m not on a diet – I’m just eating clean.” This is something I hear ALL the time – from clients, in the blogosphere, on social media, and amongst family and friends. “Clean” is the new “skinny” my friends – don’t be fooled.
Why do I say this? Because in reality, for the majority of people who suddenly decide to ‘clean up’ their eating, the underlying goal is weight loss. Now, why is this a problem? Aren’t we facing an obesity epidemic? Don’t we all need to lose weight so we don’t suffer from heart disease, cancer and diabetes? According to Health at Every Size ® research – NO – we actually don’t need to LOSE WEIGHT to achieve these end health-goals. Weight loss should NEVER be the primary focus of our eating behaviours, because as the name of the movement suggests, people of all sizes come in all versions of health (or lack of). I won’t delve deep into the science behind Health at Every Size here – but what I want to talk about is how and why we have come to see weight loss as the panacea which will solve all of our problems.
Enter our nemesis “diet culture”. Anyone who follows me would hear me banging on about “diet culture” all the time, so I thought it best to explore this concept a little more. Diet culture is essentially the culture or “norm” which tells us that skinny/thin/not fat is:
• More successful
• More attractive
• More acceptable
• Something to aspire to
By default then, being fat/in a larger body naturally equates to the opposite of these. So who in the hell wouldn’t want to be skinny?!?!?! This is where diet culture goes on to make its millions, and perpetuates this “need” for thinness through:
• Fitness/health magazines
• Social media
• Advertising (weight loss machines, products, foods, drinks, diets) … etc.…
Diet culture gives us the “answer” for how to become the “best” (aka skinniest) person we can be, through providing us with “inspiration” to be thinner. Once upon a time, it was quite acceptable to fat shame, but now, we’ve gone all PC. Rather than telling people they need to lose weight because they’re ugly, unlovable and useless in a larger body, what people are being told is that being in a larger body is bad for their health. Now, let me be very clear – some people in larger bodies have a host of health issues – BUT NEVER, EVER FORGET that just as many thin people suffer from a range of health issues. And meanwhile, many people in larger bodies are kicking some serious health goals. And vice versa. Get my drift?
We have been sucked down deep into the darkness of modern diet culture by being encouraged to have a:
• “Fake” focus on health (it’s about being skinny – always has been, always will be).
• Focus on strength or fitness (“I’m eating healthy and training to get strong” – yeah ok, whatever. “Skinny is sexy” would piss off too many people now, but somehow we manage to fall for this “strong is sexy” crap).
• Focus on eating “clean” or “healthy” foods (because if we eat sugar we will end up doing so much damage to our liver that we will die from cancer for sure).
• Label foods by giving them moral personas – “good”, “bad”, “sometimes”, “green”, “red” – rather than seeing food as morally neutral.
So once we have been sufficiently brainwashed into believing that we can’t possibly be healthy at much more than a size 10-12 (or S-M for a man), we embark on the great “health seeking” journey. That is, we find the newest, trendiest “diet” which promises us the world. Except now they’re not called diets – they’re “ways of eating” or “healthy lifestyles”. Why is this still dieting though? And how does this amount to chronic, or yo-yo dieting? Well, if you recognise any of these “healthy” behaviours let me assure you that you are in fact “dieting” – you are buying into diet culture and are on the chronic dieting wagon:
• Eating according to a set of rules (no sugar, no carbs for dinner, protein only, no oil…).
• Avoiding/denying/restricting foods for reasons other than food intolerances or allergies.
• Following a “diet” such as paleo, LCHF *insert trendy diet here*.
• Condemning food groups (e.g. carbs or fats).
• Obsessively reading food labels.
• Avoiding eating out socially.
• Eating before an event so you don’t have to “eat something bad” while out.
• Not seeing foods as of equal value / morally neutral.
• Saying no to the cake / dessert / chips even though you are DYING to have some.
• Saying stupid things like “I’m being good today because yesterday I was SO bad for eating *insert offending food here*”.
• Feeling proud of yourself for having the “willpower” to say no to the one food you really want.
Now these are not your commonly-described “dieting behaviours”. But believe me – this is what so many of us are now starting to do. On top of that, the common offenders of dieting behaviour still include:
• Counting calories or macros or both.
• Counting anything actually – including damn steps with a Fitbit!
• Obsessing over serving sizes.
• Skipping meals.
• Being obsessed about fat/sugar – fat-free this, diet that, low-fat the other.
• Talking about weight all the time.
• Feeling really great about yourself when someone compliments you on your weight loss.
• Thinking about losing weight all the time.
• Exercising to counteract the “bad” food you’ve eaten or are going to eat.
• Exercising with the SOLE purpose of losing weight.
• Engaging in exercise you HATE, for the purpose of weight loss.
• Checking yourself out in the mirror and making a mental note about how much you hate *insert fat roll, flab, or body part*, and would be so much happier without it.
If you’re still wondering what the problem is with trying to lose weight, and doing it in the chronic dieting way, let me shed some light on the damage which diet culture and chronic dieting causes:
IT RUINS YOUR ABILITY FOR BODY ACCEPTANCE AND DESTROYS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD.
Let’s break that down:
1. Body acceptance is body love – accepting what is, loving what is, while being confident and happy in the knowledge that we are SO MUCH MORE than our size and weight. When we are told we need to be thin/of a certain size, this tells us that we are LESS THAN, we are not good enough as we are, and that we need to change if we want to be happier, healthier (sneaky little sucker…), more lovable and more successful in life. Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents – anyone who comes into contact with kids – please, listen up. Your relationship with your body (and food) DIRECTLY influences the relationship the young people around you will have with their own bodies and eating behaviours. If they see you dieting and restricting – they will too. If they see you hating on your cellulite – they will too. We are actively raising a generation of self-loathing, appearance-obsessed young people who care more about how to make their butt look small in Instagram photos than how they can be kind, empowered, empathetic, fulfilled individuals. This is a problem – a really, really big one. And this desperately needs to change.
2. Our relationship with food determines our eating behaviours and food values – if we are afraid of food (because it will make us fat and unhealthy) then we are more likely to restrict. This restriction is inevitably followed by a period of bingeing. Not only does this behaviour cause a range of nutrient deficiencies, mood issues and health challenges, but it completely destroys the pleasure factor in food. Food is for fuel AND for pleasure. We are wired to want to eat! If we didn’t eat – we would die. So it is MEANT to be pleasurable and fun. Through restricting our food and dieting, we create an incredibly stressful environment when it comes to eating. We enter a stress response every time we even think of food – let alone put something in our mouth which we “shouldn’t have”. This not only completely derails our digestive ability, but causes a whole range of other issues associated with the chronic stress response. And this doesn’t even take into account how stressful it is to walk around all day hating your size and the way you look! When we listen to diet culture and follow the rules of a given diet, we also lose the ability to TRUST SELF. We stop trusting our own body cues – we forget how to feel hungry and full, we no longer know which foods truly serve us best. Instead, we rely on external sources to TELL US what to eat (i.e. what we should/should not be eating). And then when we stuff up – when we eat the carbs later than 6pm – we feel we have failed. Whether you know it or not, when you believe you have eaten a bad or forbidden food, you psychologically equate that with being a bad person – unmotivated, a failure, a loser, with no willpower. With this we have come full circle – back to self-loathing rather than self-acceptance. We seek out a new, more “doable” diet, and so the cycle continues….
By this stage you might be asking – what is “normal eating” then? In the words of Fiona Willer (registered dietitian who practices from a non-diet approach), it is “…flexible, enjoyable and satisfying.” Sounds simple, right? It should be! But thanks to diet culture and the fact that it has penetrated deeeeeeep into our psyche, normal eating is far from simple to achieve. Adopting a mindful eating and intuitive eating framework is the key for moving forward and away from diet culture. These are skills which need to be learnt and a non-diet nutritionist or dietitian can help you to work on your relationship with food and yourself using this approach. Becoming a mindful eater isn’t as simple as slowing down with your meals – although this is certainly a starting point!! Mindful and intuitive eating practices are evidence-based strategies for rejecting diet mentality, re-gaining trust in our own bodies, and repairing our relationship with food and self in the process.
We only have one shot at life – and it is certainly too short to be hating the food we eat and who we are because of how we look. It’s time to extend ourselves beyond diet culture, and take a stand by saying NO to chronic dieting – for our sake, and the sake of those who follow in our footsteps.
Health & happiness,
*The information in this article is not a replacement for personalised advice, and is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing challenges with eating behaviours and/or body image, a private consultation with a qualified non-diet health practitioner is necessary. If you have found any of the content in this article triggering, please contact your local health care provider or support group.
**References are available upon request**
Copyright © 2018 NOURISH Mind + Body Nutrition
For a printable pdf version of this article, click Breaking Free From Diet Culture