What you need to know about toxic diet culture, and how to avoid it in the new year.
Diet culture has always been in my life whether I wanted it or not. It started with the dieting of the women in my family and has somehow ended with a lifelong eating disorder on my part.
I wasn’t always obsessed with restriction and counting calories, but that doesn’t mean my relationship with food has ever been healthy. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find or recall a single positive interaction with food that hasn’t been followed by guilt. Yes. Even as a child.
Of course, I’m not blaming anyone. Diet culture wormed its way into my family’s lives because it was everywhere, and the body ideal was everything that they weren’t.
“The weight loss may have been justified, but its toxicity wasn’t and never will be, no matter how big or overweight you are.”
I’ve learned that a healthy and balanced relationship with food is the key, and not the restrictive ‘bad food’/’good food’ society we’ve been thrown into.
*After receiving excellent feedback on Twitter, I should explain my use of the word Diet. A Diet refers to the food we eat. However, in modern culture, it’s become associated with ‘crash diets‘, ‘FAD diets’ etc. If I were to suggest you ditch diets altogether then you wouldn’t be eating and that’s not what I’m about. Simply put, this post is in regard to harmful diets but the use of the term Diet is so widely used that it fitted better with SEO, Keywords, etc.*
How to ditch the diet demons.
>> Stop saying “I feel fat.“
We’ve talked about this before on the blog, and in great detail too. FAT is a feeling, but that’s all it is. It’s not an emotion.
Feeling fat bears no relation to being fat. You can be in a small, malnourished body and feel ‘big‘ or ‘heavy‘. Quite often when I refer to myself as feeling fat I am met with the obvious retorts of ‘oh shush. You’re not fat.’ And that’s when I feel like reminding them that, no I’m not, and I know I’m not, but I feel uncomfortably big in my own skin. That’s the best way I can think to describe the feeling of fat. And while that makes very little sense in itself, it’s a very real feeling.
Instead of saying you feel fat, why not try something else? It’s okay to have an off day with your body, we all do, so express what you mean using the correct terms.
“I don’t feel comfortable with myself today.”
Already it sounds better than the former. You’re expressing what you really mean and giving someone else the opportunity to step in with something other than ‘You’re not fat’ or ‘Stop saying that.’
>> Stop labeling certain foods as ‘cheat’, ‘bad’ or ‘guilt-free’ foods.
Food = Medicine. It won’t cure a disease but it fuels your body with various components to help your immune system. It’s also fuel for our tank, and without it, we wouldn’t last very long.
Giving food negative labels such as ‘bad’ is creating the assumption that we shouldn’t eat it, and if we do then we’re behaving badly. I’ve even heard people say ‘Oh, I’m so naughty for having this chocolate bar.’ News flash, Helen, you’re being human.
As for ‘guilt-free’ foods, all food should be guilt-free. The idea of any food being guilty is a farce. Even if you are watching what you eat, giving the food the power of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ only causes more stress. It’s a surefire way to develop a negative association with eating.
Although you may be old enough to know better, and therefore less susceptible to believing negative assumptions with food, young children are impressionable. Creating this narrative around food leaves children more open to developing a poor relationship with food, and can lead to life-altering eating disorders.
Finally, if you’re out with a friend and they happen to be eating a so-called ‘bad’ food: Keep your comments to yourself. It might be their favourite, it might bring back memories of childhood, or they may be on a meal plan which requires it. Don’t ruin that for them!
>> Forget about ‘cheat days’.
You don’t need an excuse to eat certain foods, nor do you need to justify it to anyone. Especially not to yourself.
If you’re on a specific meal plan for whatever reason and you decide to wander off the beaten track, that’s entirely fine. As long as it doesn’t turn into a binge then you’re free to eat what you want when you want.
Describing a meal or day as ‘cheating’ is telling everyone, including yourself, that you’re being ‘bad.’ Not only is this reaffirming it in your own mind, but it’s also infecting the thinking patterns of those around you. Especially those who may be specifically vulnerable or impressionable.
Be conscious of those around you as well as yourself when making comments like this. If you find it hard to eliminate those sorts of thoughts from your mind then just keep them unsaid.
>> Eliminate body-checking behaviours.
Although this is something I’ve been working on in recovery, it isn’t a behaviour that’s only developed through an eating disorder. In fact, many people body check on a regular basis and don’t even know it.
Have you ever gotten a friend to take a photo of your body at every angle before deciding on an outfit? This might be seemingly harmless, but deep down it’s often a tool that allows us to obsess about our bodies.
- “Do my arms look fat in this?”
- “Delete that photo. I look so FAT.”
There’s at least one person reading this who immediately said “That’s me”, and whoever you are, I feel you.
>> Find another way to give a compliment.
You don’t always have to compliment people based on looks and appearance. If someone has been trying to lose weight for whatever reason, it might seem nice to tell them they look amazing, but that implies they didn’t before. Although harmless, it’s insisting that weight loss = beautiful. As an anorexic patient who has to focus constantly on weight gain, it’s very hard to label it as anything other than negative when the world around you is so against it.
Another issue with using shape, weight, and size as a compliment is unknowingly fuelling potential eating disorders. Anorexia has a funny way of misconstruing everything that you say.
“You are looking so much healthier” can easily be converted into “You look fatter.” It’s weird, I know, but it’s anorexia’s way of stirring s**t up.
Instead of a comment based on looks, try commenting on someone’s makeup, hair, or even personality.
- “You look so much happier!”
- “You’re such a compassionate person.”
It’s as easy as that and no comment about shape or weight is needed.
>> Plus-sized mannequins are QUEENS!
The introduction of these new mannequins created widespread discussion. People were outraged at Nike’s plus-sized model because they claimed it was encouraging ‘fat culture.’ As a woman who has been on both sides of the coin, I can tell you that I openly cheered when I first read about these new models.
They aren’t encouraging obesity or ‘fat culture‘, they are displaying a body type. Not everyone is a size 6 string bean as standard models would have you believe. Some women have a booty, some have hips, some have a tum and all of them can still be healthy.
Bigger people work out and exist in the world too, not just petite models. They are allowed to take up as much space as anyone else and not feel a damned-bit guilty about it.
>> Stop avoiding certain food groups.
You need all of the foods within the food group. Without going into a fully blown nutritional lesson, all foods on the pyramid are essential, but at different levels.
- Carbohydrates are needed for slow-release energy.
- Fats are needed for padding the organs and brain fuel. It’s thought that your daily diet should contain 35% of fats. That being said, it’s important that you are getting the right type of fat.
- Dairy is needed for calcium. It’s thought that you need two to four portions of dairy or alternatives each day.
- Protein is needed to make enzymes, regulate hormones, and build and repair tissues. *If you’re a vegetarian or vegan there are other ways to include these in your diet.
- Fruits and vegetables are needed for fibre, and various other vitamins and minerals. It’s recommended that you eat five portions of these a day.
In order to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, we need to ensure we meet the daily recommendations for each. That means not cutting out carbs just because the latest diet tells you to do so.
>> Avoid foods or drinks with the word ‘detox.’
Any products that claim to be detoxing or cleansing usually contain a hidden ingredient: Laxatives. I’ve known people who have taken tea and fruit juices with the intention to lose their bellies or drop a dress size. What ends up happening is a laxative effect that can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Your liver and kidneys are the real heroes of detoxing, and the best thing is they’ll not make you s**t your knickers!
>> Your slim-fast is not a meal, Sharon.
Similar to detoxing, I hate meal replacement shakes or pills. It’s not a meal: It’s a drink. Although these shakes will help you lose weight fast, once you start eating regularly again the weight will pile back on. In fact, most people report having gained back more weight than they lost once resuming their regular diet.
When you’re starving yourself like that your body tends to cling to any sort of solid calorie it can get. It mistakes your new diet for a famine, and so stockpiles any calories you consume.
Do yourself a favour and lose weight the old-fashioned way. Yes, it takes longer, but that’s how weight loss should be. Unless stated otherwise by your doctor, please stay away from diet shakes.
>> Use exercise as self-care.
Exercise because you want to, not because you feel obligated to because you had a burger for your dinner. Hitting the gym should be about relieving stress, working on your physical and mental health, and getting stronger. It shouldn’t be about watching the calories on your tracker.
Giving up diet culture for good!
I’ve spent over a decade under anorexia’s control, and I refuse to spend the next decade stuck there or worse. That’s why in 2020 I’m giving diet culture the boot and calling out anyone who needs it.