Count your calories. Eat fewer carbs. Don’t even think about sugar. Even if you haven’t done a weight-loss program like Weight Watchers or Nutrisystem or Noom, none of this is unfamiliar. Though the conversation around dieting has shifted in the past few years, an often unspoken expectation that thinness be a primary pursuit of a healthy person, is the defining piece of diet culture. This is exactly why diet culture is dangerous, says dietitian and nutrition therapist Leslie Schilling. And this mindset affects more than the way we see and experience food. She talked with Common Good earlier this year.
The messaging in diet culture repeatedly tells us we can’t trust our own well-designed bodies. In its most well-intentioned forms, it tends to conflate weight and the particulars of food and nutrition as the superior ingredients to health, to oversimplify the purpose of a meal — calories in, calories out.
And believe it or not, these misleading messages appear even in the places we should feel the safest. These assumptions show up in church in a new-year-new-you resolution, in the messages that imply shrinking, or eating less, is a way to righteousness. We even find out-of-context Bible verses wrapped around our diet plans. When we demonize food, we can in turn dichotomize our bodies as good or bad.
In 20-something years in practice, specializing in sports nutrition and eating disorders, I have never seen someone not be able to regain a trust in their own senses, even those recovering from eating disorders who may have a harder time sensing their bodily cues. The damage is repairable.
Diet culture disconnects us from ourselves
We are born with innate wisdom around our bodies. Think about it: We never question our bodies when it comes to our bladders. Nothing in our culture says not to listen to that. But when it comes to hunger, we question it. We’re taught early to not “eat too much” or to “make sure you eat this and not that.” And, of course, no nutrition professional would say that all foods are equally “healthy” or nutritious. However, no food should come with a heaping side of shame. Eventually, whether it’s very explicit or not, the external control of our bodies becomes our default. We outsource our wisdom to smartwatches, apps, clever marketing, and we risk turning the volume down on our own senses.
Weight care isn’t health care
Medically necessary nutritional interventions are used to treat some diagnoses like Celiac disease or food allergies. That isn’t what we’re talking about here. It’s the constant worry, a fear of food, that leads us to unnecessary restrictions, and chronic dieting. That is the culprit.
Each of us is unique, but the messages of diet culture assume that we all start in the same place, with the same resources, the same bodies, the same priorities.
And we often choose as a society and as a medical system to focus primarily on diet and exercise, which do matter, but because of this hyperfocus, we can miss the impact of the social determinants of health like access to food, clean water, safe housing, education, treatment for adverse childhood events, and non-stigmatizing health care.
As a result, diet culture offers us only weight care, not health care. And health professionals like myself are actually some of the worst offenders of medical weight stigma, assuming someone’s health based on the size of his or her body, even though lots of evidence points to the contrary. When we’re quick to blame someone’s diet, we ignore other major influences on health. This type of “care” takes the easy way out. And it doesn’t bring us closer to health.
A common example is the body mass index: We’ve realized that BMI is a really poor measure of health and should not be used as a proxy of health, but we still use it because it’s a quick and easy tool. But evidence suggests that 74 to 75 million Americans are misclassified as metabolically healthy or unhealthy each year because of this calculation that was never intended to be used as a diagnostic measure. By focusing solely on how our diet affects our weight, we miss factors that truly improve our life and reduce our mortality risk.
In fact, mortality risk, research suggests, is decreased not as much by your weight or the food on your plate as by the presence of quality relationships. Yes, relationships are better at reducing mortality risk than an “acceptable” BMI, or even quitting smoking.
If not diets, what?
We were born with the innate wisdom to feed ourselves. A culture of on-and-off fad diets can interrupt this beautiful system. We must reframe what diet culture has taught us about food.
Food is a gift to use, enjoy, and savor. Food, provided to our bodies adequately and consistently, can offer us the energy to move through this world to do what we’re called to do. Food offers us connection with others and ourselves via pleasurable eating. Food is nourishment — beyond just fuel for the body.
Caring for your health is multifaceted. The first step is to feed yourself.
As told to Common Good.