Don’t think you engage with diet culture? Think again. How many “wellness” influencers do you follow on social media? How many “wellness” or “healthy eating” articles do you read in a week? If you’re like most people (at least, most people who identify as female) it’s likely too many to count.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all human. And, we’re living in a culture that tells us we should always be growing and improving. That isn’t a bad thing. But, the trick to real growth and wellness is to stop buying what diet culture is selling.
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Here’s the thing: There’s a lot of bad “wellness” content out there.
Yesterday, a(nother) Gwyneth Paltrow interview was making the rounds. In it, she told a podcast host that she had been eating bread and pasta regularly during the pandemic. She said it as if it were something to be hugely ashamed of. She was basically saying, ‘I’ve been so unhealthy these past few months, and now it’s time to get back on track.’ Judging by her Goop website, “back on track” looks something like a 5-day, $249 “meal program” that consists of “plant-based soups, almond butter bars, kale crackers, olives, herbal teas, and supplements.” That’s $50/day to essentially eat pureed or dehydrated vegetables, plus some nuts.
Food guilt isn’t “normal” or “relatable.” It’s diet culture.
First of all, I think many of us have been eating bread and pasta regularly during the pandemic. (And, as I wrote in Outside Magazine in April 2020, THAT’S OK!) Many of us have been eating bread and pasta regularly since forever. And that’s fine! Even the Dietary Guidelines—which I wouldn’t recommend you follow to a T because that might drive you crazy—say that grain products are a cornerstone of a nutritious diet. (Yes, they emphasize whole grains, but they don’t even come close to recommending that you must cut out refined grains completely.) Gwyneth’s “confession” about regular carb consumption might have been her attempt at seeming relatable—Celebrities! They eat spaghetti, too! But really, what she did was make totally normal behavior seem shameful and wrong. Not cool!
It’s natural to feel drawn in by aspirational “wellness” advice!
Look, maybe you don’t feel your healthiest-best right now. That’s OK! You’ve spent a whole lot of time at home this past year-plus, perhaps with less routine and more stress than you’re used to. I’m a big advocate for taking it easy on yourself and not striving for perfection when it comes to food, exercise, or any other kind of self-care. (There’s no such thing as perfection with these things, anyway!) But if you’re feeling a little less *well* than you were before the pandemic, I won’t argue with you. You’ve been through a lot! It’s kind of to be expected that you might not feel as energized or as comfortable in your own skin as you were at the start of last year.
But, diet culture won’t make you feel better. It’ll only make you feel worse.
Let me be clear: bread and pasta are not the reason you might not feel your best 14 months into a pandemic. And, an expensive 5-day detox won’t magically turn what you’re feeling around. Loads of these wellness influencers talk about certain foods (usually starchy or sugary carbs) like they’re poison. And it’s easy to fall for it! They take gorgeous photos of their starch-and-added-sugar-free meals. They talk about how ah-maaaazing they feel after cutting out bread, sugar, dairy, gluten, meat, nightshades, soy, and alcohol! They post videos of themselves smiling and looking all energized! IT’S ONLY NATURAL THAT YOU’D WANT TO FEEL AH-MAAAAZING, TOO!
But ask yourself: Does following that kind of wellness advice *actually* make you feel good? Or does it make you feel punished?
Yes, the question is a little bit rhetorical—if you’re here, you already know my stance on this stuff. But I really do encourage you to ask yourself these questions.
You’ve probably tried some kind of diet, detox, or restrictive “meal plan” in the past. (Who hasn’t!? I have! Again, that’s just what diet culture tells us to do!) How did you feel while you were doing it? Maybe there were some good parts; you may have slept well, or felt energized, or whatever. But there were probably some downsides, too. Maybe you found yourself thinking about food all the time. Maybe you dreamt about the foods you “weren’t allowed” to eat. Maybe you were very hungry. Only you know the answer to this, because only you experienced it.
Now, think of how you felt after the diet, detox, meal plan, whatever.
Often we only think of how we felt ON the diet, which isn’t the whole picture. Many of these diets and wellness programs come with an end date. Even the ones that are meant to last forever usually don’t; eventually you’ll go back to the way of eating that feels most natural to you. So, how you feel when the diet is over is just as important—scratch that, it’s much MORE important—than how you feel when you’re on it. It doesn’t really matter how you feel during a 5-day juice “cleanse” or a 30-day “reset”! That’s such a short amount of time!
What matters is how you feel afterwards. Did you finish the 30-day elimination diet and immediately binge on all the foods that weren’t “allowed,” then continue to crave them non-stop for weeks or months afterwards? Do you lose weight every time you try a weeklong juice cleanse, only to gain it back immediately after you start eating food again? These things are important to notice, because the “when the diet is over” phase is what you have to live with forever.
It’s not just your body that’s yo-yo-ing when you diet on and off. It’s your brain and your emotions, too.
If you’ve tried a diet—and we’re already established that you almost certainly have—you know that the feeling of deprivation is often more mental than physical. Your body can survive on nothing but kale, sweet potatoes, almond butter, and skinless chicken breast for quite a while. It’s your brain that struggles.
It’s normal to crave different flavors and textures. It’s normal to get happiness and comfort from foods that taste good! It’s normal to want to eat all kinds of foods—constantly telling yourself “no” is exhausting and confusing. Although diet culture tells you that you’re “good” if you deprive yourself certain foods, that’s just not true. That deprivation takes an emotional toll, and you’re often stuck paying that toll long after the diet is over. You’re stuck with dueling voices in your head: one that’s telling you what your body craves and needs, and another telling you that it’s never OK to just trust that first voice.
The only way to get rid of the food police voice in your head is to start actively rejecting diet culture.
I won’t lie, it feels pretty great to read that Gwyneth is in crisis because of regular bread and pasta consumption and think: That’s too bad for her! There was certainly a time when I would have felt guilty right alongside her and jumped into some 30-day elimination diet. But finally I started asking myself the same questions that I’m urging you to ask yourself: What good will another round of food rules actually do me? If I always end up back in this guilty, crisis place, what’s the point? Do I really want to be someone who melts down because of a few weeks of regular sandwich consumption?
Only you can answer those questions for yourself. But when you do, take your answers seriously. And then think about all of those “wellness” influencers you follow, and all the “healthy eating” articles you read. If they’re not making you feel well, then maybe it’s time to unfollow and stop reading.