I wasn’t always anti-diet. I spent years working in food media and writing articles about “clean” eating and all kinds of other diets. (Not to mention, the disordered eating habits and the fixation on “healthy” eating that led me to write about these things in the first place.) It took me quite a while to really unlearn diet culture’s *rules* and to abandon its garbage values — thinness, restriction, good and bad foods, “discipline” around food and eating, the idea that caring about health means being extremely vigilant about what you eat, etc.
The hardest thing was that somewhere along the way, diet culture’s values had kind of become my values.
I’m sure that anyone who works in a health- or nutrition-related field can relate. The prevalence of orthorexia, a disorder marked by an “unhealthy focus on healthy eating,” is much higher among nutrition experts than the general population. One study found that as many as 50 percent of dietitians have significant orthorexic tendencies, and many people with eating disorders or severe disordered eating choose careers in food and nutrition because they’re so preoccupied with food.
But, these diet culture values are so pervasive (and normalized) that I’m guessing many, many others can relate, too. Think about it: Most diets out there sell themselves as “lifestyles.” So, when you start following one, that diet and all the rules (or, “guidelines”) that come with it naturally become a big part of your life. Follow the diet for long enough and it starts to feel like part of who you are.
For me, it was “clean” eating.
I joined a CrossFit gym and was suddenly surrounded by people who talked an awful lot about not only what they ate, but what they didn’t eat. There were Whole30 challenges. There were seminars (put on by people without real nutrition credentials, OFC) about how eating “whole” foods and cutting out “processed” foods (and then some) could change your life. Thinking back now, it’s hard to believe I bought into any of it.
Actually, it’s not hard to believe at all. This is literally what diet culture does. It sells you the promise that eating a certain way will drastically change your life for the better, and it makes that way of eating just difficult and specific enough that you believe it. It all sounds great, and so you follow these food rules and soon you become The Person Who Eats Healthy (or “clean” or “low-carb” or “vegan” or whatever).
The thing is, “healthy” isn’t an identity.
First, let’s get something straight. There’s no one definition of “healthy” eating, and in most cases, going out of your way to eat certain foods and avoid others isn’t healthy at all.
With that out of the way, here’s the other important part: “Healthy” eating isn’t an identity. Not a healthy one, anyway. It can certainly feel like part of your identity, if you’re known as the person who always orders the salad, who measures their food, who absolutely doesn’t eat XYZ foods, who “has so much self control” around food (although usually that wears thin when no one else is around). But what you eat or don’t eat in the name of health doesn’t define who you are. Your cultural (or even taste) food preferences? Sure. Your “clean” eating habits? No.
The first step in untangling your food rules with your true values is to figure out what those values really are.
If you’re struggling to let go of food rules or diets because they feel like part of who you are, it’s best to work with a therapist on untangling all of that.
If that’s out of reach for you, here’s what psychologist Breese Annable told me last year when I interviewed her for an Outside story about why “clean” eating is problematic and how to let it go:
“One thing I work on with people is doing an inventory of their values, really figuring out, ‘What are my values in life?’ Certainly, health might be one value, and that can be fine. You don’t have to eliminate health as one part of your identity. The problem is when it’s too much of your identity — that can have really big consequences. I encourage people to think about what’s really important to them, what other parts of life are really meaningful or bring them joy. Really getting clear on what those things are and taking steps to incorporate them into your life can bring variety and a sense of balance.”
The next step is to acknowledge that your strict food rules are getting in the way of your other values.
Say you take stock of your values and realize that your career and your relationships are both extremely important to you. (I feel this way!) Think about how your food rules affect your relationships. Do those rules sometimes make you feel disconnected from other people at a meal or at a gathering? Do they make it hard to be present? What about your career? Do thoughts about food, weight, or diets distract you from your work? I mention these things because I can relate to all of them, and I can tell you that having real relationships and pursuing work in a meaningful way both get so much easier when you aren’t daydreaming about food or Googling a restaurant menu to figure out what you “can” and “can’t” order.
Finally, you’ll probably realize that your food rules aren’t even serving your health.
If health is a value for you — which, by the way, it doesn’t have to be! — you might worry that abandoning the relentless pursuit of “healthy” eating might get in the way of that. That’s understandable, because it’s what all the diet and “wellness” messages out there want you to believe.
Speaking from experience, let me tell you that you’ll be and feel so much healthier when you stop obsessing about your health. I can’t tell you how much better it feels to be able to order whatever I want off a menu, instead of what I think I should order. Or, how much space in my head is freed up now that I don’t plan meals in advance or stress about always keeping the “right” ones around. Or, how it’s possible to keep cookies and ice cream in the house without plowing through them in one night like I would have done before.
The bottom line? Your life can be so much fuller when your self-worth isn’t wrapped up in what you eat.
“Healthy” eating is not an identity. Health might be a value of yours, but what you eat or don’t eat doesn’t define who you are. If you’re struggling with this, a non-diet, Health at Every Size®-aligned therapist or dietitian can help you work through it. (You can find one here.) It’s not easy work and it won’t happen overnight, but the balance that it will bring back to your life will make it absolutely worth it.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I can help! I’m a dietitian who takes an anti-diet, body-positive, identity-affirming approach to recovery and healing your relationship with food. . Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with Blue Cross Blue Shield!) Not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter.