Diet culture has become one sly shape-shifter. Gone are the days of seeing blatant advertisements that solely focus on weight loss. Today, the modern diet is advertised as wellness.
Wellness. A term that I have come to despise. A term that has become a guise for guilt-ridden messages that promote disordered eating. It seems to me that, as the public has wised up about the fact that diets do not work, the diet industry has adapted accordingly. By this, I mean that diet messages are now cloaked in anti-diet rhetoric.
Companies now promote juice cleanses as “taking care of yourself.” Bloggers and social media influencers will boast about “ditching the diet” whilst blatantly promoting a sugar-free lifestyle. Paleo-enthusiasts talk a big game- “Eat as much as you want! Just make sure to do it ‘like our ancestors ate.’ ” Sounds enticing doesn’t it? After all, our ancestors seemed like they knew what they were doing, right? Besides, who doesn’t like the prospect of caring for oneself?
Additionally, the various “wellness” trends tend to come in conjunction with a community. For example, if you fall down the rabbit whole of clicking on a link promoting ketosis (which I highly recommend against), you will invariably find yourself in a site that promotes a community mentality- maybe even a message board full of people following a style of eating, and supporting one another in doing so. You will be able to click through blog after blog of mostly (conventionally) beautiful people-all communicating a similar message: “eat like me and all of this can be yours.”
To be fair, this is all incredibly persuasive. I do not fault anyone for engaging in this trap. I do not even blame most of the folks promoting these food myths! This new “clean eating” wellness culture is enticing because it promises health (which let’s be honest, translates to thinness) while also allowing people to claim that they are not tricked by the silly beliefs of diet culture-past.
The problem is, there is a conflict of interest here. One simply cannot promote loving oneself while also promoting restriction. It is a fundamental mismatch to talk of finding self-love through an industry (the diet industry) that thrives off our self-loathing.
Take, for example, the plethora of “wellness” instagrammers with hundreds of thousands of followers. It is not unusual to find these folks writing captions about how freeing intuitive eating is, under photos of their artfully captured “bulletproof coffee.” (For those who do not know, bulletproof coffee is a food-replacement drink. The official website for bulletproof coffee has the heading “Drink Bulletproof Coffee Instead of Eating Breakfast” as one of the first captions you will read).
And what are we to make of bloggers asking their followers to give up food guilt, and then in the next breathe, suggesting that they try out their brand new three-week sugar cleanse? (A cleanse, which, by the way, said blogger created with YOUR HEALTH IN MIND-Don’t miss out!)
This is diet culture. Dressed up diet culture, sure. But diet culture at its very core. And we need to begin asking ourselves why- why is it so enticing to believe that wellness means restricting? Why is there such a societal pull to reject our body’s natural wisdom in favor of some external source (um hello fitbits to tell us how many steps to take, food logging to show us how many macros we are allowed, juice cleanses because our livers are clearly inept…I could go on and on but you get the point).
I have seen wellness gurus, bloggers, and even dietitians promoting “elimination diets” in order to assess food sensitivities. Does food sensitivity testing have a place? Of course. There are most definitely people with true allergies and illnesses that are caused by or exacerbated by certain foods. However, the percentage of people that have these allergies and illnesses is actually quite small. Take celiac disease- 1% of folks have this illness. But a perusal through the massive gluten-free aisles at any given grocery store these days would suggest otherwise.
So why then, do so many people seem to jump at the possibility of having to eliminate a certain food group/groups for the rest of their lives? I would argue that elimination diets, abolished food groups, and restrictive juice cleanses give us a sense of stability. There is a feeling of control that comes from manipulating your food intake and weight. This sense of control, in an increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable world, is incredibly alluring.
Also (and importantly), the aforementioned sense of community and comradery that comes with certain ways of eating (like veganism for example) can be quite comforting.
Finally- it is so appealing to believe that we can heal every malady and control our mortality by regulating what we put into our mouths. After all, death and sickness are bleak realities, no? Our own mortality is the one of our greatest unknowns- a completely uncontrollable grey area. And we humans tend to be very uncomfortable with the grey area.
To summarize, wellness culture gives us a sense of stability, community, and control over our own mortality. When phrased like this, I guess it isn’t so confusing to see why people jump to eliminate certain types of food groups.
The issue is-that sense of control? It is false. Restriction only takes us so far. For most, over-control of food leads to eventual binging. And binging tends to bring about just the opposite of what we were searching for-that is, binging leaves us feeling completely out of control. If someone has a vulnerability towards disordered eating, elimination diets and the quest for “gut health” can easily become a slide into orthorexia (i.e. an eating disorder that centers on eating healthily, to the point of harming one’s health). Even if one doesn’t develop a full-blown eating disorder from food restrictions, there is still the strong potential for their relationship with food to become irrevocably changed. For example, if one partakes in the Whole 30 (a popular elimination diet) it is not uncommon to begin feeling guilty about eating the “off limits” foods long after the 30 days are up. This food guilt is not healthy. It is not conducive to mental health. And it is not necessary!
Furthermore, the above-mentioned sense of community may be shaky at best. Ever tried leaving the vegan community? Blogger Joran Younger (of The Balanced Blonde) did so after going public with her struggles with orthorexia, and faced death threats for quite some time thereafter. (I have even experienced backlash from diet communities. In fact, I tend to receive the highest influx of negative messages and emails anytime I write something that includes constructive criticism of a certain diet.)The sense of community tends to hinge on you pledging allegiance to a style of eating. If you stray, or begin to question how this eating style may not be for you, there can be some backlash. It is worth asking yourself if this type of conditional support is truly helpful.
In summary, I believe that overall, we as a society could afford a little more caution around wellness culture. Anything taken to the extreme is likely to be deleterious for our overall health (and by that, I mean physical, emotional, and spiritual health). Question programs or people that claim to have a panacea in the form of food restriction. Reflect on research that uses provocative language (such as “toxic” and “addiction.”) Consider if what the wellness industry promises is really all that likely. And lastly, remember that the end goal of living a big, juicy, emotionally fulfilling life? The achievement of that goal will not be found at the bottom of a chia-seed smoothie. Food freedom and body kindness is a much more fulfilling path. Regardless of what wellness dogmatism would have us believe.
-Dr. Colleen Reichmann