It’s time to stop waiting for Monday to come around to start your newest diet. If diet culture was working for you, you wouldn’t need to keep pressing reset.
Diet culture has become pervasive in western culture in the last few decades, from the latest detox tea to “intuitive fasting.” It’s an industry worth more than $78 billion. And it’s growing, with as much as 49.1% of people dieting to lose weight (1).
The patriarchal notion that human bodies should be subject to manipulation and exploitation in the name of health has become predatory. The real disservice to the public is the traditional dogma that health lies in black and white rules and restrictions, rather than within bio-individuality and root-cause approaches to health.
We all know the basic tenants of health — eat your fruits and vegetables, drink water, and exercise. But is reaching optimal health really that simple? Many diets may have convinced you it’s not.
Diets Do You Dirty
Dieting is like chasing after a friend who seems to like you, yet is always out of reach. You never feel close to that person, they make you constantly question yourself, and yet you find yourself always thinking of them. Sound familiar?
It’s a downright toxic never-ending loop. Dieting steals your relationships, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and — most importantly — time. Diet culture has taught us that the thin ideal equates to health, moral virtue, and higher status. The demonization of certain foods has resulted in hyper-vigilance to obtain these unrealistic (for many) proportions.
Additionally, as much as two-thirds of weight-loss diets do not result in actual weight loss(4). This begs the question — is dieting really healthy?
The short answer: No.
Research shows that dietary restrictions, even when only modestly reduced to a 1,600kcal diet (as observed in the 1944 Minnesota Starvation study) produced negative effects on mental health. The study found that it led to food obsession and preoccupation in those who never before experienced disordered patterns in relation to food.
Moreover, and despite the prevalance of diet culture in the United States, the Global Phytonutrient report found that Americans consume low amounts and a limited variety of fruits and vegetables(5). But shouldn’t all this dieting result in Americans consuming foods that contribute to overall health?
Keto, paleo, intermittent fasting, juice cleanses — all of these “diets” have a common theme: dogma. They’re all made up of rules and restrictions and don’t account for individual needs. Most individuals following one of these diets also have a common theme — they want to feel and live a vibrant, healthy life.
However, the truth is that there is no one right diet for everyone. We all maintain a unique genetic blueprint, microbiome, and daily requirements that no app or diet will ever accurately be able to determine for you — but that doesn’t sell diet books and programs, right?
Intuitive Eating: The Sustainable Route To Nourishment
Moving away from dieting is tough. It takes unlearning, relearning, and conscious effort.
But it also doesn’t need to be that hard. One way that I love and often recommend when starting this shift is an approach called intuitive eating. It’s a self-care eating framework rooted in respect for all bodies.
Research has shown that intuitive eating reduces overeating and binge eating, improves weight maintenance(6), and may help improve motivation for physical activity(7). It can also lower triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL, and blood pressure, and increase HDL thereby reducing overall cardiovascular disease risk(8). It’s also been found that intuitive eating encourages an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables(9)!
Importantly, Intuitive Eating is not a diet. It is an unlearning of dieting, rules, deprivation, and self-harm. It is a learning of your unique needs, and hunger and fullness signals. It’s about learning to cope with emotions productively, move joyfully, and relinquish the notion of defining worth or health by body size.
Honoring your unique body and health needs is incredibly powerful. So is recognizing that health is much more than the food we put into our mouths or the size of our bodies. Yes, what we put into our bodies is a part of the equation – and a substantial part of it – but there is so much more involved in finding your healthy balance.
Health is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the habits we cultivate, the people we surround ourselves with, and the fulfillment of our purpose.
Likewise, there are countless things that go beyond what we consume that can threaten our health. Our modern world is rife with environmental toxins (mold, air pollution, water particulate matter, pesticides/herbicides, “frankenfood,” and PFCs in cookware, to name a few) that can negatively impact our health.
And even things like institutionalized racism, medical fat-phobia, and socioeconomic disadvantages pose a threat to our overall health.
Focusing on food is a small slice of the pie that removes that part from the whole. In other words, focusing only on food is not an effective way to achieve health.
Four Essential Steps To Healing
I know that breaking the diet dogma may have put you on a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts. If you’re still with me, well done you. I know this isn’t an easily digestible topic in our modern society — especially if it means NOT having a diet to follow as a result!
But to leave you with a few pragmatic steps that will help set you on the path to true and sustainable health, here are some things for you to consider and prioritize — just remember that the essence of intuitive eating is to create your own individual protocol:
1. Opt for Organic. The American Gut Project study found that consuming 30 or more different plants per week contributed to a more diverse microbiome. A diet rich in plants is known to reduce the risk of chronic disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and overall mortality(10).
2. Choose Organic, Grass-fed Meat and Dairy Products, Pasture-Raised Poultry, and Wild-Caught Seafood. A 2021 review article of research into meat-eating shows that grass-fed meat and milk may have anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, and anti-carcinogenic effects.
Additionally, pasture-raised poultry is more nutrient-dense in comparison to conventionally raised chickens(11). Wild-caught fish also contains more omega-3s and is free of harmful industrial chemicals like terephthalic acid (TPA) and polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs)(12).
Consider prioritizing two to three servings of fish per week and moderate consumption of poultry and meat products like beef, game meats, and organ meats.
3. Spend time in nature. Sun exposure is so impactful on both physical and psychological health. Forest bathing, for example, a practice of spending time within nature, has been shown to improve cardiovascular, immune, antioxidant, metabolic, and neuroendocrine health. It has also been found to enhance emotional state, attitude, and adaptive behaviors(13). Likewise, a Harvard study found that a simple, 20-minute nature break helps to relieve stress — a known contributor to chronic disease(14).
Low levels of vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, have been shown to increase overall mortality and cardiovascular mortality(15), and a Swedish study found that sun avoidance increased mortality twofold in comparison to frequent exposure(16). The translation: you need to get enough sun! (Just use sunscreen!)
4. Cultivate community and creativity, and spend time engaging in activities that evoke creativity, happiness, and joy. Loneliness and social isolation increase overall mortality(18). And after the pandemic, we have all recognized how important social connection is to our well-being. So ditch toxic relationships or connections that are no longer serving you, and seek out individuals who honor you as a human.
Expression through creative outlets like art or music has also been shown to enhance health(19) — yet, when was the last time your doctor prescribed you to sing? And, in case you didn’t believe the old axiom, laughter really is one of the best medicines, so laugh — a lot(20).
Embracing the Multifacetedness of Your Health
The real point of this article is to help you understand that improving and sustaining your health is more nuanced than restricting food intake and holding to hard and fast rules about eating. Often, health is found in the practices and tools you already know to be health-promoting — you just have to break free of the pervasive diet culture to see it.
Challenging its ever-growing noise, however, is tough and can sometimes feel daunting. But when you break free from the diet fads and body shaming, and learn to find joy, grace, and levity in your wellness journey, it will be one of the best gifts you’ve ever given yourself.