Diet culture is a system that values your weight, body size, and appearance over your wellbeing. It brings morality into what you eat and your appearance. Diet culture is what makes those addicted to stimulants hesitant to stop, because they would rather be thin and using than gain weight during recovery. Diet culture tells us we can cure most complex illnesses and challenges by eating less processed foods and thinking positively. Diet culture is what kept shows like The Biggest Loser on the air, even though they objectively caused considerable harm to the health of the participants. Diet culture is toxic and does not promote wellbeing. There is so much to talk about when it comes to diet culture, but in this post I want to discuss my experiences with diet culture while dealing with health problems.
My journey into the real depths of dieting culture happened at the bridge between being a teenager and a young adult, like it does for so many. I had the usual suite of high school body insecurities, but also was an athlete, and most of my focus went into becoming a better rower. Once in university, I started rowing with the varsity program. It was extremely challenging and I loved it. Then, I failed the physical. I had a heart condition that I had grown up with, and it didn't occur to me that I wouldn't be allowed to row for safety concerns. This was devastating. It was the first time I realized the limitations of my heart condition, and I started to really fear it. I was scared that it would mean I wouldn't be able to travel, or be a doctor (my dream at the time).
While dealing with my heart issues, I started eating in secret- I hid food in my dorm, and would go out at certain hours to buy food when I knew I wouldn't run into anyone. I was eating meat again after years of ethical vegetarianism, but didn't want any of my vegetarian friends to know. I felt deeply ashamed that I was using food to cope with my discomfort. After stopping rowing, I noticed that my body began to change- all my clothes fit differently, and my features started to look different. I started to do "cleanses" to try and "stabilize" all the changes I was experiencing. I got my first tattoo for my 18th birthday and the studio had a question to make sure you had eaten recently so you wouldn't faint. I hadn't eaten in the last 24 hrs, but I lied and said I had. Instead of this being a red flag, I just thought this studio was uninformed of the benefits of fasting and had no idea how fine I was when I went periods of time without eating. Their problem, not mine.
This was the start of years of dieting in various ways. I had two heart surgeries in my first two years of university, and floundered with generalized anxiety and depression. The dieting intensified when I started struggling with endometriosis and the associated chronic pain. I went from regular ethical vegetarianism to frequently fasting, becoming vegan to be "cleaner", then into the world of paleo eating, LCHF, primal, perfect health diet, ketosis, and focusing on obscure micronutrients and mineral ratios. When I started my dietetics program, I was spending hours every day reading articles, participating in forums, and listening to podcasts about low carb diets. I thought I knew these big truths that everyone else was missing. I couldn't wait to learn how to research better so that I could communicate all my findings in a more effective, scientific manner. Diet cultures makes you feel like you have found "the truth" and everyone else is just ignorant. It can also help you feel like you belong- that you are not alone. My first friendships with other people experiencing chronic pain and illnesses was from meeting people on diet forums.
In the meantime- my health did not improve. I would make a dietary change, be really excited that this would finally work, experience a brief, glowing moment of placebo effect, then as the novelty wore off I would go back to experiencing the exact same signs and symptoms. I would end up in a clinic or the ER every once in a while with unmanageable levels of pain, and would leave with a two year wait for a referral, a script for 10 naproxen, and little hope. As my eating became more extreme and unreliable, I started to actually feel worse. My energy levels plummeted, and I kept blaming brain fog when I was purposely not eating for most of the day and intermittently binging when I couldn't restrict anymore. I would get so upset with myself, that I should just try harder and I would get better. I almost exclusively wore black and grey clothes, and hoped that I wouldn't get noticed. Diet culture thrives on shame, and makes you feel solely responsible for your failure to control your health and your eating. Diet culture also thrives off the failures of our society to listen to those experiencing illness or health challenges adequately. Diet culture can fill the gap when there are no accessible treatments or management offered. When there is little to turn to, diet culture becomes a promising option.
My weight would go down when I was experiencing very high levels of pain and anxiety, and would go up when I wasn't. This brought so many feelings of conflict, because as I lost weight I would get so many comments that I was "looking healthy" or "looking great", when that was always when I was feeling my worst. On the other hand, this was one of my first realizations that maybe diet culture isn't right- if I was supposedly getting healthier when I was thinner, than why did I feel so much worse. Diet culture says weight loss is a good thing no matter what caused it.
There was no singular moment when I saw the light and suddenly broke free from the clutches of diet culture.
It has been a slow, difficult journey. In moments of stress and pain I still sometimes question if I did the right thing, or if I should have kept "trying harder", but I can't deny how much better I feel now that I'm not obsessing over every thing I eat.
I slowly started actually treating my health conditions with medical and complimentary approach treatments, and though I was never "cured", I felt much better. It took thin privilege, financial help, and the right chance encounters with certain professionals for this to happen. I had only one doctor half heartedly suggest that weight loss could help my condition- I'm sure that if I was in a larger body that I would have been pushed to pursue weight loss and it would have been even harder to access helpful treatments. I slowly loosened up my diet restrictions, one at a time, and noticed that I actually could eat a liberal, varied diet. After I was comfortable with my new flexible diet, I started to explore what I actually like to eat and how different things made me feel. I slowly, and with help, worked on my body image so that I could make healthy changes without backtracking based on changes to my appearance and weight. I worked on what it means to have illnesses and experience profound physical pain, without blaming myself or feeling like I need to be doing more about it all the time.
I became entrenched in dieting culture in the same way so many do- I came to fix a health problem that had barely anything to do with food, but there were so many people and products more than ready to tell me that changing my diet was the answer to all my problems. I was desperate, and diet culture loves desperation.
I wish I had spent more time reading about disability activists, and less time reading another dozen articles about gluten. I wish I had reached out to more friends to tell them I was struggling, and taken less expensive vitamins. It still isn't easy- when my stress or pain spikes, I still have a little reflex that kicks in that whispers "if you ate less of _____ or if you weighed ____ you wouldn't have this problem", but I can now gently recognize this is a desperate grab at control of a situation that is not entirely within my control, and that this line of thinking is not in my best interest. I can see diet culture as the water that I swim in, all around all of us, but not take the messages as truth.
My personal work to exit diet culture related to my own health challenges translated to my professional development- as I unlearned diet culture in my own life, I started to practice from a paradigm that rejects diet culture. Being an anti-diet dietitian means getting more curious with how foods actually make you feel, without shame or judgement. It involves cultivating self care, not self restriction. It means using nutrition in a gentle, nourishing way to assist your wellbeing, while never losing sight of your overall, holistic health including your mental health.
People experiencing health problems are very vulnerable to diet cultures toxic messages. I have endless compassion for everyone currently "in it", and would never shame or blame you for where you are at. I wish there were more accessible treatment options for what ails you, causes you pain, or makes it hard for you to be at peace. We all deserve compassion for our health struggles, and we certainly deserve better than what diet culture has to offer.