What Diet Culture Gets Wrong About Health

Food is so much more than nutrition.

When we eat, our bodies don’t just absorb nutrients and move on.

The act of eating is a complex experience, and it involves a lot more than just giving our cells energy (although of course giving them *enough* energy is essential, otherwise you end up in this situation).

Food is also about satisfaction and socialization and community.

It’s about pleasure and flavor and tradition.

It’s about creativity and connection.

It’s about SO much more than the nutrients. In fact, nutrition is just one small paragraph in the story of how food has functioned throughout human history. 

But The Wellness Diet—the modern guise of diet culture that pretends to be all about “wellness”—looks at food only in terms of nutrition, of physical health.

That completely misses the major role that food plays in mental health and well-being.

This negation of the mental and emotional aspects of food belies The Wellness Diet’s claim to be about “holistic” health.

*True* holistic health means considering your mental well-being just as much as you do your physical health. 

If your mentality about food and movement makes you feel obsessive and anxious rather than nourished, then I don’t care how much kale you’re eating, you’re NOT actually supporting your health.

That’s what this week’s episode of Food Psych is all about.

It's a repost of one of our all-time fan favorites, in which religious scholar Alan Levinovitz and I discuss how diet culture turns nutrition into a religion, totally negating the mental and emotional aspects of health.

We also discuss why “food as medicine” prescriptions should come with a warning label just like medications, why you don’t need to listen to diet culture’s fearmongering about gluten, and so much more.

Check it out here to see why this is one of our most beloved episodes of all time, and be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode!

Here’s to TRULY holistic health, 
Christy

P.S. If you’re ready to heal your relationship with food and your body, come check out my intuitive eating online course and community. It’ll help you break free from diet culture, so that you can care for your well-being in a real way—mind, body, and soul.

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What Diet-Culture Recovery *Really* Looks Like

I’m back from my honeymoon, although I must admit I never wanted it to end.

We were in Oahu, which was incredible and romantic and such a needed recharge—I was also off social media for 2 weeks, which seriously gave me life—but also occasionally messy and imperfect and unpredictable, like life itself.

I could just tell you about the gorgeous parts, which far outweighed the messy ones, but as my brilliant pal Jes Baker points out in her latest book, Landwhale (which I finished devouring by a pool), being a diet-culture-recovery advocate who never shares their messiness can lead to unrealistic expectations of what recovery really looks like.

It can make people think life in recovery is 100% sunshine and rainbows, which it most certainly is not (although the sunshine-and-rainbows-to-gloominess ratio is definitely WAY higher than it was in the throes of diet culture).

So instead, I’ll tell you about our trip to the breathtaking Hanauma Bay, the island’s top snorkeling spot, where I had a mild panic attack when I couldn’t figure out how to breathe through my snorkel at first.

And I’ll tell you about the unbelievable view of the Pacific from our balcony at the resort (thanks to my in-laws for hooking that up), where I had another panic attack when a giant bug wandered onto the scene.

I’ll tell you about how I ate a dodgy room-temperature Spam Musubi because it was delicious and I pride myself on eating anything, but soon thereafter I got terrible food poisoning, which then led to a crying jag because being sick freaks me the f*** out.

I’ll tell you about the time I sat on the beach with a piña colada, trying to get my happy vibes back after seeing our professional wedding photos for the first time and having a moment of body-image BS from diet culture—because even the most ardent anti-diet activists sometimes have bad body-image days.

And I’ll tell you about Fumi’s, our favorite shrimp truck in Kahuku, a super fun day trip where my husband did all the driving because I’ve recently developed major anxiety about my own ability to drive on freeways, for obscure PTSD-related reasons that I’m still untangling.

So lest I ever come across as having it all together, let me assure you that I do not 😂 I love my life more than ever these days, AND sometimes I still have mental-health challenges just like anyone else.

I share this to show that all of us, no matter how far we’ve come or what we do for a living, are human.

We all have our stories, and we all have our reasons for going into the careers we do.

When it comes to those of us who make anti-diet activism our life’s work, many of us have gone through our own history of disordered eating and body shame, and we’re forever changed by that experience.

Once we get to a place of peace with food and our bodies (which includes the occasional bad body-image day, because, again, not 100% sunshine and rainbows), we feel pulled to help other people get there, too.

That’s what drove my guest on this week’s episode of Food Psych to the work she does now.

These days Fiona Willer is a badass anti-diet dietitian from Australia who lectures at universities all about Health at Every Size, but as a teenager and young adult she struggled with body shame and binge eating.

She shares how her efforts at “clean eating” only made the problem worse, how learning about mindfulness helped her heal her own relationship with food and her body, and what it’s like to be a lecturer teaching a radically different paradigm than her students are used to.

We also talk about how scientists are human, too, and how it affects the outcome and interpretation of research when their perspectives are influenced by diet culture (as most are in our society).

It’s a great episode, and I know you’ll love Fiona as much as I do, so be sure to check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts!

Here’s to recovery, in all its messy glory, 
Christy

P.S. If you’re craving support and guidance from fellow humans on your journey to peace with food and your body, come check out my intuitive eating online course and community. It’ll help you break free from diet culture so that you can get back to living your life—ups, downs, and all.

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Why You Actually *Aren't* What You Eat

I wanted to stand up and applaud when my guest on this week’s episode of Food Psych, Sarah Thompson, said this: 

“Our relationship with food is more important than the food that we put in our body.” 

It’s so true: What we eat really doesn't matter as much as diet culture leads us to believe. 

I know, especially coming from a dietitian, that might sound radical. 

Really, though, our health is largely determined by genetics, socioeconomic status, experiences of oppression and discrimination, and a whole host of other things that are largely or entirely beyond our control. 

Those social determinants of health have a lot more to do with our outcomes than whether or not we eat the amount of kale and chia seeds currently prescribed by The Wellness Diet.

Sure, nutrition is important in the sense that we need to have ENOUGH food, and a wide enough variety of foods, to keep our bodies biologically satisfied and nourished. 

Of course those things can play a role in our overall well-being.

But a balanced relationship with food—and a balanced LIFE—is about so much more than just nutrition. 

Our relationship with food is more important than the food that we put in our body.
— Sarah Thompson

It's about connection, relationships, satisfaction, pleasure, and purpose.

Our mental health has a huge effect on our overall health and well-being, and we tend to forget that amid all the “you are what you eat” rhetoric swirling around in diet culture.

You actually *aren’t* what you eat. You are so much more. 

By reducing us down to what we eat, diet culture negates our ideas and passions and goals. 

It negates our relationships and connections and pleasure

It negates that little voice within, observing the world around us as well as our own feelings and desires, and doing the best it can to care for us.

It negates our intuition.   

Obsessing over food and exercise and struggling with disordered eating or chronic dieting is *not* health-promoting. And it has a much larger and longer-lasting negative impact on our health than any of the foods our culture has demonized.

So it's time to stop looking at food as the be-all-end-all of health. 

You actually *aren’t* what you eat. You are so much more.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

That's what Sarah and I talked about on this week’s episode.

She shares how pursuing a training program in naturopathic and Chinese medicine led her down a dangerous path of restrictive and disordered eating—anything but the holistic wellness these programs promised.  

We also discussed how she was able to start trusting her body again, and start focusing on *truly* holistic well-being—including the mental, emotional, and social components. 

Plus, she shares why naturopathic and Chinese medicine don’t need to be as far removed from Health at Every Size and intuitive eating as they are right now in western culture, and how people practicing in the alternative-health field can become important allies to the anti-diet movement. 

(By the way, this interview is the one I recorded in a closet on my trip to San Francisco—tune in to see how my MacGyvered solution to a noisy hotel room turned out!)

Here’s to everything that you are,

Christy

P.S. If you’re ready to heal your relationship with food and break free from The Wellness Diet, come join my intuitive eating online course and community. It’ll help you get back in touch with your body’s innate wisdom about food, so that you can get back to all the infinitely more important aspects of your life—because you really are so much more than what you eat. 

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Book Deal!!!

So I’ve been DYING to tell you, and the cat is finally out of the bag (casually slipped into this week’s podcast episode): I got a book deal!!!!!!!! 🙌🎉🙏🍾

I’m beyond psyched—this is something I’ve been working toward for my entire 15-plus-year journalism career, but really I’ve wanted to write books since before I could even physically write. I was dictating “books" to my mom at 3 years old, and as a kid when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said “an author!”

So this is one of those #lifegoals, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s helped make it happen, including my amazing agent Brettne Bloom and all the incredible writers, editors, clinicians, and activists I’ve learned from over the years, and ALL OF Y’ALL for supporting my work. 

The book is a deep dive into everything I’m always talking about here and on the pod: how we got brainwashed by diet culture on a massive scale, how to recognize it for The Life Thief that it is (in all its sneaky forms), and how to break free, reclaim your life, and heal your relationship with food and your body—at ANY size.

The working title is Enough: How to Say No to the Life Thief That Is Diet Culture (although of course that will likely evolve in the editing process), and it's being published by Little, Brown & Co.’s new health and psychology imprint, Little, Brown Spark. I’m THRILLED to be working with such a smart, supportive, and talented team to get this anti-diet message out there in a big way! 

I wouldn't be able to write this book if I hadn't gone through my own healing from diet culture, and I'm so privileged to have had great professional and personal support in getting there. My hope with this book (and with all of my work, really) is to help other people reclaim their lives, and to change the world so that in the future *no one* has to struggle with food and body issues—no matter their size, shape, skin color, gender identity, age, or anything else. Let's take DOWN diet culture, y'all!!!!

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How to Avoid Falling for The Wellness Diet

At this point in history, many of us have gotten wise to the more overt manifestations of diet culture, and we’re not buying them.

Commercial weight-loss programs, “lite” foods, diet books: We’re over it.

We know that diets don’t work—and the diet industry knows we know.

“Many millennials today view Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig as your mother’s (or grandmother’s) weight loss program,” reads a 2017 market analysis by Marketdata LLC, an independent market research publisher that also offers consulting and strategic planning to the diet industry. “This will be the challenge—to stay relevant and cultivate this future generation of dieters.”

Let that sink in for a sec: Stay relevant and cultivate this future generation of dieters.

That’s exactly what diet culture is out to do these days, because it stands to lose a LOT of money if it doesn’t.

“Millennials are the future dieters,” says the Marketdata report. “Any weight loss company that continues to focus most of their efforts on Baby Boomers is sure to wither and die.”

In an attempt to stay relevant, young, and hip (with all the ageism inherent in that effort), diet culture has had to morph and shape-shift.

 

The Wellness Diet

Amid all these changes in the diet industry, diet culture has figured out a way to reinvent itself: as The Wellness Diet.

The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about “wellness” but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like.

It’s not just about weight loss, although thinness is an essential part of The Wellness Diet’s supposed picture of health. (So is whiteness, and youth, and physical ability, and wealth.)

It’s also about eating the “right” things and removing supposedly “impure” foods from your life.

“Clean eating,” detoxes and cleanses, mass hysteria about gluten and grains, and elimination diets prescribed for the general population are all part of The Wellness Diet.

They’re ways of demonizing some foods and styles of eating while elevating others, and they force us to be hyper-vigilant about our eating and ashamed of making certain food choices.

The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about ‘wellness’ but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

Whenever I bring up this connection between wellness culture and diet culture, there are always a few people who protest that what I'm calling The Wellness Diet is really about health, not dieting—and of course I acknowledge that some people with certain health conditions (like folks with celiac disease, for example) might benefit from making a few changes in how they eat.

But that’s not the general population; the vast majority of folks don’t need to cut any foods out of their life, but instead would do better to explore the role that disordered eating might be playing in their health outcomes.

And NO ONE needs a cleanse or food-related “detox” (Content Warning [CW]: restrictive eating practices, health recommendations). Your liver, kidneys, and lungs do a great job of that already, without any intervention from you.

What’s more, the “it’s about health, not dieting!” argument is exactly what diet culture wants you to think.

As Marketdata’s diet-industry report puts it, “‘diet’ has become a four-letter word in the minds of many consumers, as they shun commercial weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers. ‘Healthy’ eating has replaced ‘dieting.’”

Diet culture has co-opted wellness culture and disguised itself as "healthy eating." Hence: The Wellness Diet.

 

Food Isn't Always Medicine 

Of course nutrition can play a role in our overall well-being, but the widespread cultural belief that “food is medicine” is incredibly problematic.

It suggests that consistently making the “right” food choices will heal or prevent all ills, and that eating certain kinds of food will inevitably harm our health.

Scientific research disproves this belief by showing that to be in good physical health, people don’t need to cut out “processed” foods or sugar (CW: nutrition information), and that weight stigma is actually a bigger determinant of health than actual weight OR eating habits(CW: BMI numbers)

You DON’T need to demonize certain food groups, or restrict your overall food intake, or treat food as the be-all-end-all of health.

In fact, putting too much emphasis on our day-to-day food choices doesn’t lead to improved health at all, but to a preoccupation with food and panic about our health.

The Wellness Diet can easily slip into orthorexia, a type of eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy eating.

So if you’re following The Wellness Diet, then you’re actually putting both your physical and mental health at risk.

Of course food can play a role in our overall well-being, but the widespread cultural belief that ‘food is medicine’ is incredibly problematic.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

If you really value and want to pursue health (which no one is morally obligated to do, BTW), then it’s important to understand that food is just a small part of the equation, and that things like mental health, access to compassionate and evidence-based healthcare, and eliminating weight stigma are far more important.

Health has a lot less to do with our individual choices than we’re led to believe in diet culture.

That’s what I discussed in the Q&A portion of this week’s episode of Food Psych.

I got a great question from a listener about how to frame public health efforts in a way that doesn’t stigmatize people in larger bodies, and I talked about the many factors that matter more for our health outcomes than just food and exercise choices.

Tune in to hear this discussion, and also catch my amazing conversation with psychotherapist and author Judith Matz about how physical deprivation—rather than emotions or psychology—is the primary driver for feeling out of control around food.

We also talked about the negative health outcomes related to weight cycling and weight stigma, the health benefits of intuitive eating, and so much more.

Check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts!

Here’s to getting off The Wellness Diet and finding true well-being,

Christy

P.S. If you want support for letting go of The Wellness Diet—or any other form of diet culture—come join my intuitive eating online course and community. You’ll get a wealth of resources for learning to trust yourself with food, so that you can free up time and energy to the things that really matter in life.

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