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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I Got a 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 haha): 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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Why Binge Eating is Like Recording in a Closet

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I’m writing to you today from what is possibly the noisiest hotel room in San Francisco.

I tagged along on my husband’s work trip, with the intention of working from the hotel for a few days and then hanging out with my family in the Bay Area for the rest of the time.

Today is one of those work days, and I’m sitting at a desk in front of an old, drafty window that overlooks one of the busiest streets in the city, trying to hear myself think over the din of trucks rumbling, horns beeping, and engines revving.

Earlier today I had to record a podcast interview, and I knew there was no way I could possibly do it at this noisy desk.

So I did what any resourceful podcaster would do: I set up a makeshift recording studio in the closet.

I used the ironing board as a table for my mic and a sturdy-lidded garbage can as my chair, and I lined the inside of the closet with clothes and pillows to muffle any echo.

And guess what? The recording actually ended up sounding pretty damn great. Even though I was physically a bit uncomfortable for the hour-plus conversation, I made it work and did what I needed to do.

And that’s exactly what your body does when it’s deprived of food.

Its preference, of course, would be to have its needs for nourishment and pleasure met consistently throughout the day, every day—just like my preference would have been to record my interview at a nice, quiet desk in a comfortable chair, without a bunch of shirt sleeves in my face.

When your body can’t get those needs met consistently, though, it MacGyvers things in order to do what it needs to do.

It ramps up your hunger hormones to a level you can’t ignore.

It fills your mind with incessant thoughts of food, even when you’re trying to do other things.

It increases your cravings for foods that will give you quick energy, like sweets and starches.

And it ramps down your fullness hormones so that you’ll keep eating even after your stomach feels full, in order to make up for the nutrients you were missing.

Your body does all of these things so that it can get its needs for energy and satisfaction met somehow, even if it’s not in exactly the way it would prefer.

All of this definitely causes some physical discomfort, because your body doesn’t usually feel its best when it’s eating well past the point of stomach-fullness.

It also can cause some psychological discomfort, because when you’re caught up in diet culture’s rules, it’s really disconcerting to eat an amount you've been told is "too much" or binge on foods that you've been told are "bad."

But these tradeoffs are worth it for your body. Because they give you something way more important in the end than a great podcast interview: They give you life.

By doing all these things, your body is keeping you alive.

Your body experiences food deprivation as famine, even though our culture at this point in history just calls it “dieting” or “lifestyle change” or “clean eating.”

To your body, at a very primal level, deprivation equals danger. Bingeing is its attempt to mitigate that danger.

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

My guest, psychotherapist Amy Pershing, is an expert on binge eating disorder and a former binge eater herself.

She knows firsthand how binge eating is caused by deprivation and attempts at self-control, and why the solution isn’t more control but more self-care instead.

She’s been through the discomfort of having her body keep eating past the point of fullness in order to get its needs met, and she shares the mental and behavioral shifts that allowed her body to feel safe and stop needing to do that.

We also talk about diet culture’s shape-shifting from aesthetics and the beauty ideal to health and "clean eating," how fatphobia hinders recovery from disordered eating, and lots more.

Tune in right here to hear it, and subscribe via your favorite podcasting platform to make sure you never miss any future episodes (including my closet-studio interview, which will be out in a few months!).

Here’s to giving our bodies what they need so that they can stop all the MacGyvering, 
Christy

P.S. We still have some lovely “self-care, not self-control” mugs and T-shirts left! Grab yours today, so that whenever you’re sipping your tea or putting on your PJs you’ll have a tangible reminder that taking care of your whole self—including your needs for pleasure, satisfaction, and downtime—is a lot better for your overall well-being than trying to follow diet culture's rules about what, when, and how to eat.

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Weight Watchers and the Myth of the "Lifestyle Change"

You may have seen the news a few weeks ago that Weight Watchers is now targeting teenagers by offering them free 6-week memberships during the summer break.

Naturally there’s been a HUGE backlash by experts in disordered eating (including me and many, many of my colleagues), who are livid that this company is exposing kids at an incredibly vulnerable age to dieting and weight stigma—major risk factors for the development of lifelong struggles with food and their bodies.

Dieting has these risks for people of every age, and nobody deserves to have diets pushed on them, but peddling them to minors is beyond the pale.

In response to the backlash, Weight Watchers and their fans doubled down on claims that WW “isn’t really a diet,” and that their new program aimed at teens is just a “lifestyle change” designed to help them “get healthy.”

Sorry, but no.

“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!” is the rallying cry of every diet in the 2010s, including Weight Watchers.

That’s because people have gotten increasingly fed up with diets in the past several decades. The idea that diets don’t work started to take hold in the 1980s and gained momentum into the 2000s, when more and more people began looking for practices that *actually* work and lead to lasting well-being.

So the diet industry has rebranded itself in order to stay relevant.

It started denying that its products and programs are diets, because gross! No one diets anymore!

Instead, it markets itself as being about “wellness,” “healthy lifestyles,” and “flexible programs” that you can “stick to for life.”

These days, the diet industry even sometimes talks about healing your relationship with food.

But don’t be fooled by the shiny new packaging. If it’s applauding weight loss or telling you to count points/calories/macros, it’s a diet.

The same is true if it’s labeling certain foods and food groups as “bad,” “fake,” “damaging,” or “off-limits,” and other foods and food groups as “good,” “real,” “healing,” or “on-plan.”

No matter what this new breed of diets call themselves, they’re all part of diet CULTURE—a system of beliefs that:

  • Equates thinness to health & moral virtue
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others

Diet culture isn’t The Truth—it’s just what we’ve been taught and raised in our whole lives. Even the researchers doing the “obesity” research and the doctors doing the doctoring.

Diet culture is pervasive and hard to see—it’s the water we’re all swimming in.

And yet in the grand scheme of history, diet culture is relatively new: It didn’t even come into being until the mid-1800s, for a whole bunch of interesting reasons that cultural historian Emily Contois explained in her episode of Food Psych last summer.

Over the past several decades, a lot of good research has shown that diet culture is NOT the path to health (not even A path to health) because it doesn’t lead to sustainable health-promoting behaviors. 

Instead, diet culture leads to disconnection from the body’s internal cues and instincts about food, disordered eating, and a yo-yo cycle that some people spend their *entire lives* in—robbing them of their time, money, mental energy, health, & happiness. That’s why I call it The Life Thief.

But there IS another way.

You don’t have to have your life stolen anymore, by Weight Watchers or “cleanses” or “resets” or any other form of diet culture.

You CAN break free and get back to the intuitive, easy relationship with food that we were all born with, and that we all deserve.

Granted, the process of extricating yourself from diet culture is no easy task.

It means doing a lot of unlearning of all the societal messages you’ve been taught.

It means taking that extra step in your day-to-day interactions and examining why eating a certain way seems necessary.

Or why you have a hard time letting go of the scale.

Or why your supposedly "woke” friend just made a fat joke, and how you’re going to respond.

As my guests in this week’s episode of Food Psych put it, “we have to actively question the things that our culture circulates every single day.” Ultimately, that’s our path to liberation.

Lindsay & Lexie Kite are researchers, speakers, and activists who promote “body image resilience”—a set of skills for making peace with your body while living in diet culture, with all the challenges it throws at you.

In the episode, they share how learning to question and reject the self-objectification that our society imposes on women/femmes helped them to heal their own relationships with food and their bodies—and to start helping others heal, too.

We also discuss the shape-shifting nature of diet culture, why weight loss doesn’t improve body image, how focusing on beauty ideals steals our power, and lots more.

Tune in right here to listen online, or subscribe to Food Psych on your favorite podcast platform (now including Spotify!).

Here’s to breaking free from diet culture in ALL its forms, 
Christy

PS: If you're ready to give up diets—including the ones masquerading as "lifestyles"—and you want some amazing support for doing it, come join my online course, Intuitive Eating Fundamentals. You'll get dozens of hours of guidance from me, PLUS access to an incredible community of people who are on the journey alongside you, so that you can ditch diet culture and get back to the stuff that really matters.

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