disordered eating

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,


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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