A look at wellness culture and how it has harmed our relationship with food.
Nobody told me when I became a dietitian that I would be asked repeatedly, “Is this healthy? Should I eat this? Is this good for me?” Maybe I should have expected as much, but frankly, I was not prepared. In my early years of being an RD, I felt the pressure to fake it. I conjured up some half-convincing, pseudo-scientific answer in order to get out of the situation with my reputation intact. “Well, actually, that granola bar does have a lot of fiber in it…”
Over the years I have grown into my own sense of self and have been “schooled” in the real world experiences of hundreds of clients. Now, when asked, “Is this healthy?” I respond,
How should I know??!! (Maybe not in so many words but, pretty close.)
Let me unpack this a little bit. Dietitians have been positioned as food experts in a world of food chaos. For many of my patients, friends, or family, the question “Should I eat this?” is a genuine concern. It comes from a belief that a particular food could actually harm them in some significant way. Over the past few decades, food has become “right or wrong,” “good or bad,” “clean or unclean,” “healthy or harmful.” Choosing what to eat has been transformed from a neutral decision to a moral decision with a sense of life and death consequences.
The public can not be blamed for this. Diet and wellness cultures have been working double-time to create a sense of crisis around our food choices. Look at some of these headlines and product labels:
- Guilty pleasures
- Halo-top ice cream
- Sinfully good
- Dirty hamburger
- Clean green juice
- Guilt-free chips
- Good girl cookies
These labels are unbelievably misleading and contribute to the growing concern of disordered eating among Americans There are a few reasons why this approach to food is dangerous and counterproductive. First, it creates a “taboo” or sense of “off-limits” to certain foods (or food groups). In turn, this leads to secretive behaviors and a feeling of being out of control around the forbidden food. Second, when foods are moralized and then eaten in secret, the “bad food” can turn into the “bad person.” This pattern of thinking spirals into deep shame and can lead to long-term disruption of one’s relationship with food and their body.
Approaching food with a morally neutral lens
So if we aren’t to approach food with a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other, how are we to determine what foods to eat? Indeed, there are more food choices in front of consumers now than ever before. To say, “Just go out and eat!” is far too simplistic. We must name, as a culture, that our relationship with food has been deeply damaged. Below I will detail some guard rails to help us as we navigate our way back into a space of simply being able to experience food as a source of nourishment and pleasure.
- Understand that all foods fit. This points back to the original question of, “Should I eat this?” A dietitian, nor any other medical professional, can answer that question for you. This question can only be answered by self-inquiry. Try rephrasing it into, “Do I like this? Why am I choosing this? Am I hungry for this right now? How have I related to this food in the past? Am I honoring myself by eating this food?” Only from a posture of curiosity can one actually know if a food should or should not be eaten.
- Reject pop-culture food headlines. It is quite human to be on the search for the “holy grail” of health and wellness. It is an age-old pursuit as we all hunger for both quality and quantity of life, but the wellness industry has high-jacked this human drive and is making billions. Specific nutrients will carry the claim of “preventing cancer,” or “promoting mood stability.” Statistics are twisted and research studies are misrepresented in order to set the public on a new trend. Instead of scrolling, clicking, and purchasing, try to slow down. Ask questions. Check in with your lived experience and internal wisdom. “Why do I gravitate towards these headlines? What am I looking for in this product or trend? How have these products helped or hurt me in the past? What is the science behind this? Is this product really able to deliver what it is promising?”
- Adjust our attitudes toward eating. What if we approached our food with curiosity and gratitude instead of prohibition? The aim of healthful eating is always to bring the person back to their own wisdom about what brings them pleasure and nourishment. “Eat this – not that!” could be replaced with, “This curry tastes so good. I wonder at all that went into making this so delicious. This is hitting the spot and is exactly what my body needs. I am so grateful that there is enough here for me to feel satisfied.” When we eat with the right attitude, there is no need for external rules and limits.
- Normalize pleasure. We are pleasure-seeking beings, and with more than 10,000 taste buds, food is a primary source of pleasure. THIS IS NOT WRONG – THIS IS HUMAN! We have been conditioned to call food a “guilty pleasure” that must be controlled and feared. This only pushes our relationship to food underground, into dark and secretive spaces that breed shame. What if we boldly lean into our pleasure? What would it feel like to sit with a bowl of perfectly salty, crispy, slightly spicy chips and sweet, tangy ice-cold lemonade with no distraction and just let ourselves experience the pleasure? What if we let ourselves eat until we are satisfied? What if we allow ourselves to be soothed by food and feel gratitude that we can offer ourselves some comfort with a bowl of pasta and a slice of garlic toast?
- Adopt a more holistic view of eating: Our food is intended to do more than the current reductionist view of nutrition would have us believe. “Does that provide me with enough omega-3s? Does this have probiotics added? How much fiber is in this?” Indeed, we are nourished by food, but this nourishment goes far beyond the delivering of nutrients to cells. Depending on your body, you will most likely feel the drive to eat 3-6 times per day. This is quite significant if you think about it. The act of eating is a constant reminder that we are embodied and needy. It forces us to pause and shift our energy. It reminds us that we need to tend to our bodies every few hours. It fosters connection with other human beings. It provides rhythm to the day, the week, the year. In short, eating is not just about getting nutrients in but is an invitation to remember our interconnectedness and dependence. We would do well to remember this instead of resisting and resenting our body’s reminders throughout the day.
I understand that for many, this sort of engagement with food can not take place without support and therapeutic intervention. In some cases, the damage to the food-body relationship is so significant, that the thought of engaging in eating without rules and for the sake of pleasure is terrifying. If this is you, please reach out to a therapist or a dietitian who supports intuitive eating and movement. Change is slow but there is a way forward and you do not have to walk the road alone. Support groups and individual counseling can set you on a road to recovering the ease and pleasure of eating.