Diet Culture. Maybe you have heard this term floating around over last little while, or maybe this is the first time? I think you can expect to hear it a lot more in the future, at least that is my hope. What I have found from surveying people, both men and women in my inner circle is that very few people are aware of what diet culture is, the damage it is causing and what we can do to eliminate it from our life.
Let's start by defining what diet culture really is. Diet culture is a system that values weight, shape and size over health and well-being. To break it down even further, diet culture has trained many of us that essentially weight loss (by whatever means necessary) equals healthier bodies. It has taught us by restricting certain foods or eliminating food groups all together you will feel better and happier. However, the reality is that people will go to extremely drastic measures in the name of health to lose weight. That isn't health. That is diet culture.
I consider myself "in the field" of diet culture for as long as I can remember. Likely, your first exposure to diet culture started right around your dining room table as a child. Or maybe it started in junior high when your girlfriends started dieting for their grade 8 prom. Perhaps it was when you were standing in line at the grocery store as a child with your mother and saw all the magazines telling you you could have a beach body in just 4 weeks. Whatever your story is, we have all been exposed and likely negatively influenced by diet culture.
Here are a list of beliefs that are included in diet culture: (this is certainly not all)
- talking about food, weight, exercise and diets constantly
- exercising for punishment rather than for joy
- allowing the number on the scale or the size of your jeans determine your happiness
- avoiding foods that are high in fats, carbs or calories
- feeling guilty after eating
- avoiding certain social engagements because of potential food that may be served
- reading the label of your food so you can see if it will fit into your allotted "points, macros or calories" for the day
- believing that you have to take supplements, shakes and food alternatives to be healthy
- ignoring your internal cues from your body (hunger, fullness, satisfaction)
- believing you are unworthy because of your body shape or size
- believing you ARE worthy because of your body shape or size
- not attending social settings because of your weight or size
- labelling foods as "good" or "bad" and internalizing the message to believe that you are "good" or "bad" because you ate a certain food
I am literally guilty of every single point listed above. It took me over 20 years of dieting and the most horrific relationship with health and fitness to realize I did not have to be a part of it any more. I allowed what should have been some of the best memories of my life to be ruined because of my participation in diet culture., and one day, I just said, NO. MORE.
So what can we do to break free from this? We need to re-frame our thoughts and beliefs about our bodies, our movement and our relationship with food. I believe the key to breaking free from this cycle is through intuitive eating.
What is intuitive eating? Intuitive eating is learning to trust your body to give you the proper signals of what it wants, and then actually giving that to your body. Crazy thought, isn't it? We are all born as intuitive eaters. Babies eat when they are hungry and until they are full. If you have ever fed a baby, you know, it is literally impossible to force feed a baby. They will not eat if they are not hungry. The same goes for small children. They grow up as intuitive eaters and are able to balance out their food and energy intake throughout the week. You will notice some weeks your small children will have a large appetite, whereas other days, they will barely eat at all and still maintain an adequate energy level and not be hungry. This is because, without knowing it, they are listening to their bodies and trusting that it will tell them when they are hungry. It isn't until we are older that we start to lose our ability to intuitively eat as rules and restrictions are set for us.
The most important step in starting your intuitive eating journey is learning to trust your body. If you have been a chronic dieter your whole life and have an unhealthy relationship with food (ie, you say things like, "oh, I shouldn't eat that. It's so bad for me" or "Carbs make me fat" or anything even remotely similar to that - you are a victim of this) you need to unlearn everything you have been taught to believe about food. Another important step is learning to actually enjoy food again. You will likely enter the honeymoon phase with food at the beginning of this journey because for too long you have survived on bland, low fat, low calorie diet food. That's okay. It is completely normal to want all of the things you have been depriving yourself for so long but trust me, if you are truly listening to your body and how certain foods make you FEEL, (not LOOK), this will be short lived.
Let me be clear. Intuitive eating is not a ticket to eat whatever you want whenever you want and as much as you want. It is not "letting yourself go" or "giving up" as my husband so tactfully described my journey as (until he started to understand what was actually transpiring of course). It is NOT a diet, it is the way we were designed, by our Creator to be. You need to learn to TRUST your body instead of trusting the "diets" or "cleanses" or diet culture you have been brainwashed into for your entire life.
How do you get started?
- Start to hone in on what types of food keep you full, energized and satisfied with your body's natural rhythms and patterns. Note what happens when you skip breakfast. Note what portions feel best for you and understand and BE OKAY with those portion needs changing from day to day. Note what types of foods feel the best in your body (and as you begin to realize this, resist the urge to tell other people what works best for you - it is YOUR body, THEIR body may react completely different to the same food)
- Build Self-Trust with your Body. By honoring your hunger, making peace with food and respecting your fullness, you are building self-trust with your body. You are allowing your body to find its natural size and accepting it. Again, self trust is essential here. (What if you are not meant to be a size 6? What if your body is happy at an 8, or a 10, or HEAVEN FORBID, a 14?)
- Understand the concept that nourishment is more than food. By exploring all your hungers - physical, emotional and spiritual you will likely find nourishment in unlikely places. I can feel more satisfied and "nourished" from a night out with my husband or a long walk taking in God's beauty than I would from a big nutrient-packed meal.
Instead of trying to outsmart your cravings, it's time to start listening to your body. You can NOT outsmart your body. Your body wants what it wants. Does that mean that you will always be craving a cheeseburger and fries? Absolutely not. Does it make you "bad" if you DO crave a cheeseburger and fries once in a while and you eat it, and half way through eating it you realize it doesn't make you feel amazing so you stop eating it? No. Or, maybe you will enjoy every single bite and just carry on with your life.
Here are three reasons you can't outsmart your cravings:
- You are hungry. Hunger is not a bad thing. It is normal. Diet culture tells us that we should stick to 1200 -1500 calories a day to stay healthy. If that is not enough to sustain your body, you are literally walking around starving your cells of energy. Then, your body will send you hunger cues. If you ignore them (because it is after 6pm, or you just ate an hour ago) you end up in a hunger-driven binge, and we all know what that looks like. (Please excuse me, I will be in the pantry eating granola bars...right?)
- You need nourishing food. Filling yourself with low fat diet food doesn't give your cells the vitamins and nutrients it needs to thrive on. Your stomach may fill up on a volume of food, but you will end up feeling starving in another hour and never finding that true satisfaction or satiety.
- You are living in a deprivation state. We are wired to be rebellious as humans. Did you know that? So, what happens when you swear off chocolate cake or gummie bears for the rest of your life? You want that exact food. So, what do you tend to do when you have deprived yourself of a certain food when you get your hands on it? You binge, you overdo it, you "give in" and eat the whole thing because you know you will just "give it up" again afterwards. It is a vicious cycle.
Our bodies give us the signals we need around certain foods. If you are binging on sugar and you end up feeling sick with a stomachache or headache, listen to your body. It does not necessarily mean that you have an intolerance to that particular thing or that those foods are bad for your body, but what it may mean is that your body is happy after only a small amount and you over did it. I am not at all discrediting actual food sensitivities or food allergies. Of course these are real things. But, there is a major difference around a food that is "forbidden" (because it will make you fat) compared to a food that causes you symptoms in your body.
Let's try one small exercise. Fill in the blanks:
1. Move your body _________________.
2. Eat ______________ food.
3. Take time to rest ______________.
If you are anything like me before I started this journey, you would probably say, move your body daily, or vigorously, for 30 minutes at a time or something to those effects. What if your brain automatically went to, "lovingly" - Move your body lovingly. How about number 2? Eat whole foods, eat plant based foods, eat low carb foods? How about, eat beautiful food? And number 3. Take time to rest daily. Or, Sunday. What if your brain automatically went to, when I need to. Take time to rest when I need to. This. This is what breaking free from the diet culture will do for you. This is how you feel towards food, your body, movement and your overall health.
Intuitive eating and intuitive movement is actually a really wonderful journey to self discovery. After years of relying on EVERY single diet fad to make decisions for me, it was time to get to know myself. This has built my self trust and confidence to make other important decisions in my life. Start living a life of freedom around food. It's okay to mess up, it's okay to feel vulnerable and it's certainly okay to love yourself exactly where you are at today which is the beginning of making the positive changes for your tomorrow.