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Why We Keep Getting Trapped in Diet Culture {And How to Start Climbing Out}

Why We Keep Getting Trapped in Diet Culture {And How to Start Climbing Out}


I talk about “secrets” in this blog all the time. It started with my top two secrets to healthy eating (prioritizing and planning), then I added prepping and pleasure to round out the “4 P’s”. More recently, I shared that setting an intention was the secret to a happy and healthy holiday season.

All my “secrets” were simply things that diet books, nutrition articles and well-meaning eaters weren’t telling you—everyone seems to have an opinion on what or how much you “should” eat, but to figure out how to actually make it happen? You’re on your own.

This secret is different.

This secret is not just one that our diet culture is not telling you, it’s one that it is actively fighting against. Its existence hinges on this.

Are you ready to find out what it is?

All right, here goes.

It’s listening to and trusting our body and inner wisdom.

I know this sounds a little hippy-dippy woo-woo. I mean, aren’t dietitians supposed to follow Canada’s Food Guide? (No.) I will walk you through how diet culture has taught us to stop trusting our bodies, and why I think it’s the secret to fighting back and being well.

How Diet Culture Has Taught Us to Stop Trusting Ourselves

It’s Lied to Us About Our Body

Our diet culture has been built around the “thin ideal”—the idea that people with a thin, “perfect” body are the healthiest, happiest and worthiest. We’re told that if we’re not “perfect” in any way—that if we’re fat, if we’re not a certain shape, if we don’t stay the same weight our entire adult life—it’s a sign that we’re unhealthy and unworthy. The diet and weight loss industry is driven by convincing people that they could reach this thin ideal if they just pay up for the “right” diet or the “right” motivation to get them to try harder.

To make matters worse, the thin ideal has been legitimized in medicine and healthcare through BMI and “ideal weight” charts. As a result, healthcare professionals are seen as one of the most common sources of weight bias, inadvertently causing more harm to people living in larger bodies. Millions of research dollars have been poured into weight management, even though we’ve only recently started to figure out how body fat (not necessarily weight) can actually cause disease.

Here’s the truth: bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. Changes in body shape and size throughout adulthood are normal and driven by genetic factors and changes in our hormones. Our lifestyle choices may have an impact, but it’s just one teeny tiny factor out of many.

Diet culture has conditioned us to think that any weight gain is unhealthy and the result of a lack of control, when these changes in our body are really a natural part of life. We’re stuck believing that we need to get back to our “pre-baby weight”, “pre-menopause weight” or “‘ideal’ weight that my body’s never been but ‘should’ be because a chart said so” in order to be healthy, happy and accepted, when in fact it’s something we have little, if any, control over.

#Diet culture has conditioned us to not trust our body if it's not at the #weight that we want. Click To Tweet

It’s Taught Us that We’re Not the Experts

We’re taught from a young age to respect and listen to authority. It makes sense for children to listen to their parents and their teachers, who can pass on knowledge and experience to keep them out of harm’s way, but even the latest research in education promotes letting children explore environments and learn at their own pace, as opposed to the more traditional didactic model. Similarly, registered dietitian Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility framework encourages parents to create structure by determining when, where and what to eat, while the children are left to decide whether they will eat, and how much.

You’re an adult with years of life experience under your belt.

So, why are you letting a book tell you that you can only have half a cup of pasta at a time, when you can easily polish off two? Why are you letting a meal plan that you ripped out of a magazine tell you that you can only eat at noon, when your stomach’s already growling away at 11? Why are you letting an app tell you to do 10 pullups when you can barely do one?

You might argue, “Well, aren’t you the expert?”

While I may have years of schooling and experience with clients in the realm of nutrition, at the end of the day, you are the expert on you. You know your body, your likes/dislikes, your lifestyle and your habits best.

As a healthcare professional, scientific evidence tells me what might work/not work for most people based on the outcomes of many subjects in controlled environments, but at the end of the day, when you are sitting in front of me, what matters is what works for you.

How to Fight Back and Start Trusting Your Body Again

Get Mad

You know those people who are upset that they were told to eat margarine instead of butter, only to find out that margarine is loaded with trans fat, and saturated fat isn’t that bad for you anyway?

I feel that way, except instead of being “anti low-fat” I am “anti lose fat” (ba dum tss)

Bad jokes aside, I’m mad that people can’t get insurance coverage because of their BMI.

I’m mad that surgeons won’t perform life-saving knee or hip replacements unless people lose an impossible amount of weight.

I’m mad that smart, talented and beautiful people feel that they have to lose weight in order to find love, jobs and happiness.

Most of all, I’m mad that instead of being up in arms about all of this, the response that many people have is, “I guess I should try harder to lose weight.”

Acknowledge that this is Hard Work

Whether you decide to pursue the path of dieting and weight loss, or the path of body acceptance and trust, neither is an easy choice.

There is currently no safe, effective and sustainable way to lose weight. At its best, trying to lose weight is a frustrating exercise in futility, wondering why you’re “doing everything” just to go down a few pounds. At its worst, weight loss is dangerous, whether it’s the method of weight loss, or the way that it wrecks your relationship with your food or your body.

However, choosing body acceptance and trust is not all rainbows and sunshine. Diet culture is still the dominant culture, and you’ll often wonder whether this is really the right path, when people are telling you that you’re “letting yourself go” and “slowly killing yourself”.

Surround yourself with support, whether it’s working with HAES-friendly health professionals, joining support groups, reading body acceptance blogs or listening to podcasts. This work isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

I’m sure you will find your own reasons, but I have chosen to move my practice down this path because I believe that the long-term harms of dieting and weight loss are not worth it, and striving for this impossible thin ideal is really getting in the way of figuring out what it really means to be healthy.

Recognize the Ways You Already Trust Your Body

Our bodies are amazing, and sometimes we take for granted how much we actually do trust it, especially when we spend a lot of time and energy shaming it for gaining weight just by looking at a piece of cake.

We trust it to keep us alive when we’re asleep so we wake up again in the morning.

We trust it to not forget to breathe.

We trust it to get us where we need to go, and to make it through another day.

If the idea of trusting and accepting your body is new to you, I invite you to slow down and pay attention to all the different ways that you already trust your body.

Tune In

Once you’ve re-established your body trust, tune in. You may start by checking in at set times, like before or after a meal. What sensations are you feeling in your body? What emotions or thoughts, if any, are these correlated with? Gradually challenge yourself to start checking in at more, random times throughout the day, and start building an internal “dictionary” of your body’s sensations.

You know how we say “gut feeling” or “butterflies in your stomach”? Although it’s easy to shrug them off as figures of speech, they are sensations that people feel when they are feeling uneasy or nervous. As you tune in, you may identify some of your own.

Do you listen to and trust your body and inner wisdom? If so, what is it like? If not, what are your first steps in trying this?

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4 Comments

  • Jennifer Smith on Feb 16, 2017 Reply

    “I’m mad that surgeons won’t perform life-saving knee or hip replacements unless people lose an impossible amount of weight.”

    I get what you are trying to say with this but there are some valid reasons why these surgeries are less likely to be performed on bariatric patients. DVTs, PEs, infection and complications (stroke, MI, delayed wound healing etc) caused be other diseases that are commonly associated with a higher weight (HTN, diabetes).

    I think most people can have these surgeries without pre-surgery changes, but they need to be fully informed of the risks and the intense recovery post if they are not in good shape pre-surgery.

    Having worked with people that weren’t prepared for the surgery, they had poor outcomes post surgery and longer recovery times leading to increased hospital stays and increased likelyhood of hsopital acquired infections.

    • Vincci Tsui on Feb 16, 2017 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Jen, and I totally agree with your position that people should be fully informed of the risks and be properly prepared for surgery. Where this particular sentence is coming from is that I have heard some of my patients/clients say that they are told to lose an arbitrary amount of weight in order to get the surgery. As a result, often people go to drastic measures in order to lose this weight, which can actually put them at higher surgical risk.

  • Valentina on Feb 16, 2017 Reply

    Great article!

    • Vincci Tsui on Feb 16, 2017 Reply

      Thanks, Valentina!

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