When Does Being Healthy Cross the Fitness Line?
How do you know when you cross that line between caring about your health and obsessing over it?
When does nourishing your body with nurturing foods turn into a disordered relationship with nutrition and fitness?
How do habits for health that focus on diet and exercise go from accentuating your life to ruling it?
Many have heard of orthorexia, an obsession with eating the perfect, healthy diet, but what if its concepts have been embraced by society so much that one’s tormenting preoccupation is normalized?
It’s getting harder for today’s consumer to decipher between using food as medicine and the promotion of diets and restrictive practices in the name of health and the promise of weight loss.
It’s now an inevitable fact…
Diet culture’s deceitful promises have picked up momentum and have etched their destructive claws into nutrition, fitness, and healthcare.
In this post, I want to help you understand the difference between nourishing your body with nutrients and being stuck in a downward spiral chasing after the perfect food combinations or movement practice.
Below, I cover the dangers of diet culture. I also discuss why we need to pay attention to it and the importance of understanding eating disorders.
In upcoming articles, I will highlight more on diet culture and disordered eating including:
- The controversial topic of food addiction
- The characteristics and diagnosis of eating disorders
… and there may be more subtopics or a few other points in between.
Now, let’s continue and look at the harms of diet culture and eating disorders.
4 Reasons Why We Need to Be Aware of the Harms of Diet Culture and Eating Disorders
There are several reasons we need to pay attention to the takeover of medicine and media by diet culture and its link to eating disorders and disordered eating. I’ve listed four below.
1. Eating disorders and orthorexia practices are becoming mainstream and accepted through diet culture.
One of my main concerns is that many of the messages of extreme fitness and restriction are being normalized and even exalted by esteemed health experts and celebrities. This can cause psychological and physical harm and the perpetuation of orthorexia.
2. Eating disorders are more pervasive, and often more hidden, than one may think.
-9% of the U.S. population, or 28.8 million Americans, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime.2
– Less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight.”1
Furthermore, many people can have disordered eating that torments the mind but does not lead to a diagnosable eating disorder. They may struggle and suffer in silence for years battling their inner demons and never truly feel at peace with their bodies or with food.
3. The rise in stress, trauma, and eating disorders are likely being used as a dysfunctional coping mechanism.
Focusing on the external to silence the internal chaos is a dangerous and unsuccessful precedent, but psychologically understandable during traumatic times. According to Eating Disorders of Hope:
While research has historically focused on individuals with anorexia nervosa, studies that have included bulimia nervosa have generally found no difference when examining the many facets of control, indicating the potential benefits for understanding the function of control across eating disorder diagnoses.
Fixation on regulating one’s eating behaviors in these cases is theorized to “benefit” individuals with eating disorders by allowing them to avoid their negative emotions in the absence of more adaptive methods of coping. The disorder rises to power when one’s compulsion to control their eating habits is left unchecked and unrestrained, and they become overrun by their own need for discipline .
To address the rise in mental issues, we need to look at the root cause. We should be focusing on building up positive coping skills that deal with the real issues rather than weight shaming and food policing. Band-aid solutions that feed a maladaptive method of dealing with overwhelming circumstances could be causing more harm.
4. Eating disorders have serious mental health consequences.
Due to the fact that eating disorders are one the deadliest form of mental health conditions, second only to opioid addiction, and that often they co-occur with other psychiatric issues, this topic is essential to cover and be aware of.
Many with mood disorders have eating disordered behavior that needs to be addressed for full recovery and vice versa.
I personally believe that the blood sugar swings from extreme dieting behavior, fasting, and demonizing carbohydrates may be one factor that is contributing to more “false anxiety” in our world.
How can people be happy when they are starved for half the day and their hormones and blood sugar are dipping? (More on intermittent fasting below.)
Diet Culture Harms
Now that we understand why we need to pay attention to diet culture and its link to disordered eating patterns, let’s make sure we can recognize it.
What is diet culture?
In a previous post, I summarized diet culture as follows:
- advocate that the size of one’s body determines health outcomes
- reinforces society’s obsession with weight loss
- elevates thinness as a privilege
- perpetuates body stigma and poor healthcare delivery
- disproportionately negatively impacts minority populations
- contributes to a dysfunctional relationship to food, eating behaviors, and eating disorders
- normalizes extreme food eliminations and restrictions
- harms everyone, of all sizes
As stated, not only does diet culture encourage body discrimination and stigma, it also produces substandard medical care. This creates a vicious cycle of many people with larger body sizes avoiding seeking healthcare due to prejudice and fear of judgement of their body by their physician. According to a 2010 paper in the American Journal of Public Health:
…stigmatization of obese individuals threatens health, generates health disparities, and interferes with effective obesity intervention efforts. These findings highlight weight stigma as both a social justice issue and a priority for public health.
Although I cannot deny that weight may be linked, or even a contributing factor, to some disease processes, there is an extreme danger of confusing causation for correlation with body size in many studies. Furthermore, weight itself is not an accurate measure for health and not necessary and sufficient for someone to get sick. (source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source) (i.e., people of all body sizes and races get cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.)
Even if body size was a sole contributor to disease, our medical interventions to combat “obesity” are harmful in the following ways:
1. They perpetuate weight cycling and blame the victim (the dieter) when they fail.
Have we still not learned that with every diet in the long-term, more people gain weight back from them than don’t?
2. As noted above, stigma itself leads to poor disease outcomes.
3. It advocates for trading social relationships for diet tribes that only subscribe to the “healthy” foods.
Isolation and perceived loneliness is the number one risk factor for the number one killer, heart disease.
Social support buffers against coronary heart disease, much more than cutting out a friend who may enjoy a French fry on occasion.
Knowing what works best for your body and acting in an empowered way is different than prescribing to a way of living that is restrictive and cuts off nourishing relationships.
Truly holistic healing is more than assessing biochemical individuality, unique genetic variances, and organ system vulnerabilities. Supporting and optimizing health with nutrition, supplements, lifestyle, and essential oils is important, but not the full picture. Another major component often overlooked is sociogenomics, how our culture and beliefs can also impact our genetic expression and health outcomes.
Summary: Diet Culture vs. Health Care
It is true that health practitioners should educate their patients and clients on how food can benefit their brains and bodies. I am a big proponent on being especially mindful that we consume the nutrients that nourish our brains and bodies for optimal cognitive and psychological function. I also feel personalizing nutrients and taking into account biochemical individuality can be helpful when considering what foods to add into one’s diet for mood, digestive, and hormonal balance.
Yet, we also must be careful to not create a fear of food and promote dietary rules that fuel disordered eating and eating disorders.
For example, although I’ve seen the data on intermittent fasting and explored some of the pros, cons, and major caveats here, my deepest concern is the long-term psychological, social, and physical consequences. To me, it’s one of the most extreme experiments to cut out food and nourishment and ignore natural cues without medical supervision and a convincing indication other than weight loss. What will be the long-term impact and strain on the body, mind, and spirit with consistently de-programming one’s instinct to fuel their bodies? (source, source, source, source) I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think anyone does at this point.
Promoting Health for All Body Sizes
When I learned about Health at Every Size (HAES), I became a HAES practitioner because I believe that all body sizes deserve respect and can be healthy and that all forms of shame are bad for both mental and physical health.
Rather than focus on weight-loss, I adhere to teaching nutrition, lifestyle practices, and wellness solutions to promote well-being. What happens to my client’s weight as a result occurs naturally and peacefully. I cannot guarantee or control outcomes with regard to what one’s body will do. This is not only a lesson for me and my clients in providing nurturing and holistic care, but also a spiritual lesson to learn what to hold onto, what to let go, and how to tune into one’s own inner truth and intuition.
When we know better, we must do better for ourselves, our society, our patients, and our clients.
We all have the power to break free from diet culture and still nurture and heal our bodies. I’ve previously provided resources to do this here.
It’s not easy to step away from food and weight-loss obsession and the belief that a perfect body will solve all your problems with all of society promoting both, but the more we awaken to the lies and don’t give in, the stronger we will be.
I believe everyone deserves to feel the freedom of making peace with food and have their body respected, by themselves and others. I realize this is not an easy task in today’s entrenched diet culture. Still, it is possible.
What do you think?
In upcoming articles, I will highlight more topics related to diet and wellness culture, disordered eating, and eating disorders.
Sending you all my best.
Click here to learn more about my approach to whole-person, mind-body care.
Free resources and more education are also available to you here.
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If you struggle with mental health, please reach out for professional mental health support.
You may also wish to consider implementing holistic resources and partnering with a naturopathic doctor.
For example, I offer mind-body support for general mood issues using a functional medicine and wellness-oriented approach.
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.