Today’s standards of beauty and health can have a detrimental impact on our mental health. This may be the case especially for those with eating disorders.
To understand the intersection between these two topics, it’s helpful to define “diet culture” and how it has evolved over time. Doing so can de-stigmatize eating disorders and help people make informed decisions about what they eat.
Diet Culture perpetuates the belief that health is associated with thinness and eating certain kinds of foods. It enforces restrictive and rigid eating that’s hard to maintain and often ends in gaining back lost weight. “Falling off the wagon” can affect an individual’s self-esteem and sense of agency, their capacity for taking action to achieve positive outcomes.
There are two main ways that diet culture pervades our everyday life, usually without us even knowing it. The first is by way of fad diets, which present themselves as quick strategies for losing weight, generally by cutting out main food groups. Examples include Ketogenic (low/no-carb), Paleolithic (caveman diet), Atkins (low-carb), among others. These diets are well-known, and almost everyone knows someone who is on or has been on one of these at some point. The problem with these is that they have become accepted in society, and encouraged by well-known spokespeople with public credibility.
The second way is through weight-loss programs, such as Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, which require the careful counting, and accounting, of each calorie consumed.
The primary focus of such programs is weight loss, but they also traffic in language that implies a focus on health, with thinness as a measurement. Similar to fad diets, they have become heavily accepted, advertised, and even advised by nutrition or medical professionals.
This close-minded approach to food can be triggering when it comes to those who are living with an eating disorder, and for some people can contribute to the development of such a disorder.
Regan Chastain, a health coach and ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, says that diet culture carries risks “for people of all sizes who live in a world where disordered eating behaviors are normalized”.
One of the most prevalent eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, which is often characterized by extreme weight loss as a result of significantly reduced food intake. This restriction of food leads to a lack of essential nutrients, which can cause long-term health problems, and in extreme cases, even death. Diet culture praises the act of food restriction and rigid eating rules that someone struggling with anorexia has to fight every day.
One of the more recently recognized eating disorders is orthorexia, signaled by an obsessive need to eat only “healthy” foods. People with this condition fixate on nutrition labels and are overly focused on what others are consuming. These behaviors are sanctioned by Diet Culture.
It is possible to change eating habits or behaviors that undermine our physical and mental health. In some cases, support from eating disorder specialists or programs is necessary.
However, all of us can benefit from efforts to de-stigmatize eating disorders and reframe notions of health. Intuitive eating, psycho-education on eating disorders, and education on nutrition in general, allows people to live fuller and more nourishing lives.
3 Intuitive Eating Tips from Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Tiffany Roe
- TASTE: Are you wanting something Sweet? Salty? Savory? Spicy? Sour? Think about which taste sounds best at this moment.
- TEMPERATURE: What will make you feel good? Something warm and inviting? Something cold and refreshing? Maybe something in the middle, or a little bit of both?
- TEXTURE: Do we want something a little bit slimy? Mushy? Crunchy? Buttery? Dense?
LET’S PUT ‘EM ALL TOGETHER! Right now, I’m feeling a salty hot slurp (ramen) with a side of cold bubble spice (this is what Tiffany Roe loves to call Dr. Pepper).
What sounds good to you?
This is step toward making peace with all foods, ditching food morality and guilt, honoring your body’s cues around eating, and having some fun when deciding what to eat!
Claire Guion is working towards becoming a therapist. She graduated in December ’21 with a B.A. in Experimental Psychology from University of South Carolina, and is currently deciding where to continue her graduate education.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management“