Ditching the “do’s” & “dont’s” of diet culture

“You shouldn’t go above xxx amount of sugar.”

“That’s way too much saturated fat.”

“You have to be careful because this stuff adds up fast.”

“Pay attention to what you eat when you go to the movies, and what you drink when you go the movies. Popcorn is a great, healthy snack, as long as you don’t top it with butter.”

“There are many ways to modify what you are eating.”

“Monounsaturated fats are great, so if you want your peanut butter—go for it. But keep in mind, peanut butter does have a lot of calories. Two servings of nuts are around 400 calories, and even though that’s 400 calories well deserved,  you want to be careful.”

“Don’t buy the yogurt covered, glazed, or chocolate covered nuts.”

“Shell your own nuts because it will help slow you down and remind you of how many you’ve eaten.”

“You need to lower the saturated fats—ice cream, cheese, meats—or get rid of them.”

“So, bring your nuts to school in a bag. Me, I have a teeny little container I place my nuts in…after I’m done counting them out.”

These were the subtle comments made by my professor that went unnoticed by most, but burned louder than fire inside my ears, making me want to get up and leave the classroom.

It’s these subtle comments I used to let dictate my life and write narratives in my mind. It’s these subtle comments that led me to behavior I didn’t even know was unhealthy because in my mindI was doing all the “right things.”

Only eating the “good” stuff and staying away from all that was “bad.”

Counting calories, restricting, and watching what I ate.

What my professor forgot to mention in her lecture, was how toxic these behaviors can quickly become, and why the diet mentality is more unhealthy than it is healthy. How depriving yourself is not sustainable, and how people who are constantly losing and gaining weight are actually at a greater risk of heart disease than those who maintain a consistent weight. How a persons worth and ability to be happy are not determined by the number on the scale. No, she didn’t say any of that. Instead, she continued her lecture with one sided views, a judgemental tone, and harmful language.

I looked around the room to see so many pencils moving and heads nodding, and all I could do was think about how we all were being tremendously affected by the tongue of just one person.

My mom sent me a picture of a poster my little sister made in one of her classes last week, thinking that being the health enthusiast I am, I would be so proud. Little did she know I’d be writing blog post about it now.

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It’s cute, right?

I love the bottom line. “You’re sweet enough already.” I also think it’s funny how out of all the nutritionally dense foods, she chose bone broth and chia. I don’t think I even knew what those things were when I was eleven years old.

But you see, there is an issue with many of the things found on this colorful and innocent poster made by sister. Specifically, with the signs that deem foods like dessert and soda as “off limits.” The words “eat less” and “diet” I also find troublesome.

I don’t think teachers often understand the power and authority they hold over children. In the most transformative periods of a child’s life, the things a teacher does and say can directly influence how that child grows up and learns to navigate this world. Their thought patterns. Their belief system of what is right and wrong. To me, that is scary. What’s even more scary though, is how most parents don’t even question the education realm. They trust, and they trust a lot, that the teacher is qualified and the school knew what they were doing when they hired them. Or, maybe, they don’t think about any of these things.

I was lucky enough to have great teachers when I was younger that I’m sure shaped me to be who I am in my many ways too, but I can’t help but fear for kids like my sisterwho are not only receiving false inputbut who are now actively believing this input and clinging to it as reality.

I can’t blame my sister’s teacher because she has, most likely, been lied to as well. This is the issue when we continue to repeat the loop of what we’ve always been told is “right,” but haven’t ever questioned. Soon, lies become become truth, a one way path, and an instructional guide without guidance. I’m sure my sister’s teacher was fully confident when she said that sweets and soda were bad, and we needed to eat less sugar and cut out so many snacks to maintain a healthy diet. I’m sure she didn’t think twice about the word “healthy,” or the word “diet” because she too, has probably been brought up to believe that health is equally defined by weight. So, I can’t blame her.

But similar to my professor, this language is powerful. And these ideas aren’t just put out as messages in the classroom, but they are reinforced by our everyday environment and make seeing another side of the coin almost impossible at times. I’m grateful that after so long, living under construed ideas of health and wellness, I am able to see the other side of the coin, but it is only because I have lived out each of the faulty “health” tips and can honestly testify and say it is not a place you want to be. 

And even though my little sister’s teacher, and my professor may have meant well with their words, these are the things I thought about as I remembered back to the scary triggers that spiraled me into disordered eating and, how I would have interpreted things like the my professor’s comments only three years ago. It would go something like this: 

“You shouldn’t go above xxx amount of sugar.”

Calorie count.

“That’s way too much saturated fat.”

Fat is bad. Stay away from it.

“You have to be careful because this stuff adds up fast.”

Plan what you will eat. Track it, and don’t mess up. 

“Pay attention to what you eat when you go to the movies, and what you drink when you go the movies. Popcorn is a great, healthy snack, as long as you don’t top it with butter.”

Forget food as being enjoyable. Food is fuel and sacrifices need to be made if you want to be healthy.

“There are many ways to modify what you are eating.”

Great! Google should know the answer to my questions. “Sugar free recipes.”

“Monounsaturated fats are great, so if you want your peanut butter—go for it. But keep in mind, peanut butter does have a lot of calories. Two servings of nuts are around 400 calories, and even though that’s 400 calories well deserved,  you want to be careful.”

I have to work hard for the food I eat, otherwise I shouldn’t be eating. And if I eat unhealthy foods, I have to work even harder.

“Don’t buy the yogurt covered, glazed, or chocolate covered nuts.”

Shame on you if you listen to your cravings.

“Shell your own nuts because it will help slow you down and remind you of how many you’ve eaten.”

Obsess over the portions you eat and focus more on your food, than you do the people you are with.

“You need to lower the saturated fats—ice cream, cheese, meats—or get rid of them.”

People who eat saturated fats are stupid and are killing their body and because I can’t control myself around ice cream, meat or cheese, I have to cut them out completely.

“So, bring your nuts to school in a bag. Me, I have a teeny little container I place my nuts in…after I’m done counting them out.”

if you eat mindlessly and don’t know exactly what you are eating, and how much you are eating, you need to be more self disciplined.

Categorizing certain foods as “off limits” creates fear of food. It’s the comment you hear made by a friend when they have a cookie at work and say, “I’m going to be bad today.” Or, maybe they don’t have a cookie and instead say, “I’m being good today.” The idea of food as “good” or “bad”, has been so deeply ingrained into our minds, that we don’t even recognize the harm in our words anymore. Guilt and shame when we haven’t ate as well for our bodies as we could have, have become a norm in our society.

I understand diabetes and obesity do put individuals at risk for an assortment of  health complications. But restricting foods completely and encouraging weight loss is not the way to good health. Because when we tell our bodies it can’t have something, it’s just going to want that thing even more. This is what leads to the overwhelming and uncontrollable feeling we sometimes get around food. I can say from experience that when I would do things like carefully count out and measure my food, it wasn’t because I was worried about my health. It was because I was worried about my weight.

Roxanne Gay said it perfectly in her memoir, Hunger: “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness to with self-worth. Clearly, this lie is damn convincing because the weight loss industry thrives. Women continue to try and bend themselves to societal will. Women continue to hunger. And so do I.”

I talked to my sister this evening and we discussed her poster. I asked her what she was learning about in class and why she had decided to put certain things on the poster. She told me some interesting facts about the brain and how she crossed off “bad” foods because they aren’t good for our health or brain. We discussed the definition of health, and how it involves more than the food we eat, and how brain health is affected by  our relationships, stress, and happiness too.

I want my sister to know her value comes from within, and is not based on her exterior parts. I want her to know that who she is, is enough, and her worth will never alter based on what she is consuming or how she looks. At times, I felt bad for repeating myself over and over, but I couldn’t help it. Being honest with my sister about my own struggles and fear of food was not easy, but it was a conversation I know needed to happen, because I would never, ever, ever, want her to experience the sickness I did.

At the end of our conversation, she told me, “I don’t want to fear food. I want to enjoy my food and see it as a comfortable experience. It is our souls that matter anyways.”

And to that, I say, amen.

 

 

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