Today is International No Diet Day, something which I only discovered about an hour ago, and since have been madly in love with due to my virulent hatred for diets. There’s a candy shop in town that I absolutely love, and they have a sign over the register that says “Diet is a four letter word. Please refrain from using it on the premises”. I love it.
First and foremost, most diets are ineffective. This has been shown over and over again, particularly because different bodies react differently to diets. Genetics plays a far larger role in our size than many people like to admit, and certain people’s bodies will simply never lose beyond a certain point. Each body has a natural stasis point (more of a range really), and staying above or below that will be a struggle. More often than not, diets lead to yo-yoing. Diets are not something that is easily maintained, so often individuals will diet, lose weight, and then put back on more than they lost in the first place before starting the whole process over again.
This is not healthy. By most measures, it’s actually less healthy than just staying at a slightly higher weight, and significantly less healthy than making some small but sustainable changes to your lifestyle (like swapping some high fat and high sugar foods for fruits and veggies, or eating smaller meals spread out throughout the day, or cutting down the amount of processed food you eat). Beyond that, most diets are NOT about health, they are about losing weight. You rarely see a diet commercial that says “lower your cholesterol and your blood pressure and improve your overall health”. You see commercials that say “Lose x pounds in a month!” Health is not the focus of the diet industry, weight loss is. And weight loss is a fairly crappy goal. Weight loss is correlated with improved health, but so far few causative links have been made. And the focus on weight loss has some major health effects.
Most diets that involve cutting an entire food group out of your diet lead to imbalances in your body chemistry, and don’t give you the opportunity to find those necessary nutrients in other places. Things like juice cleanses have been linked to disordered eating. An extreme example of how diets can lead to negative health impacts is embodied in calorie counting. Calorie counting asks you to be in a constant war of numbers with your body. It’s very easy to become obsessed with numbers, and to let the numbers become more important than anything else. It takes the focus away from health or happiness and puts it on reaching a certain numerical goal. Once you start calorie counting it can be incredibly hard to shake, and this can lead to a lifelong obsession with the numbers. Trust me: this is not a pleasant place to be.
Not only that, but most diets that involve calorie counting suggest counts that are WAY TOO LOW for any healthy human being. In the starvation experiments at the University of Minnesota in the 70s, they fed their patients 1200 calories per day. This was considered a starvation diet. It had serious psychological and emotional impacts on the patients. Many of them had serious difficulties ever regaining the weight they lost and had major physical problems as well. And yet many diets are barely higher than that in their calorie counts. This is extremely unhealthy and is done exclusively for the purpose of aesthetics.
Now I’m certainly not trying to advocate against losing weight for health reasons. It’s one thing to realize that you feel like crap when you eat a certain way and try to replace certain things with other things. But that should always be done in moderation: cutting out whole food groups is never really necessary (I’ve never once had a dietician or doctor tell me “never eat sugar” or “never eat carbs”), and your body often needs some of everything (obviously this is different if you have allergies). But the culture of dieting is not one of health. It’s one of losing. It’s one of constantly being aware of what’s going in your body so that you don’t get too big, so that you don’t look bad or wrong.
Choosing health is very different from choosing a diet. Diets promote a certain way of viewing bodies. They do not promote bodies as a part of a whole human being. They view the body as a vessel that the person inhabiting can adjust as they choose, without listening to the signals the body might send. They suggest that we should ignore our hunger cues, and ignore the emotions that might come along with food. And they often suggest that our size is more important than anything else we might gain from a healthy relationship with food that doesn’t include paranoia, fear, or a need for control. Food is not the enemy, and food is not unhealthy. Diets are unhealthy, and they can completely change the way we view food. Extreme diets can lead to bizarre food behaviors like hoarding, extreme irritability around food, excessive working out, and even eating disorders (as shown in the starvation studies at the University of Minnesota).
Because of all of this diet rhetoric, we end up with some pretty unhealthy attitudes about our bodies and about food. Most diets pit us against our bodies. They ask us to ignore things like hunger cues, or other indications from our bodies about what is healthy and what feels ok. Our bodies are perfectly capable of speaking up and telling us when they are unhappy (for example: you’re dizzy now, please eat something), but diets promote the idea of eating based upon schedules and numbers rather than on the information you’re getting in the here and now from your body. This promotes reducing our bodies to objects that we can change and perfect based upon our actions towards them instead of seeing them as an integral part of ourselves that require care and attention.
Diets put us at war with our bodies. They ask us to ignore what our body is telling us and to treat our bodies as an enemy that needs to be whittled down. They treat food not as a wonderful, delicious, community-building thing, but rather as simple fuel, or as something to fear, or as something to control. Diets ask us to look at our bodies, our wonderful, amazing bodies that do so much for us, and ignore when they tell us they need something. Our bodies are built to give us these cues, to be in constant communication with our brains so that we can keep ourselves healthy. And while the proliferation of easily available food can make it difficult to stay healthy and listen appropriately to these cues, the answer is not to ignore them completely, but rather to take those cues as information and use our higher thinking skills to sort through all the information we have available.
Another huge problem with diets is that they ignore one important element of food: food is emotional. Many people eat for emotional reasons, and when they diet they don’t tend to the emotional needs that food can fill. Food can build community, it is strongly linked to memory, and it’s an important vessel for culture. Taste and smell are more strongly linked to memory and emotion than the other senses. Food has been considered part of building relationships for as long as we have had records of it: there’s a reason that breaking bread together is considered an expression of trust and friendship. Unfortunately, diets pay exactly no attention to these facts. Diets make food into a question of numbers: how much is going in and how much is going out. They don’t focus on the experience of food.
Eating can be an amazing experience. Food is so emotional that it has been used in spiritual contexts across the world, but it is also simply an important sensual experience. It can even be sexual (what else do you put in your body?). Sharing the experience of food with others is one of the most important joys there is in life. It is extremely emotionally damaging to ignore these elements of food. It can push others away from you. Food can be extremely comforting as well, and denying yourself the physical comfort of food is cruel. Just as your emotions need tending, so does your physical body, and food in all its glorious forms gives it that tending, connects it to your emotions and your values, and gives you a connection to those around you. Eating is joyful when it’s done without guilt, without fear, without paranoia. Dieting destroys this opportunity.
Diets create a very unhealthy attitude towards food in general, and towards our bodies. They set us up to not be able to listen to our bodies and the cues they give us, they ask us to ignore our emotions and our needs, and they often do so at the expense of our health. Finally, they’re just unnecessary most of the time. Everyone has a “diet” in that we all eat. Adjusting our diet is different from dieting. If we want to be healthier, we can still include all of the joys of food, we can still view bodies as an integral part of self, and we can still allow food to connect us to others. We don’t have to use diets as a method of control and self-denial. We don’t have to exist in a state of paranoia about food. We don’t have to constantly be breaking down our food intake into its calories, fats, and other component parts. We can simply eat, know the facts about food, and adjust our food so that we feel good about ourselves and our bodies. Health does not have to mean buying in to an industry explicitly designed to make you feel like crap about your body. That’s what dieting is.
I’m currently working on a post for Teen Skepchick about eating disorders in a cross cultural perspective. At the moment, I’m just in the research stage of this post, so I’m reading a lot about the research that’s been done about cross cultural eating disorders and about the differences in symptoms, causes, and etiology of eating disorders in different cultures.
And I have to say that I am deeply upset by the way we talk about eating disorders. I am particularly upset because I’ve been reading academic articles, pieces by graduate students studying psychology, and other articles that are surveys of the literature on eating disorders. These should be held to the best standards we have. Unfortunately, no matter where I look (except for in very particular blogs written by people with eating disorders, particularly Science of Eating Disorders), I hear the same things over and over and over again:
“When we expose our girls to thin models and beauty ideals they develop eating disorders”
“Girls of African American descent aren’t likely to get an eating disorder because their culture values voluptuous bodies”
“Eating disorders only crop up in other countries as they become infiltrated by Western beauty ideals”
I am SO sick of the conversation around eating disorders being dominated by conversations about models and images of women in the media and the desire to be thinner. It cannot be that difficult for people to understand this, but I’ll say it again: an eating disorder is a mental illness. It is not a diet. It is not even an extreme diet. It is not a desire to lose weight. It is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult things in your life that you can’t cope with otherwise.
There is VERY little evidence that eating disorders are caused by skinny models. What there IS evidence of is that eating disorders are caused by low self-esteem, family disruption, trauma, other mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and addiction are common), abuse, or other difficult situations that you need a way out of. It is such a cliche by now that eating disorders aren’t about food, but I cannot stress it enough: eating disorders aren’t about food! They aren’t about looking pretty or beautiful. I have YET to meet someone with an eating disorder who says they just want to be pretty. I hear them say that they’re depressed, that they can’t cope, that they’re lonely, that they don’t feel acceptable when they’ve eaten, that they feel out of control around food, or that they use food to numb out emotions and manage other parts of their lives.
It is not helpful to keep refocusing the conversation on how someone’s body looks and the beauty ideals. This continues to reinforce them as what’s important, and it focuses the issues on the body again, instead of addressing whatever mental stress has occurred. It simplifies the matter to a point that is unhelpful, and makes treatment and self-understanding very difficult because it doesn’t allow us to reach the real etiology of the disease. It even reinforces those negative suggestions that a woman’s worth is in the beauty standards she does or does not strive to live up to.
Instead of these things, it would be far more helpful to talk about the sexism that makes women feel inadequate no matter what they do, or the bad family systems that don’t allow for good communication or healthy emotions, or the abusive relationships that many women are in, or the trauma and depression of daily life, or the failure of our mental health system to provide us with good coping techniques for when we do start to feel over our heads. If we want to talk about cross cultural eating disorders, maybe we should talk about the different family roles that exist, the different expectations of women in different cultures, the common mental illnesses in those cultures, the differences in guilt and shame in different culture (these feelings are huge in eating disorders), and the relationship that these cultures have to food as symbolic, relational, or positive.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They are not an attempt to be skinny. They are not a reaction to the media. They are not the desire to look like a model. They are serious. They are life-threatening. They are painful. They come with depression, constant mental stress, trauma, self-hatred, difficulty with relationships, isolation, loneliness, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and all sorts of things that ARE NOT simply reactions to the media, but are about how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. Can we please start talking about them in terms of the mental situation of the individual suffering, because that is what makes something a mental illness?