Unlearn the toxic messages of diet culture
As a nutrition expert, I have the joy and privilege of talking to individuals everyday about a subject that I love — food. What I’ve learned over the years is that we all have a very rich yet complicated relationship with how, what, and when we eat. This includes definitions for practices that are different across cultures, preferences, and individual circumstances, but it also inevitably includes strict self-imposed rules and ideas around what is healthy and what is not, such as “carbohydrates are bad” and “fat is unhealthy.”
We learn these ideas from a toxic diet culture that doesn’t care about our individual needs and circumstances and tries to sell us unrealistic solutions, instead. Additionally, restrictive diets combined with high expectations around beauty and self-responsibility are a guaranteed recipe for failure and self-perpetuating cycle of shame and more dieting. It’s no wonder that 30 million Americans have struggled with symptoms related to disordered eating at some point in their life, which is another epidemic in itself that has been rising alongside the coronavirus.
It’s time to step off the hamster wheel of dieting and see these harmful messages for what they truly are — a profitable way of preying on people’s deepest insecurities and passing the blame for their faulty products and services.
Healthy eating is for every body. Begin your journey of healing by identifying and unlearning all the toxic messages that you’ve internalized over the years.
Set aside time each day to journal or contemplate the beliefs you have internalized about who you are and the way you eat. Start by asking yourself “What does it mean to be healthy?” and think about how these thoughts might be related to how you eat. Look for all the assumptions that you’ve made and ask yourself whether they’re realistic.
When I did this exercise with one of my recent clients, she had a very high bar about health that included everything from intelligence, emotional stability, athleticism, and physical characteristics like perfect skin and being curvy and skinny in all the right places. When I asked her to name someone who actually has all these characteristics, she couldn’t name a single person. When she dialed back her expectations, she realized that she was able to label other people in her life as healthy such as family members, friends, and colleagues, but she couldn’t do the same for herself, even though she did many of the same things as them when it came to exercise and eating.
Through self-reflection, we sometimes learn that we are our harshest critic. Once we see this, we can start to extend the same grace to ourselves that we are so easily willing to extend to others.
Feed yourself the same way you would feed someone you love.
Pause for a moment and think about someone you love, such as your child, your spouse, or even a friend or family member. Now, ask yourself would you deprive them of food or allow them to gorge on sugary snacks all day? Probably not. You would want to nourish their body with balanced meals. You also wouldn’t want them to stress and obsess over everything they are and are not eating. This kind of obsession leads to food policing and often backfires by resulting in shame and low self-esteem, which reinforces unhealthy eating patterns.
By considering the impact that our thoughts and behaviors would have on others, we can start to see what we may need to unlearn to establish healthier relationships with ourselves.
Limit your exposure to diet culture.
These days, because of social media, we are constantly exposed to implicit messages about beauty and health. Make sure that those messages are positive. Unfollow people and companies that narrowly define beauty and health by repeatedly posting images of young, half-naked models and celebrities who spend tens of thousands of dollars on services that help them achieve that rockstar look. Crowd out these unrealistic messages by following people and organizations that post inclusive images and share positive and inspirational messages that elevate you. There are so many great accounts that share uplifting and inclusive messages that you can follow (including us), such as @therapyforblackgirls, @wellwitholi, and @encouragingdietitian.
Deepen the mind-body connection.
By restricting ourselves from certain foods, sometimes we learn to fear them because we may overindulge since we’ve cut ourselves off for so long. This can lead us into extreme cycles of dieting that have serious negative consequences on our health and metabolism that may make it even harder to regain control over our eating habits.
We can unlearn this fear and re-establish trust by becoming more attuned to our body’s signals for hunger and fullness. We can do this by practicing mindfulness and regularly engaging in mindful eating exercises to deepen the mind-body connection.
Our mental health plays a strong role on our eating habits by acting as a powerful drug-like coping mechanism when we are stressed and unhappy. To deepen the connection between our minds and bodies, it’s important to be aware of other aspects of our lives as well, which can trigger certain behaviors.
To truly care for our health, we need to actively take steps to care for every aspect of ourselves. This means reaching out to people we trust, like our friends and family, when we’re struggling, instead of suffering in silence. Also, be intentional about taking the time to relax and find joy. It doesn’t have to take much time. We can jam out and dance to our favorite songs while we’re getting ready to boost our mood. We can also text or call a friend for a few minutes while running an errand or make small adjustments to our sleeping environment to help us sleep better at night.
The most important thing is that we take action. The small changes that we make today can have an immediate positive impact on our well-being and they can be life-saving over time.