Terms and phrases like “healthy eating” and “getting healthier” probably instantly conjure up specific images: lots of vegetables sitting in a grocery cart, tossing cookies in the trash can, purchasing a gym membership, you get the idea. More concisely, our society seems to associate “health” with the common adage of “eat less and move more,” regardless of someone’s health history, behaviors, abilities, and other factors. To be clear, taking the steps portrayed in (most of) those images isn’t inherently “wrong” or “bad.” If you like lots of vegetables, buy them! If you want to move your body more and the gym sounds like a good fit for you, go for it! Experts In This Article
- Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S, Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S, is a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
- Gabriella Giachin, LMSW, therapist with New York City Psychotherapy Collective
- Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC
- Meredith Nisbet, LMFT, Meredith Nisbet, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavior Health.
- Rachel Trotta, NASM-certified personal trainer with specializations in women’s fitness, pre/postnatal, nutrition, and therapeutic exercise
The problem, however, comes with how these messages are often discussed, as well as how they’re hidden. Examples: moralizing the food someone eats and labeling them as “good” or “bad” after, and marketing dangerous diets as innocent “lifestyle changes” or “wellness regimens.” Gabriella Giachin, LMSW, a therapist with New York City Psychotherapy Collective, speaks to the noteworthy level of potential harm. “The danger here is similar to the dangers of diet culture as a whole,” Giachin says. “No matter what you call it—a diet, a lifestyle, a cleanse, whatever—it’s still a means of controlling what you eat to change the way you look, rather than addressing the underlying discomfort we have in our bodies, or the socialized and/or cultural expectations we have to look a certain way.” Related Stories Seeing as eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness, this veiled way of pedaling restrictive eating habits is something to take very seriously. “A lot of platforms that are marketing themselves as ‘lifestyle changes’ are really all about monitoring what you eat, restricting calorie intake, and exercising to burn calories,” Giachin says. If your goal is to improve your relationship with food and/or some part of your body’s functioning, however—to give yourself more energy, to introduce more vitamin C in your system to fight off illnesses, that kind of thing—it’s fair to consider foods that can help you get there (while eating what you want, too). Experts explain how you can do so safely and healthily.
Tips for improving your relationship with food, according to nutrition and mental health experts
Think critically about your intentions and goals
First, get curious. Is your goal something appearance-based? Maybe weight loss is your subconscious or secondary goal, but it’s still there in the background—and it’s not helping. “For example, if you start eating ‘clean’ as a healthy lifestyle change, but your real motive is weight loss, you have to be honest with yourself that your goals are not in alignment,” says Rachel Trotta, NASM, a certified personal trainer. She warns against working toward goals that make you or your life feel restricted, rigid, isolating, strict, unsustainable, or distressing. Other experts agree that any weight loss talk is a red flag. “The first step is to recognize that regardless of the branding and marketing, if the goal of a ‘lifestyle change’ is weight loss, it’s a diet,” says Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S, a psychologist and the owner of Living Balance Psychotherapy. She encourages you to ask yourself who’s profiting off your fear of being fat or gaining weight. (Hint: It’s not you or your health!) “The first step is to recognize that regardless of the branding and marketing, if the goal of a ‘lifestyle change’ is weight loss, it’s a diet”
—Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-S Further, it’s important to note that a diet culture mindset isn’t just about weight and appearance. It’s also about the morality that’s inaccurately attached to things like eating vegetables, exercising daily, that sort of thing.
Listen to what your body—no, not other people’s bodies—is telling you it needs
Generally speaking (as this may not go for people whose hunger cues aren’t quite right), bodies were created to tell you what they need. “There is no one-size-fits-all fix when it comes to what each person needs to live a healthy, sustainable life,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a therapist with Choosing Therapy. “Everyone is different, and it is important to take into consideration their genetics, their environment, access to nutritional foods, and so on.” Maybe your body is still hungry after dinner, even though your partner is full. Eat more, that’s okay! What you need each day will change depending on your activity level, the amount of sleep you get, and a host of other factors. Your wants, not just needs, are valid here, too. Maybe you’re in the mood for mint chocolate chip ice cream, and one of your friends is craving strawberry ice cream, and your other friend is feeling a scoop of peanut butter ice cream. It’s all good.
Consider trying gentle nutrition
Gentle nutrition is the tenth and final step of intuitive eating, a framework that’s all about meeting your body’s physical and emotional needs without any outside “input,” like diet culture. It’s about adding in types of foods your body may have not gotten that day, and not subtracting foods that are labeled as “bad.” It’s something to consider trying when you can eat whatever and however much you’re craving without guilt, and can tune into your hunger and satiety cues. Here’s an example of gentle nutrition: You’re craving pasta for dinner, but you realize you haven’t had a vegetable that day. Instead of forgoing the pasta for a salad, you add the salad with full-fat dressing to get some of the vitamins that improve immune system function, prevent memory issues, help with vision, and more. Or, if you’re lacking energy, you consider adding a roll or other carb to your meal.
Address any black-or-white thinking
At first, the “rule” of “eating less dessert” sounds more innocent and “healthy” than “eating no dessert.” However, the underlying message is the same: Dessert is bad. It should be avoided when possible. In other words, the thought pattern is still based in rigidity. “The phrase [‘lifestyle change’] itself creates a dichotomy about the ways we should or shouldn’t live our lives, the ways our body should or shouldn’t look, and the types of food and exercise we should or shouldn’t eat or do,” says Meredith Nisbet, LMFT, a therapist at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavior Health. “This dichotomy reinforces black-and-white thinking and leads to psychological inflexibility.” That rigidity and inflexibility can turn into, and is a symptom of, an eating disorder. So instead, lean into self-compassion and intuitive eating practices for true health and happiness.
Don’t forget about other aspects of your health
Health is about more than food and exercise. The impacts on your mental health, for example, are crucial to be mindful of, too. Trotta mentions the example of developing healthy coping skills for stressful times, and other habits “not inherently linked to reduction” that “can be incorporated long-term into a full, satisfying, and healthy life.” Along those lines, anti-diet dietitian Christine Byrne, RD wrote a powerful newsletter one week titled, “Is it really ‘wellness’ if it makes you feel bad about yourself?” which makes such a great point. In the pursuit of improving your physical health, don’t ignore the effects they can have on your mental health, both cognitively and re: your mood. “There is no one-size-fits-all fix when it comes to what each person needs to live a healthy, sustainable life. Everyone is different, and it is important to take into consideration their genetics, their environment, access to nutritional foods, and so on.”
—Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW
Advocate for more of these conversations, especially in schools
If you’re up for it, talk about this on a larger scale when and where you can. “The fix, in my opinion, has to do with schools, larger changes in terms of policy, and education around health and wellness,” Giachin says. She personally loves the Health at Every Size framework, and encourages schools to educate parents and students on the dangers of restrictive eating and triggering language, as well as stop the weigh-ins and talk of “good vs. bad food” in health class. If you’re an interested parent or educator, she mentions Be Real USA, a group that developed a curriculum around body confidence. BTW, when it comes to all the recent buzz about weight loss injections and surgeries—for both kids and adults—another expert makes a great point: “When we, as a society, are willing to drug and surgically alter our children in the name of ‘health’ because they don’t look the way we think they ought to or fit into the ‘right’ weight range, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our values,” says Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, a therapist with Choosing Therapy.
Connect with people who share your values
Despite the prevalence of diet culture in our society, you can find people and groups who align with these ideas and want to help you navigate the trickiness. “It can be incredibly helpful to start to connect with other people who are also questioning and rejecting the idea that they need to lose weight to be worthy or healthy,” Dr. Annable says. “Feeling a sense of support and community can be incredibly important in the process of radically accepting yourself and your body, just as you are.”
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- Grau, Antoni et al. “Cognitive impairment in eating disorder patients of short and long-term duration: a case-control study.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 15 1329-1341. 21 May. 2019, doi:10.2147/NDT.S199927