Prioritising Health And Wellness Whilst Avoiding Toxic Diet CultureJul 31, 2022
In this post I dive into how you can prioritise health enhancing behaviours whilst steering CLEAR of diet culture's traps. I know how murky the waters can be when it comes to what is ACTUALLY healthy eating and what is just toxic diet culture. I also know that navigating this space, once you have healed your relationship with food, can be somewhat difficult. On one hand, you NEVER want to look at a vegetable again but on the other hand you know that healthy eating isn't inherently bad (when approached with the right mindset!).
The Healing Journey
If you’re anything like I was, your journey towards food freedom likely begins with you totally entrenched in diet culture. Think: diet starts Monday mentality, restricting your fave foods all the time, feeling scared and guilty to eat certain “bad” foods, always striving for a summer body, dieting for every event, convincing yourself that protein shakes taste the same as chocolate milk, scared to go over a calorie limit etc etc. I think you get the picture!
When we are wrapped up in this diet culture space, our self worth is entirely linked to how “good” we can be around food/how our bodies look.
So maybe you decide ok this is all a bit too much, it’s obsessive and I’m missing out on life - there must be a better way! How can everyone else eat normally?
So you do the work to reach food freedom, you lift all restrictions, allow all foods, maybe take a break from exercise, possibly even gain some weight and you accept that your body will change in response to your healthier relationship with food.
Ok so you’re now out the other side. What I see many people do (and I know I definitely did!) is they often go the other way. Meaning they finally have the clarity to see how pervasive and unhealthy diet culture is. As a result, I see people act in opposition to diet culture with every decision they make. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to them neglecting ALL health promoting behaviours in fear that they may be driven by a subconscious diet culture mindset.
This is a great place to be because it shows just how far you have come from the times when you were fully entrenched in diet culture. But you may reach a point where you DO want to implement some healthy habits. You DO want to be healthy whilst not being triggered by anything wellness related. You want to take care of yourself without letting it slip into diet culture ways.
First, Define What Health Means To You
There is SOME overlap between diet culture and healthy living. It’s important to decide what behaviours = health for you VS. what is simply a diet culture fad! For example, certain diets promote increased protein/fibre/water intake etc. These are all great, healthy habits to incorporate into your life! Additionally, work out plans encourage us to become more consistent with our exercise habits. Again, this is a great, health promoting habit!
But where do they NOT overlap? What makes diet culture harmful? We want to know this so that when you go about trying to live a more healthy life, you know not to overstep certain boundaries which cross over into the diet culture space.
Diet culture is underpinned by the idea that we must control our food and body shape and weight because how much we weigh is supposedly SO important and defines our worth. It says if you gain weight, you must lose weight by default. It teaches us that we will always be happier when we lose weight and it’s something we must relentlessly chase.
So you prioritising health doesn’t have to mean slipping into diet culture. Diet culture isn’t as much about the actual diets - but the mindset behind it all. Some diets can bring about more health! Not all diets have to be restrictive. A diet is simply the food you typically eat.
How To Prioritise Health Whilst Avoiding Diet Culture
- Knowing yourself : what in the past did you engage in around diet culture? Avoid this for a while until it’s de-sensitized. E.g. if for you diet culture means weighing yourself frequently, calorie counting, fitness challenges, detoxes, bootcamps - then take a break from these. Of course these things aren’t inherently BAD - we may have just been too extreme with them during our dieting days. Lots of people have healthy relationships with fitness challenges. You can too - it just may take some time to release their associations with diet culture. I know for me, lots of things pressed pause for quite some time. Gymming, gym classes, salads, veggie dishes, raw desserts, protein shakes, nut bars, burpees, squats and basically any other form of physical activity. BECAUSE I took a break from these things, I am now able to engage in all of these behaviours from a place of genuine enjoyment rather than necessity or guilt. I must add that there may be some diet culture behaviours which actually don’t faze or trigger you. If you feel like you can easily achieve 10k steps a day, for example, because you simply enjoy this habit, then by all means continue with this activity. At the end of the day, you know you best. This journey just requires you to be super honest with yourself about the motivations behind your habits!
- Mentality - avoid the all-or-nothing mindset. Focus on tweaking your behaviour instead. Think: ‘I’ll try this most of the time’ or ‘I’ll try my best’, rather than expecting yourself to make full 180 turns with your behaviour. There’s no failing (unlike with diets), there’s no wagon to fall off, there’s no “diet starts Monday”. It’s just a lifelong journey of you taking care of yourself the best you can. Sometimes your best won’t be as good as other times and that’s fine. Prioritising health can be more gentle than your dieting days, whilst still being equally, if not more, effective! You’ll know the FEELING if you start heading back into diet culture ways - remind yourself of those feelings of stress, guilt, obsession etc. which came along with your previous diet culture-driven habits and be aware of them if they do come up for you again. This will be a clear sign that you need to step back for a while, lessen the rules (if any) and give yourself some grace.
- Focus on health, not weight. This may look like: increasing your water intake, increasing the number of greens you eat (because they make you feel more energetic), improving your sleep, reaching out to friends to find connection. All of things are amazing for our health and they actually have nothing to do with our weight. For example, going out for drinks with your friends may do your mental health the world of good. If this is the case, this is far more healthy than refusing yourself that experience due to fear of the calories inside a cocktail.
- Don’t let diet culture get in your way - yes, friends might all do bikini body challenges, they might drink detox teas, compliment each other’s weight loss, criticise celeb weight gain etc etc. But this is only because they are the product of a weight-obsessed society! My advice to you is to simply ignore all of this. Remember: diet culture equates your worth to your weight. Remind yourself that this isn’t a notion that you want to subscribe to and simply turn the other way.
- Change up your environment - perhaps find a work out class which doesn’t focus on “fat burn” or “calorie blasting” and instead one which focuses on gentle movement, strength gain or simply having fun! You may also want to have a social media cleanse (this I 100% recommend!). Block the accounts which make you feel like sh*t and start to follow a wider range of people. People with all different kinds of bodies, abilities, skills, interests etc. Next up, alter who you spend time with OR emphasise to your friends that you want certain topics to be off limits while you heal. This could mean reaching out to different people who make you feel more welcome or wholly accepted as you are. It could also mean asking your friends to avoid talking about their diets/commenting on your body/inviting you to intense workout sessions etc.
- How to add gentle discipline, ie. saying no to foods without restricting. Again, this is all about intention, the feeling behind the action AND your subsequent response if you do say no to eating something. For example, if you say no to a slice of cake but then spend the whole day thinking about it - you probably should have just eaten the cake and moved on with your day! Additionally, if when this cake was offered you thought “I can’t eat that because sugar is bad for me”, then the intention definitely isn’t in the right place. The intention needs to be more like “I’m going to pass on that cake today because I know it will make my blood sugar levels spike and then crash and I want to feel energetic throughout the day, but I know if I want some cake later I will satisfy that craving”. This takes time and practice to master and I imagine you may be thinking “This is entirely impossible for me”. Listen, I hear you but I PROMISE if I can learn to do this, so can you!
- Set boundaries with yourself - not rigid rules. What boundaries can you put in place to protect you? For me, it’s booking in 3 exercise classes per week - I’m flexible on what the class is and I decide based on how I’m feeling, but ultimately I know I will feel best if I do get in optimal amounts of movement. Another thing I do is sit down Sunday to plan some meals for the week and complete my food shop for the week - making those choices when I’m in a calm, rational state helps me find recipes with lots of veggies, diversity and flavour - rather than rushing home hungry and making a quick meal which may not be nutritionally dense. Again, you’ll know that feeling if you’re going into old territories - stress, guilt, shame etc. These small habits don’t make me feel like that, so find what works for you and be FLEXIBLE.
- Go slow - you don’t need to go all in and make lots of changes at once. Just take small steps, bit by bit. Have fun with your health journey! Enjoy the feeling of taking care of yourself in such a loving way this time! And allow yourself to find balance. What “unhealthy” things do you still want to do that would actually make you feel happier and potentially (mentally or physically) healthier in the long run? You wanna get drunk once a week with friends? IF that’s what you want - fit that into your healthy lifestyle - remember, you’re not striving for perfection!
So, those are my tips and I hope they help! If you’re looking for a course to guide you through sustainable, slow weight loss then I absolutely recommend that you check out my Sustainable Fat Loss course. I made this course so that if the worst case scenario does occur (ie. you don’t lose any weight), you will still complete the course feeling happier, healthier and more at peace with yourself AND your relationship with food.
Lots of love,
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