What do you think of when you hear the term “healthy eating” or “wellness”?
For many of us, our impression of what is considered healthy or not has been greatly influenced by the beliefs that are perpetuated by diet culture.
If you can, make note of what comes to mind for you when you think about healthy or “clean” eating and wellness. You may find it interesting to review what you made note of after reading today’s post. How has diet culture impacted your view of wellness and healthy eating or how you approach it?
Diet Culture: What is it?
Diet culture is the belief system upon which many of us have formed our expectations of what “healthy eating” or “wellness” should look like. Often these beliefs are something that we have believed for so long and assumed to be fact – these beliefs permeate our society, and underlie many of the decisions that we make when it comes to food. These beliefs and expectations that have been placed on us override what our body intuitively knows.
Diet culture is a relatively new term that has been assigned to these beliefs, and it has been accepted by many to be fact. Some basic elements of diet culture include:
- The belief that only a certain body shape or type (i.e., a thin body) is healthy. Those in different body types are automatically labelled as “unhealthy” or “less healthy” than those who fit closely with the “thin ideal.” (1)
- In turn, the belief that if we can change our body to fit into this “thin ideal” we will automatically become healthier. Diet culture equates weight loss to improving health. (1)
- In pursuit of changing our bodies and achieving this “ideal” body type, there is the belief that certain foods need to be completely omitted or restricted and we must hold ourselves to the highest expectations – allowing ourselves to only eat certain amounts and only including foods that are considered “acceptable” (aka “healthy” ) by diet culture. Essentially foods are placed into categories (ex. good vs. bad), and only certain styles of eating are considered appropriate in the pursuit of weight loss (under the guise of health and wellness). (1)
Even the term “diet” is often taken to mean that someone is intentionally following a particular way of eating with the intention of losing weight. This word carries with it the expectation that some kind of restriction (types of food or amounts) or omission of foods is taking place.
Disordered Eating: It’s Impact on Our Relationship with Our Body & Food
Eating disorders are very serious mental illnesses that can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life. However, what many of us may not realize is that disordered eating habits (often normalized by diet culture) impact many of us, even if we have not been diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder such as anorexia.
Disordered eating plays a part in the lives of many and can greatly impact their relationship with food and eating in general as well as their body. Many of our decisions or beliefs about food are influenced by the “truths” that have been instilled in us by diet culture, and we often don’t even realize it. Some examples of diet culture playing a role in our decisions:
We may stop ourselves from a second helping, despite still feeling hungry, because diet culture tells us that one plate is plenty.
We may feel hungry in between meals or before bed but refuse ourselves food because diet culture tells us we’ve already eaten enough today or we only use external cues to tell us when and how much to eat (ex. calorie counting, weighing one’s self, tracking calories burned, etc.) while ignoring our internal hunger cues.
We might label certain foods as “good” or “bad” because diet culture tells us that foods belong in categories – thanks to diet culture, eating “good” foods makes us feel better about ourselves, while eating “bad” foods makes us feel guilt and shame as if we’ve done something wrong.
Intuitive Eating: What is it?
According to Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, one of the creators of the intuitive eating approach and its principles, intuitive eating is “a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.” (2) Essentially, the intuitive eating approach aims to empower us and give us permission to listen to our bodies, rather than allowing diet culture to inform our decisions about what and how we eat.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
The intuitive eating approach is comprised of 10 principles that help to “cultivate or remove obstacles to body awareness.” (2) The 10 principles include:
1) Reject the Diet Mentality
Let go of the diets, meal plans and weight loss programs that promise quick weight loss, but inevitably fail – and leave us feeling angry at ourselves for “failing” and gaining the weight back. They are designed to fail. (3)
2) Honour Your Hunger
Learn to recognize and honour your hunger cues. Consistently choosing to ignore this signal, and therefore not eating when our body is trying to communicate our hunger, can put our bodies into a state of deprivation and lead to bouts of excessive hunger. (3)
3) Make Peace with Food
“Give yourself unconditional permission to eat.” We give power to a food when we try to convince ourselves that we “can’t” have it. Reclaim your power and allow yourself to have “forbidden” foods – they do not need to be omitted, restricted, or forbidden. (3) This one may sound scary, but you will be surprised how this can shift your relationship with these “bad” foods so instead of feeling powerless and out of control when these foods are present, you feel very much in control as you have the power over the food instead of the food having all the power over you.
4) Challenge the Food Police
Reject the idea that your worth is determined by how “good” or “bad” your meal was. Recognize the thoughts that you tell yourself after eating a particular food – i.e., I shouldn’t have eaten this, I am disgusting” and how this makes you feel. We can work towards silencing the inner food police for good. (3)
5) Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Diet culture overlooks the idea that eating can and should be a pleasurable experience. Give yourself permission to eat what you really want and enjoy it! Meals become more satisfying and enjoyable when we allow ourselves to have a nice eating experience, rather than focusing solely on what we should or shouldn’t be eating. (3)
6) Feel Your Fullness
Learn to recognize and honour your fullness cues. Provide your body with the food it desires and eat until you are comfortably full. (3)
7) Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
We all experience a range of feelings and emotions, and often food may play a role in providing comfort when experiencing particularly difficult emotions. However, food will not fix our emotions or improve our situation over the long term. We need to go to the heart of the issue and address the emotion itself, rather than relying solely on food to provide us comfort or relief. (3)
8) Respect Your Body
Placing unrealistic expectations on how we believe our body should look will only lead to us feeling uncomfortable with the body we have – all bodies look different, and that’s okay! When we respect our body and accept it for how it is, we can feel more comfortable about who we are rather than focusing on what we need to change. (3) You may not feel able to “love your body” as it is but learning to tolerate and accept it the way it is right now and appreciate all the good it does is key.
9) Movement – Feel the Difference
Rather than exercising to “feel the burn” and maximize the calories you burn, shift towards incorporating joyful movement that makes you energized, strong, or excited. Exercise or movement does not need to focus on burning a certain number of calories or attempting to counteract a higher calorie food you ate; otherwise it may feel more like a chore. It can simply be something you incorporate to feel good which will make ongoing joyful movement more sustainable long-term! (3)
10) Honour Your Health – Gentle Nutrition
We don’t need to eat perfectly every day to be healthy – it’s the big picture, or what we are doing “most” of the time that counts. One choice or even a week of choices deemed by diet culture to be “bad” does not make or break a healthy approach to eating or our overall wellness. We can make food choices that are good for our bodies AND make us feel good AND honour our own desires/tastes. (3) Always remember to take a step back and look at the big picture and overall lifestyle patterns.
If you are interested in learning more about the intuitive eating approach and how it might work for you, contact the Nutrition Assessment Clinic to set up an appointment with one of our registered dietitians.
Written by Mikaela Horton, BASc, MHSc, RD for nutritionassessment.com
- Harrison, C. (2018, August 10). What is diet culture? https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture
- Tribole, E. (2020, February 26). What is intuitive eating? https://www.intuitiveeating.org/what-is-intuitive-eating-tribole/
- The Original Intuitive Eating Pros. (2019, December 19). 10 principles of intuitive eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/