why the language of wellness matters

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HEALTH is something that’s yours. it is not the adjective that describes it; it is what your body needs and does, the aggregate of certain measurable markers (like blood pressure, liver & kidney function or blood sugar regulation) with how you feel in your body and about your lived experience.

HEALTHFUL has traditionally applied to things that promote health, like hydration, stress management and eating nutrient-rich foods. but over time, “healthful” has been replaced with the term “healthy” — and here’s why that’s a problem.

on its own, HEALTHY technically means to possess good health. but in practice, it gets assigned based on an unclear set of standards, by anyone with an opinion. and “healthy” & “unhealthy” don’t stop at describing a state of health; they’re also used to refer to how we and others look, feel & eat and what we do.

many of the assumed indicators of health we label as healthy (or not) don’t come from medicine, but from diet culture & beauty culture, adopted into a wellness shorthand. moreover, the average person has been taught to feel empowered and entitled to do this labelling, not only of themselves but of others — which is a product of diet culture as well.

because health is so multifaceted and what is healthful is so individualized, the terms HEALTHY and UNHEALTHY don’t mean anything concrete. at best, they are unhelpful and at worst they are harmful.

we need to push back on the normalization of categorizing people in ways that we are neither qualified to nor should be concerned with. stopping and thinking about what we actually mean when our instinct is to use the terms “healthy” and “unhealthy” is how we start challenging this programming.

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when boys and men see and hear womxn talking about their own and each others’ bodies–praising certain bodies while criticizing or ignoring others–how will they learn to not do the same?

when girls and womxn hear these boys and men commenting on their bodies, what will prepare them to reject the narrative?

break the cycle. don’t comment on bodies.

diet culture is medically unsound

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diet culture did not start with science and work its way into popular culture — it moved in the opposite direction. given that fact, it’s unsurprising that diet culture is medically unsound.

for example:
– dieting often causes weight cycling
– weight cycling can cause insulin resistance
– insulin resistance increases the risk of type 2 diabetes
– yet dieting is what’s prescribed to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes

isn’t dieting important if you’re overweight, you may be wondering? that’s what we’ve been told by doctors, taught in school, heard from our families and friends and colleagues, seen on talk shows, and definitely what’s been modeled in mainstream entertainment.

the answer is NO. not only do 97% of dieters regain their lost weight (and then some) but the relationship between weight and health is correlative, *not* causative; that means your weight in and of itself is not a negative health outcome.

medicine is fatphobic; the same eating disorder behaviors that are guarded against in smaller bodies (when they are screened for at all) are condoned for larger bodies. whether western or holistic, most wellness practitioners (including me) were taught that weight was a super important measure of health — and it’s really, really not.

the good news is that many of us have been learning the anti-diet and health at every size paradigms that allow us to provide comprehensive, compassionate and medically sound care to our patients, regardless of their body size.

by the way, a big part of how you actually reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes is keeping your blood sugar regulated — and that’s done by eating, not starving, and by learning to hear your body’s hunger and fullness cues 💛

anti-diet is not anti-health

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i don’t subscribe to diets. not just diets whose goal is weight loss — “diet” as in any way of eating that comes with a label and set of guidelines.

yes, i believe in eating w/consideration for my physical & mental health and with care for the health of the planet.
yes, there are elements of many diets that are valuable to those goals.
so why am i anti-diet?
because at the end of the day, i’m not ok with asking my body to follow a set of rules that were not determined by/for its unique (and changing) needs.

diets are generally built on the premise that our body’s natural desires lead to bad choices–eating the wrong foods, or not enough of the right ones, or too much in general–and bad outcomes. the only way to stay safe & healthy, diet culture tells us, is to rely on an external set of guidelines to override our instincts towards food.[1] and in the absence of being able to listen to, hear, understand & honor the needs of our bodies, those guidelines can turn into rules.

diet culture has us believing that before it came along we didn’t know how to feed ourselves or be healthy.[2] but diets, by design one-size-fits-all (or at best, one-size-fits-many), don’t work for our unique human bodies, both practically and medically.

diets don’t help us identify & undo programming we’ve received about our bodies and about food — which is imperative to finding a nourishing *and* sustainable approach to what & how we eat.

diets don’t have the capability to help us understand & navigate our cravings or aversions, which provide important information.[3] and if a craving is not in compliance with diet guidelines (like the “wrong” food, portion size, or time of day) we might feel frustrated or ashamed, and are more likely to get mad at our bodies and start ignoring their cues.

it takes guidance, learning, practice, compassion, & ultimately time to rebuild the rapport and trust around food that we’re born with. it also requires rejecting paradigms (like diets) whose goal it NOT to create space for & meaning from what we want and feel.

anti-diet is not anti-health[4]. saying “no” to what doesn’t serve you creates room for enthusiastic “yes,” and that is what an anti-diet approach is: pro YOU.

[1] yes, we are experiencing a health crisis with unprecedented rates of heart disease, cancer, chronic illness, and depression, among many other ailments that can be alleviated in part by access to fresh, whole foods. but diet culture is not the solution, because this is not a failing on the part of the individual — it is a perfect storm of systemic stress, societal harms, separation from cultural tradition & ancestral knowledge of the foods that nourish our bodies and communities, and corporate greed that exacerbates the inaccessibility of nutrient dense foods as it propagates the prevalence of foods that lack nutrient density.
[2] settler colonialism has pervasively and tragically shaped how many of our social systems function. it relies on the myth that what existed before colonial arrival was nothing of worth or consequence — that settlers were the saviors who provided civilization & culture & commerce & medicine — and that mindset, along with the racist and classist origins of diet culture, serves as the template for contemporary diet culture.
[3] feeling out of control about cravings may have physiological or psychological components that compound the programming we’ve received. it’s possible to explore this with a holistic wellness practitioner using a non-diet approach!
[4] what about diets for medical conditions? while there are absolutely commonalities in nutritional needs when eating in support of a specific condition or illness, your body is nonetheless unique, and the way you eat has to work for *you* specifically; a “diet” can neither anticipate nor accommodate what that may be. this is also something that can be explored with a holistic wellness practitioner using a non-diet approach.

how diet culture affects absolutely everyone

why do i post so much about diet culture? because whether we realize it or not, diet culture affects us all–so talking about diet culture is for everyone.

diet culture is not just disordered eating or crippling body shame. via its adoption into mainstream medicine, diet culture has taught us that “healthy” looks a certain way or is determined by a number on a scale.

why is that a problem? because, aside from the fact that neither of those things is an accurate assessment of health, it means that we have not been taught how healthy feels.

diet culture accustoms us to being out of tune with our bodies, doing what doesn’t feel good (like exercising when we need rest) and not doing what does (like eating dessert). and if we’ve tuned out our bodies, we can’t hear them, whether they’re telling us they’re feeling great or that they’re struggling.

i recently asked a friend what information he gets from the scale when he weighs himself. he explained that his weight tells him whether he is healthy or needs to lose lbs. i asked how he knows what number is “healthy,” and he responded that he uses the weight at which he felt his best — when he was sleeping well, moving with ease, making nourishing food choices, etc.

when i pointed out the possibility that he had felt good at that time because of the exact indicators of health he was describing, my friend agreed. so i followed up: how would he feel if he was experiencing these same markers of good health but the number on the scale was higher than his “ideal”?

he didn’t have a response.

beyond its impact on our individual wellness, diet culture has also normalized weight stigma and body shaming — which propels folks on the receiving end of (medically authorized) fatphobia directly back into the diet culture pipeline, hoping to “fix” their bodies, get “healthy” or protect themselves emotionally from judgement and abuse.

we deserve better than diet culture — we deserve *true* health. the goal of the anti-diet practitioner is to empower folks to reexamine their programming with a critical eye, to help them reclaim their body autonomy and health, and to advocate for those who can’t yet advocate for themselves.