We need more context: Diet Culture, BoPo and Health

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I go back and forth on a lot of topics because each side of the fence has pros and cons.

This one isn’t easy for me to talk about because I do find myself juggling ideas and sometimes volleying.

Ripping off the band aid is the best way to start.

Diet Culture and Body Positive

I feel the term diet culture gets thrown around a lot, and in some cases without context. I also feel like body positive gets thrown around a lot too. But you know what, I want context for everything. Here are a few other words, and some I know I use:

  • healthy lifestyle or if you’d like “healthy” lifestyle
  • lifestyle change
  • behavior change

Here are some paraphrased points that I’ve seen that I think encompass what diet culture is or at least my perspective on it (check out Christy Harrison for her exact list – I think it hits some nails):

  • Promoting weight loss to attain status i.e. thin people are better than not thin people or are more successful than not thin people
  • Demonizing an eating style that you don’t subscribe to while emphasizing the one you do
  • Utilizing only physical attributes like size to determine the health of individual rather than looking at emotional health i.e. thin equates health and overweight or obese equates unhealthy rather than looking at the whole person
  • Worshipping a specific body shape i.e. thin, fit, I would also argue that overweight bodies too < that’s where this gets tricky

When I think of body positivity, I think of feeling good about yourself physically and emotionally regardless of your size. I also think of body positivity as being respectful of yourself and identifying that you don’t need to be a certain size to be healthy, happy, worthy and a lot of other emotions.

I don’t think body positivity is exclusive to being anti-diet or anti-weight loss/fat loss – I do think you can still celebrate yourself and your body and still want to be healthier inclusive of weight loss.

We’ll get to this soon-ish, but I think how health is defined is the bigger concern.

I’ve talked before about how I feel about dieting, weight loss and creating a healthier lifestyle – I think there is a time and place for things. And some things do get intertwined. I lost over 100 pounds through changing my daily diet – in some cases experimenting with different eating styles or patterns like paleo or “clean eating” and macro counting. I utilized macro counting or popularized by IIFYM or flexible dieting, which I’ve explained isn’t necessarily a diet, but a style of how your tracking your intake. IIFYM or flexible dieting, similar to intermittent fasting (IF) is a tool that can be implemented with other eating styles like paleo or keto – and IF can be utilized with basic calorie counting.

I recognized that I needed to lose weight because of both physical and emotional health consequences. Mentally, it was also something that gave me some control and opened my world to a different kind of education. I also recognize that at different parts of my journey like competing, that health wasn’t as much of a factor in the process of losing fat as the when I had initially started and I think that’s something to consider.

Living life now is primarily about feeling good physically and emotionally, and yes, sometimes that does include examining my eating, my sleeping, my activity levels and how I feel about those things.

This is one thing I go back and forth on because this is about trusting yourself after you’ve learned and have tools in your toolbox.

Defining Diet

The word diet is a pain in the ass, but here are some definitions.

Healthful diet provides proper combination of energy and nutrients. It’s adequate, moderate, balanced and varied.

Adequate diet provides enough of the energy, nutrients and fiber to maintain a person’s health.

Balanced diet contains the combinations of foods that provide proper proportions of nutrients.

*definitions from Nutrition: An Applied Approach by Janice Thompson and Melinda Manore

Diet: 1) food and drink regularly provided or consumed, 2) habitual nourishment, 3) the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason, 4) a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight

*definitions from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary

Your daily diet can be a reflection of a specific diet like a low-carbohydrate approach with Keto or Atkins. Your daily diet can also be a reflection of a lifestyle focusing on making healthier nutrition choices in general.

Both of these may look like the third and fourth definitions of dieting provided by M-W because that’s primarily how society talks about it. Both may also utilize caloric restriction in varying degrees. They may also keep an individual at maintenance or in a caloric surplus – it does depend on the purpose of utilization.

Like I mentioned, while restrictive and traditionally utilized for weight loss – eating styles like Keto or Atkins or Paleo can also be used for different reasons like dieting and weight loss/fat loss. This is something I don’t believe we talk about much because it is assumed that restrictive eating styles are diets being used for weight loss.

That’s where language is powerful.

When we say diets do we mean weight loss? When we say eating style do we mean that this approach is being used to create a lifestyle that may include maintaining or strategically gaining? Are we meaning for them to mean the same thing?

See where it can get confusing?

I do think that because of the lack of education around nutrition, exercise and general health – because be honest, who paid attention in health class and did they actually teach some of these things? – we have created our own health concerns.

Meaning we have contributed to obesity and eating disorders because we’ve preached extremes as creating a lifestyle for a long time. We’ve also preached urgency and fed into our desire for immediacy, which has lead to extreme dieting. We’ve also gotten lazy and the industries that cater to people who want to lose weight and be healthier – regardless of definition – know this and dump gasoline on the fire.

When I screen clients, I ask them about their self expectations and timeline – how long are they willing to give themselves for the goals that they are listing. For me, this tells me about their understanding of behavior change to work towards tough goals, it also tells me if there are any barriers that we’re going to have to work on along the way.

With social media, we feel more comfortable talking openly about some of these issues and that’s how the body positive movement and HAES and self-love movement popped up. I don’t believe these issues are necessarily new, but were just under-reported before. In many cases, I’m sure individuals felt shame or embarrassment and didn’t identify that a diet didn’t work for them because no one wants to be a failure. But what if it wasn’t their fault, what if the diet or whatever just wasn’t meant for them? What if we started talking about dieting and lifestyle change in this way?

Truly encouraging education to find something that fits your life and goals, that makes you feel good and takes into consider other healthy aspects of life – internal and external relationships, stress management, mental health, as well as medical diagnosis.

Weight loss or fat loss – whatever you want to use here, also has a place.

While disease doesn’t size discriminate, there are some chronic conditions that may impact those who are significantly overweight or obese at a higher rates like Type 2 diabetes, joint pain, fatty liver disease, heart disease – the list continues. Again these can impact anyone, but these are non-communicable diseases are also called lifestyle diseases.

Lifestyle factors like daily diet and activity levels do contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by the pancreas’s inability to produce enough insulin or the body become insulin resistant (Mayo Clinic).

One pound of excess body weight can cause four pounds of pressure in the knee, which can cause damage on weightbearing joints (Kane, Andrea). This can lead to injury, mobility issues, range of motion issues and decrease activity levels, which may be a factor in other illnesses and disease like Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

One issue I’ve seen while working primarily with women between 22 and 50 years old is the perception of overweightness and health. Being slightly overweight isn’t inherently an issue, but examining medical history is important to see if there are any predispositions that are associated with other lifestyle factors. Being at higher risk doesn’t mean illness or disease is in the future, it’s just something to be mindful of just in case.

The other side of this is that thinness doesn’t equate health either and being underweight or low body fat can also come with other

As a coach, and as someone trying to live a healthy-ish lifestyle, I’m not worried about a few extra pounds. I’m concerned about extreme overweightness and obesity as it relates to quality of life. Because while we may wish people to be body positive and throw out extreme diet culture or what society says you should be – it’s hard to do both.

When I talk about quality of life, I mean:

  • Can a person do daily tasks successfully and confidently without pain or discomfort?
  • Does the person feel shame or embarrassed by their choices?
  • Does the person feel like they are making choices with them in mind or do they feel pressured to make choices?
  • Does the person feel like they are enjoying life and participating the way they want to?

In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared the obesity is a disease. I believe that this declaration does create more urgency that can lead to more research and public health education and programming, but it also brings more unnecessary shame.

Shame doesn’t encourage people to talk to health professionals and seek help when they need it. It just keeps the conversation going as an us versus them dichotomy.

Thin people versus overweight or obese people.

People who want to diet versus people who sway deep into body positivity.

We need to have an honest conversation about how we got here:

  • How the adult obesity rates alone in the US grew 6% in a decade,
  • How they impact women more than men,
  • How rates have increased from 23% obesity in 1962 to about 40%, but overweight and obesity rates combined are almost 66% of adult Americans,
  • How we spend about $147 billion each year in added medical expenses for treatment rather than prevention,
  • How we don’t talk about how to manage stress without harming ourselves including utilization of food control for coping,
  • How we are just starting to make more meaningful connection of diet to mental health,
  • How we don’t discuss how to state a goal, develop a goal and implement a goal that truly has us in mind,
  • How we only talk about what we can see as being meaningful for health, but not what we can’t see,
  • How we judge each other for wanting to lose weight or not wanting to change a damn thing – why can’t both exist?

How did we get to this point?

How did we eliminate context that it becomes an us versus them and we’re pushed into extremes?