If you’re looking to improve your health, a diet probably isn’t the answer
You step on the scale. Or maybe you attempt to squeeze into the jeans you’ve had since high school, the t-shirt you got participating in a 5k last year, the jacket you bought last winter. Maybe you find yourself hitting the “mid-day slump” more frequently, falling asleep earlier and earlier in the evening.
Regardless, you say to yourself: “I really need to focus on my health.”
Maybe you don’t say it out loud, but you do begin staring a little longer at those “before and after” thinspo photos that pop up on Instagram. You do ask more questions next time your paleo friend starts talking about her diet, and you do lay your high school jeans over your desk chair so that you’re forced to see them every day. Maybe you don’t immediately Google “quickest way to lose 10 lb,” or maybe you do. Maybe you throw away the potato chips in your pantry and vow to replace them with kale chips next time you’re at the grocery store.
You’re convinced you’re moving in the right direction—that if you can just find the right diet and stick with it, you’ll achieve the vague notion of “health” that’s swimming around in your head. But according to Dr. Jess Kirby, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, this is rarely the case.
Diet culture is a shapeshifter, turning from Atkins and South Beach to keto and Whole 30 with the help of time, corporate interests, and people’s insecurities. Despite these programs’ marketing as “not a diet, but a lifestyle,” they all do the same thing: they limit or restrict certain foods, food groups, or macronutrients which Dr. Kirby says are required to sustain basic bodily function. Not only does Dr. Kirby assert that this type of restriction isn’t sustainable physiologically, but she reminds us that it’s a risk for our mental health—AKA the side of health that people tend to forget.
“The psychological framework inherent in dieting often sets individuals up to struggle and ultimately unable to remain on the diet long term. Diets are typically restrictive in terms of foods you can and cannot eat, which creates a psychologically controlling dynamic,” Dr. Kirby says. “Over time individuals find themselves pushing back against that restrictive dynamic. Humans all have an innate need to feel a sense of autonomy, or free choice in our daily lives. Therefore, our capacity to be successful with a highly restrictive diet is limited.” This is why “cheat meals” exist: they present the dieter with a short window of autonomy (in which things like binging can occur). Dr. Kirby notes that this is where a psychologically unhealthy relationship with food begins.
Of course, not all dieters experience a decline in mental wellness as a result of dieting . . . but many do. “Diets can impact mental health for a variety of reasons,” Dr. Kirby warns. “Individuals can often feel shame or a sense of failure if they cannot sustain a diet long term or do not reach their goal through a diet program. Often times the reason someone begins a diet is because they already have low self-esteem or unhealthy body image and the diet process can exacerbate those negative feelings about themselves. Much of this is fueled by society’s extreme focus and value for being skinny. Having a body that looks skinny, lean, or thin has been conflated with being healthy and beautiful, when in fact, being underweight has similar risks for morbidity and mortality from chronic conditions as does being overweight.”
It’s no surprise to hear that the intersection of societal standards and diet culture is a breeding ground for mental health issues. Beyond confirming that diet culture contributes to the prevalence of mental health disorders among individuals of all genders, Dr. Kirby points out that disordered eating is rising most quickly among men, despite the widespread belief that disordered eating occurs mainly or only among girls and women. In fact, eating disorders affect at least 9 percent of the world’s population and constitute the second most deadly type of mental illness overall, making them not a gendered issue but a universal health crisis. “There is a need for education on what it means to be healthy,” Dr. Kirby says. “[Health] happens inside of our body within our physiological systems; it does not happen with our clothing size. Healthy physiological systems are directly connected to our mental health and vice versa.”
Dr. Kirby’s wish for a better-educated world poses an interesting question: If diets aren’t how we improve our health, what is? While the restriction, obsessive counting, and guilt associated with dieting aren’t the way to go, generally attempting to eat whole, nutrient-dense foods (and avoid heavily-processed ones) is a great way to give your body the resources it needs to function at its best. Nearly every diet program claims its regimen is how humans are “meant to eat,” but Dr. Kirby disputes this common refrain. “We do not need to eat like the caveman. We do need to work towards eating more natural foods, which are those typically situated around the perimeter of the grocery store.” According to Dr. Kirby, these are the foods that best “offer robust nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that strengthen the immune system and support healthy metabolic regulation.” She also recommends trying out mindful eating, which encourages us to be present during mealtimes, as well as pause to recognize when we are eating to fuel our bodies versus when we are eating as an emotional reaction.
The temptation to give in to diet culture is strong. Social media and millions of dollars in advertising are regrettably convincing, particularly during moments of low self esteem. Not only are we coming up on the new year, but we’re rounding out the dumpster fire that is 2020, meaning “detox” and “cleanse” manufacturers, diet peddlers, “wellness brands,” and even your favorite influencers are likely to begin taking advantage of a difficult and painful year to sell products and memberships. (Look out for things like “quarantine weight,” “the quarantine fifteen,” and the idea of “making up for lost time.”) But if your health and overall wellness are truly top of mind, a diet likely isn’t the answer—no matter how much “success” your raw foods-only friend has supposedly had.
With the new year nearly upon us and diet culture practically in recruitment mode, Dr. Kirby leaves us with a final message: “Fat is not bad. Carbohydrates are not bad. Protein is not magical. None of these are more important or less valuable than the others. We can enjoy a wide variety of tasty and healthy foods without having to rely on fad diets to feel good inside and out.”