The diet industry was worth 72 billion dollars in 2019 and unfortunately, with this money comes the ability to exhibit a large influence over how consumers comprehend health and wellness. I’ve previously discussed what diet culture is, why it’s harmful, and the reason why dancers need to ditch it. But these days, it’s not so easy to spot the dieting mentality.
When “anti-diet” isn’t actually anti-diet
In the last decade, intuitive eating has led the anti-diet movement. But to keep up with growing consumer demands to ditch dieting, diet and wellness culture adopt terms like “anti-diet,” “food freedom,” “holistic nutrition,” and “wellness” to coerce guises for otherwise restrictive plans.
Without appropriate regulation, it’s challenging for consumers to decipher between these now buzzy labels. Much of the language that embodies wellness (and arguably, “anti-diet”) glorifies food restrictions and normalizes disordered eating. We’re even seeing this with known anti-diet paradigms like intuitive eating: misinformed and self-proclaimed “experts” use these terms as guises to sell restrictive plans and exhaustive exercise routines for the purpose of manipulating their followers’ body weights, shapes, and sizes.
In this article, we’re not only identifying red flags of diet culture, but we’re also diving into popular examples of how wellness culture is diet culture in disguise.
The Four Eating Personalities
In their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, authors and registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, categorize four separate eating styles to distinguish between various eating behaviors. Before we discuss dieting red flags, I want you to first identify the type of eating (or dieting) personality that you feel is most relatable. This will increase your awareness of behaviors around food. Generally, the goal is to work towards being an intuitive eater, an approach you can learn more about here.
The Intuitive Eater
Intuitive eaters are incredibly attuned to their instinctual feelings of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. They prioritize biological hunger (eating when the hunger pangs strike) and are often able to honor a comfortable fullness. Intuitive eaters usually experience joy from food and fewer (if any) instances of food guilt. When it comes to planning their meals and snacks, intuitive eaters don’t rely on external cues, such as calorie counts or point tracking. Intuitive eaters are also able to utilize nutrition information for some decision-making around food, but the behavior doesn’t become obsessive. For dancers specifically, intuitive eating can be utilized with the integration of performance nutrition. This is exactly the work I do as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and counselor of intuitive eating for dancers.
The Professional Dieter
Professional dieters are often most interested in weight loss. They are well-versed in common fad diets and can easily let you know about a food’s calorie count or macronutrient breakdown. Professional dieters commonly fluctuate in their weight as a result of yo-yo dieting, and generally, experience overall feelings of body dissatisfaction.
The Careful Eater
The most common dieting personality of today’s pursuit of wellness is the Careful Eater. These consumers are most interested in “health” and “wellness.” Though not outwardly admitting to a weight-loss agenda, Careful Eaters often partake in eating habits that are quite restrictive. “Clean eating” is a perfect example of a “lifestyle” that Careful Eaters strive to attain. Similar to the Professional Dieter, the Careful Eater exemplifies above-average interest in nutrition labels and desiring full control over what they eat, but in their words “it’s not for weight loss, it’s for health.”
The Unconscious Eater
With the exception of The Careful Eater, The Unconscious Eater is also most relatable in our constantly connected and busy world. For dancers, unconscious eating can be known as mindless eating. Whether it be eating while commuting, working, dancing, talking, or scrolling, unconscious eaters are usually multitasking around food. There are a few different types of unconscious eating and it’s common to identify with more than one type:
The Chaotic Unconscious Eater eats whatever, whenever. Food may not have been planned or prepared, so grabbing a convenient option is common. Chaotic eaters often go long stretches between meals solely because of busy schedules and missing snacks. The Emotional Unconscious Eater is another common type of eating personality. As you can guess, emotional eaters use food to cope with emotional triggers regardless of the presence of physical hunger cues. Examples include eating when stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, lonely, and sad. Emotional Eaters might also turn to food during times of joy and excitement. If you feel like an Emotional Eater, check out this article and online course ASAP. The Refuse-Not Unconscious Eater eats regardless of physical hunger simply because they do not want to turn down food. You may recognize this eating personality as someone who eats simply because food is present. The Waste-Not Unconscious Eater is familiar with the “clean your plate” mentality and struggles with eating past a comfortable fullness simply because they don’t want to be wasteful.
It’s important to realize that there is absolutely no shame in whichever eating personality you identify with. We can use these labels to better understand which behaviors might need support in bringing you closer to becoming your personal best Intuitive Eater.
Noom, WW, My Fitness Pal – What are they hiding?
Firstly, I previously discussed why clean eating lifestyles exemplify some of the most deceptive ways in which diet culture grabs consumers. For the purpose of this article, we’ll uncover another three (dieting) tools that are commonly marketed in the wellness space: Noom, WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers), and My Fitness Pal.
Each of these dieting tools–Noom, WW, MyFitness Pal– begins by assessing your height, weight, and activity level to compute a daily calorie budget. The problem with any quick calculation, however, is its inability to account for one’s true individual energy expenditure (or the number of calories the body is burning in one day). Additionally, the “calories in equal calories out” paradigm has been disproven and does not account for the metabolic adaptations that happen with restrictive eating.
Any program that utilizes a daily calorie budget will be largely centered on the idea of food volumetrics. Volumetrics is a way of eating that prioritizes physical fullness over true satisfaction. An example of volumetric-based eating is deeming a serving of fresh grapes as “better” than a serving of raisins (dehydrated grapes). The fresh grapes are more voluminous and therefore, will promote feelings of physical fullness sooner.
I do not like volumetrics. It’s problematic.
Under the terms of volumetrics, adding fat (a higher-calorie macronutrient) isn’t the best idea because it spends most of your calorie budget. This is why most (if not all) volumetric-based diets translate to lower fat diets. For example, you’re encouraged to swap oil or butter with cooking spray.
Here’s the problem: fat promotes staying power (the degree to which your meal or snack keeps you feeling full). Omitting fat from your meals and snacks leaves you with a hormonal deficit that induces knawing and chronic hunger. Click here to learn more about the importance of fat both on your plate and on your body. Also, we cannot outsmart our bodies. While bulking up on lower-calorie foods might promote fullness in the short term, it ignores what I consider the fourth macronutrient on our balanced plate: satisfaction. Bottom line: your appetite will skyrocket as soon as your body discovers the calorie deficit.
Red Flag: Noom. It’s Actually A Diet
While MyFitness Pal ends at the calculated calorie budget, Noom and WW take it a bit further. Noom uses a spotlight system to categorize food:
- Green Light foods are preferred options that you can eat in (almost) unlimited quantities. These are classically low-calorie foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Yellow Light foods are somewhat higher in calories but are still deemed on the healthier side often because of their protein content (salmon is an example).
- Red Light foods are encouraged to be eaten mindfully. They’re classically high-calorie and high-fat foods despite their nutritional breakdown. Nut butter, cooking oils, fries, and pizza are examples.
This spotlight system is no different from WW, which utilizes a point system to categorize food in a similar manner. Instead of a daily calorie budget, you’re given a daily point budget. Overall, Noom and WW are not as drastically destructive as some other highly restrictive cleanses and detoxes. But regardless of which “lifestyle” you’re following, categorizing food as “good” versus “bad” induces a ton of guilt and shame when those so-called “green light” or “low point” options are not accessible. You’re also setting the stage for a cycle that is fueled by deprivation. You start out feeling super in control around food but eventually feel super out of control around food.
Where you get your nutrition advice matters
Programs like Noom and WW offer real-time support, which sounds super enticing. But where you get your nutrition, health, and “wellness” advice matters. Noom, for example, relies on special “Noom Coaches” (not licensed to practice) to help consumers in their decision-making.
But the challenging part is that even credentialed sources can spew misinformation. I commonly see medical doctors advising restrictive dieting as a means to achieve “health” through weight loss. When it comes to nutrition advice, seek support from a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is well-versed (certification is a plus!) in intuitive eating. Be careful! The titles “nutritionist,” “nutrition expert,” and “nutrition coach” are unregulated. This means anyone (even those lacking appropriate accreditation and licensing) can use them. Click here to learn more about how a licensed practitioner can support your goals.
Red Flag: Dieting Mentality
Similar to the three mentioned above, specific behaviors exemplify red flags of diet culture. The following are a list of examples:
- Suggestions to “avoid” or “limit” any food or food group (common examples are “processed foods,” “refined grains,” “dairy,” and “refined sugar.”
- “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.”
- “Cleanse your fridge.”
- “Crowd-out sweets by eating only whole and minimally processed foods.”
- “Detox from your weekend.”
- “Stick to whole foods, mostly plants.”
- “X foods are bad and Y foods are good.”
- “Limit X to a specific serving size or amount per day (or week)”
- “Limit the number of grams of carbs/protein/fat you’re eating in a day.
- “You can only eat at certain times of the day” or “stop eating at a specific time each day.”
Red Flag: Weight Monitoring
Noom, WW, and MyFitness Pal all encourage weight tracking, a method that involves daily or weekly weighing with the intention to lose weight. The desire to lose weight is very normal in our weight-driven culture (read more about weight loss here). But we know that weight does not reflect health. Being in a larger body does not mean someone is “unhealthy” and being in a smaller body does not mean someone is “healthy.” Prioritizing weight loss and weight monitoring can increase your risk of obsessive tendencies and overall body dissatisfaction. I’ve previously discussed how dancers can identify a healthy (or “ideal”) weight (spoiler: it’s not what you think!). Bottom line: the goal is to focus on your set point weight range, which can be maintained without dieting, compulsive exercise routines, or weight monitoring.