I received a phone call from a friend recently asking me about how to manage the mindfuckery she was experiencing from her 4 weeks at Slimmers World. Her dilemma? She was always hungry, for was at the forefront of her mind all the time. Eating something because she wanted to became an action riddled with guilt, sums and feeling pretty shitty about herself, her shape and her size.
Previously she had had an enviably sound relationship with her body and food. She ate intuitively without much thought. She ate healthy foods and enjoyed foods from all food groups. Being a vegetarian she naturally ate more veg than the average person. After 4 weeks at Slimming World and 1 week of gaining half a pound instead of losing and a lifetime of being at ease with food and her body began to unravel very quickly.
“I just feel like whatever personality I had before is disappearing because all I can think about and talk about is food and this sodding diet.” I think we all recognise this either in ourselves or others. We all know someone who is so entrenched and involved with their diet that it relentlessly dominates conversation. Slimming World seems to have spread through my local community like a bad contagion. Another friend after months of his diet now responds to “how are you?” with a summary of how her dieting and weight loss has been in the last week. She surely must have an emotional experience but if she’s so incredibly focused on her diet then maybe her diet is a convenient distraction from any difficulties she may be facing in her life.
This is a problem. This is a problem because much of the advocated behaviour by dieting programmes that is praised in those society deems in need of losing some weight is the same behaviours that are a concern in a diagnosed eating disorder. The difference? Merely that some people are big enough to be deemed suitable candidates to be losing weight. In these individuals dieting behaviour and weight loss is celebrated, congratulated and encouraged. Once they become “too thin” then the same behaviours are problematic. Additionally problematic is that our perception of “too thin” is very different to a medical definition. There are plenty of people praised daily for their thin stature when they are far below any threshold their health being hindered by a low weight status.
Thin people are praised and told how jealous they make others feel. Commonly they’re asked ‘what their secret is’. You don’t know. It could be genetic, they could have an illness stopping them from gaining weight, maybe they’re not eating enough to meet their energy needs. Sometimes they may even have an eating disorder which is being positively reenforced and encouraged by people around them. I got more compliments on my figure and looks when I had anorexia than I have ever received in my life. The difference is very stark and that is a scratch on the surface of what’s wrong with weight loss programmes, slimmers world and our current body shape ideals. Much of it is categorically pathological.
The rhetoric behind the programme is not all rainbows and sunshine as the marketing material would have you believe. If you want to sign up to a social support group to fuck you relationship with food and your body then great, Slimming World is the place for you. If you’d rather build the foundations for a positive relationship with food then there are other options including HEAS and a non-diet approach. Food is fuel. Food is for nourishing our bodies and minds. It is fun and enjoyable. It can be so much more than calories, “syns” and pounds lost or gained.
We are all constantly bombarded with messages that we as a nation
are unhealthy. We’re getting more overweight and obese. We’re not
exercising enough. We drink too much and eat too much of the wrong
You’re Always Hungry:
One sure fire way of knowing that your new dietary lifestyle isn’t
sustainable is by how hungry it leaves you feeling. Your body makes
hunger signals in response to needing energy and nourishment.
Identifying real hunger from emotional hunger or boredom hunger,
or habitual hunger can be tricky – and if you now live in a permanent
state of hunger most of the time with a growl in your stomach then
chances are something is a miss.
Your Diet Is Stressful:
If you find yourself crying because of a food, then something isn’t right.
If you’re stressing because nothing available to eat is fitting with your
new dietary lifestyle then maybe it’s too restrictive. Food is a form of
enjoyment that is very natural to us. Sometimes making big changes
can be slightly stressful as you adjust, say if you’re transferring from an
omnivore to a vegetarian diet. However, if it feels overwhelming or too
restrictive then maybe a longer transition time might help to gradually
ease into your preferred dietarylifestyle.
Eating Becomes About Emotions: We’ve all comfort eaten for some
reason or another. The problem really emerges when eating replaces
emotions, whether that’s overeating as a way to deal with emotions,
or under eating. Neither scenario is entirely avoidable but as a default
then this starts spelling trouble with your relationship with food.
Dieting as a way to ‘undo any damage’ caused by emotional eating will
only fuel the disharmony with your relationship with food. There’s a
whole range of advice, books and therapies available to help with
healthy expression of emotions.
Fat Becomes a Feeling: Fat isn’t a feeling. You don’t ‘feel fat’ emotionally
speaking. If that becomes a default rhetoric you use when you’re feeling
a bit crap then, without sounding like a psych stereotype, do some digging
about what you’re really feeling. Maybe you’re upset, or angry or annoyed.
It can be anything which solidifies the argument that fat isn’t a feeling.
Guilt and Shame Appear:
We often eat for emotional reasons. A classic break up scene is crying at a
film with a tub of ice cream. It’s a natural reward so if you’re feeling a bit
down or have had a stressful day then a glass of wine, or some chocolate
may be on the agenda. That’s totally cool; no one ever died of a heart attack
because they ate 1 or 2 chocolate bars when they were hacked off on occasion.
Guilt and shame are such strong emotions and they really have no place in
your life when it comes to food. Feeling so emotionally worn down
because you ate something doesn’t have a place in a healthy relationship with
food. None what so ever. If someone else tried shaming you for your food
choices and it keeps happening, it might be time to stick up for yourself and
ask them to not do that as nicely as you can. Maybe a “I’d rather you didn’t
Karen” instead of “FUCK YOU KAREN!” when you’ve reached the end of your
tether might be needed.
Help identifying when diet culture is disguising as health and stop it from infiltrating your relationship with food.
January is one of those times of year when it seems everyone is on a health kick. Changing habits can be a great thing, especially when it is motivated to become a healthier version of yourself. There’s so much evidence for giving up smoking, and in giving it up at an earlier age; for drinking less alcohol; for eating more fruit and veg; for being more active yada yada. You know the drill, but what happens when motives become unconsciously sly?
The quest for health can become untoward and often it goes unnoticed. Before you know it the little bit of healthy competition between colleagues to get the most steps can spiral into a compulsion. The eating less cakes can grow into a pattern of self denial and spread from your own well-being into enforcing no one eats cake around you, and the healthy office snacks become restricted only to celery and seeds with no leeway for the odd chocolate bar. Pretty soon it can become competitive, and border into the realms of the ring leader embodying a food fascist. Often this is done unconsciously and with only good meaning intended.
There’s no room or need in the world for food fascism but somehow it commonly creeps up and into the healthy resolves people make, making a healthy initiative transform to be unhealthy for everyone involved. So how can we prepare and notice the unhealthy undertones to a well intentioned health kick?
Food shaming comes in all sorts of different ways. Whether it’s commenting that someone is having cupcake number 2 and making some sort of announcement about it or posing the question “are you really going to eat that/all of that?” Even if they’re on a health kick and have been reading loads about nutrition, it doesn’t give them a free pass to become the social food commentator. What someone else wants to eat and put in their body is entirely their choice. What is healthy for one person may well be unhealthy for another. There is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition.If you see someone eating something and you think “they shouldn’t be eating that” maybe the next step is to ask the real question of, “why do I think they shouldn’t be eating that?”. Does it really fucking matter if Karen in the office ate two cupcakes at the office party? Really? As in really? Like it will keep you up tonight kind of matter? Probably not.
What happens if you’ve been food shamed one too many times? Even if you’re healthy, have a healthy attitude towards food and your body but still, you’re going out of your way to secretly shove in a Mars Bar then chances are the health kick that shamed you isn’t all that healthy.Or if you feel so deprived by your new healthy diet and want to appear like you’re keeping on top of it so much that it drives you underground with eating then that’s not healthy either. The thing with eating in secret is that it’s a psychologically and emotionally loaded activity and not in the way that a fun rollercoaster may be. If you find this happening because of your own ideas about food, or those that others are infringing on to you then something needs to change.
Sole Focus is on Weight:
A lot of people need to lose weight for health reasons. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people use diet as a way in which to lose weight however, when weight loss becomes the only focus and purpose of feeding then the health aspect of losing weight is lost. Food is more than the number of calories it contains. Food is nourishment, enjoyment, and social amongst many other things. There’s so much more to gain in terms of health from food than losing weight.
Peer Pressure and Diet Lectures:
What happens when you don’t even want to change your diet, but everyone around you is shoving it down your throat that you ought to because of X, Y and Z? For example, the vegan trend right now is pretty hot and heavy. Just as clean eating was, and a million other dietary trends before that. It’s OK if you don’t want to go on a diet. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to go vegan and you’re not a bad person for that.If someone is self righteous about their diet, and figuritively speaking, trying to ram it down your throat, that is a sure fire sign that you need to evacuate the premises from them. That sounds extreme, but by that I mean shut down the conversation and find someone else to talk to – or maybe don’t talk to anyone. You have just as much right to not be bombarded with stuff you’re not interested in as they do for eating the way they prefer.
Size Shaming, Regardless of Actual Size:
We’re all different sizes. We are heights and widths that are personal to ourselves. Some of us are naturally smaller and some of us are naturally bigger. This doesn’t mean that anyone can size shame you, regardless of where you fit on that spectrum. “Are you really going to eat all that?” and “I’m surprised you can eat that much, look at you” and comments along those lines can all jog on. Jog on, jog on and keep on jogging until they’re talking to a wall because that’s the only thing that will reasonably have the patience for such drivel. Just because someone is a size 8 doesn’t mean they’re never hungry and can’t eat a big burger. Similarly, just because someone is a size 18 doesn’t mean they can never touch chocolate again in their lives.