Most of us have lived our entire lives immersed in messages about losing weight. Whether we're old enough to remember breakfast cereal diets and women's magazines filled with weight loss tips, or we're the generation of influencers sharing their "what I eat in a day" videos, we are acutely aware of what type of bodies are deemed acceptable by society. We call this phenomenon Diet Culture, but what is diet culture exactly?: dietitian Christy Harrison defines Diet Culture as a system of beliefs that equate thinness with health and virtue, and promotes weight loss as a means to attain moral status. It's time for this era of "one size fits all" to end.
Weight has been synonymous with health for far too long...not only is it an incorrect assumption, but it's greatly distorted how we view our health, how we choose to take care of ourselves and even our ability to enjoy life. If you've ever dreaded trying on a new bathing suit for summer, you know all too well how this can impact you at a very deep level. So it's important that you know that every body can be healthy. And every body deserves care. In fact, as a dietitian, one of the biggest barriers I see for those wishing to get healthier is a fixation on weight as a primary outcome of nutrition care. The diet mentality has created a distorted version of body image and health. Here's what being healthy really means...
What does it mean to be healthy? Towards intuitive eating and positive self-care
Health looks different on every body. But what is healthy, anyways? It’s the energy to live your life on your terms. It’s consistency in eating your vegetables, drinking water and moving your body. It’s keeping important biomarkers such as blood sugars or blood cholesterol in check. It’s getting enough iron. And managing stress. Take note: none of this has to do with your weight.
Movements such as intuitive eating and Health at Any Size have been leading the way in the fight for a more inclusive, supportive future for all bodies. As a dietitian, I practice weight-neutral nutrition, meaning that I do not use weight as an indicator of success (because it isn’t – many unhealthy behaviours can lead to weight loss). If you, like so many of us raised in Diet Culture, have a hard time imagining what it would look like to take care of yourself without focusing on weight, consider the following practices:
- Release Diet Culture mentality: Understand that our current education about healthy weights is flawed. While health professionals are taught to assess health using the body mass index, a deeper dive into the origin of the tool reveals that it was never intended as a personal health measurement and it contains inherent racial bias.
- Embrace the process: In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear encourages a move away from goal-orientation to process-orientation. What does this mean? Instead of fixating on a number on the scale or finishing your half marathon, it becomes a commitment to daily practices, such as smoothies to start your day with plenty of plant-based foods, or to commit to running 3 days a week with your favourite music.
- Pattern over plate: one of the things most of us get wrong about nutrition is that we expect one food to fix everything. Instead, the research confirms that the most powerful driver of good nutrition is the overall pattern of how we eat – which is liberating, because it means that there is room in a healthy life for the fun extras. Having an ice cream on the weekend isn’t going to impact your health, but your daily lunch salad will. It’s what we do most often that matters.
- Focus on the feeling: being healthy should be about feeling really good…so chase that feeling! Intuitive Eating, a practice created by dietitians, states that pleasure is an integral part of a healthy relationship with food. Likewise with movement; choose a movement routine that feels like fun to you, instead of just clocking time at the gym. Play a favourite childhood sport like soccer, or join a dance class and live out your inner pop star dreams. Feel good nutrition can just as easily be delighting in the flavours of ripe summer fruit, or powering up with a grain bowl because you need energy, as it is enjoying a glass of wine on a summer’s evening.
- Keep things simple: eating well is about small, consistent habits. Ignore the sensational messages about nutrition you find on line in favour of reliable and effective basics. Such as building a balanced plate: whenever possible, make half your plate fruit and vegetables, one-quarter of your plate proteins and one quarter of your plate starchy vegetables or whole grains. Or committing to eating more fibre, to help support a healthier gut and microbiome. Mindful eating is about consuming what your body needs and how it makes you feel.
Everyone deserves to feel their best...our bodies are incredible and worthy of our respect. The toxic diet culture shouldn't be able to tell a person that being healthy depends on their body size or body weight. Creating a healthy diet might consist of consistent and clean eating habits but a healthy body is about how an individual feels. So the next time you encounter messages that have you doubting yourself, practice a little digital self-care: unfollow anyone perpetuating Diet Culture, put your phone away and go spend some time outside.