Why is it that as a culture we seem so bent and determined to declare and talk about our style of eating? So much so, that it’s common to know how your friends, work colleagues and even strangers approach to food. Oh, he’s keto, or they’re vegetarians.
I mean sure, if you’re having friends over for dinner (in non Pandemic times), obviously we need to be aware of our guests nutritional needs. But it seems that these days, it’s the norm, rather than the exception that people have an “eating style.”
What’s up with that?
I’ve really noticed this lately. And I feel like it’s on the rise. Which says a lot for me, because in general people don’t tend to “diet talk” around me, because they know I’m not “pro-diet.” But it’s not just in person conversations with friends. It’s everywhere.
Case in point? My fave Brené Brown casually mentioning in a podcast about Radical Self Love (oh the irony) with Sonya Renee Taylor that “she’s keto.” Really Brene? You’re killing me. How many people are going to “go keto” now, because Brené Brown is a wise leader (and if she’s doing it, well, it must be the “right way,” right?). Insert eye roll here.
Note: Brené Brown is a wise leader – in her field of expertise: social work. She is not a nutrition expert, but that doesn’t seem to matter these days, cue Gwenyth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon giving nutrition advice on the regular. But I digress…
All this talk, got me thinking, why the incessant need to define how we eat? And why, do we feel the need to broadcast it?!
Whether it’s Low-carb, counting macros, or my fave (insert sarcastic tone) “clean,” It doesn’t really matter what, it’s that we feel the need to define our eating style in some manner. Why can’t we just eat? Why does it need a label at all?
I’ve really begun to notice how limiting these labels are. Even more so as I’ve delved deeper into the freeing world of Anti-Diet and ditching all the rules and ideologies of Diet Culture.
What if you are “Paleo” and you have some legumes or (gasp), a good old sugar cookie made with white flour? Are you failure?
What if you’re Intermittent Fasting and you are ravenous outside your eating window? Does responding to your body’s natural cues destroy your “success.”
If you view things with this black and white lens, what are the ramifications? What are we getting out the labelling? What’s in it for us to identify how we eat and share that identification with others?
In this blog I want to explore what I believe is behind all these “diet labels” and more importantly, I want to invite you to get curious about why you have them (if you do), and why you may want to ditch them.
Why do we feel the need to label how we eat?
This question has the potential to take us down a rabbit hole into a deep and wildly complex rabbit warren. So I’m going to do my best to be succinct, with the intention of shining a light into the rabbit warren so you can see the path (should you wish to explore further). There are two key ideas that bubbled up as I got curious around this question of why we label. I’m going to share those ideas and pose a few questions that might help you understand why you feel the need to label your eating as an individual.
Idea #1: We (as a cultural collective) don’t trust our bodies.
One of the primary reasons we tend to “diet” (whether it’s a traditional diet or “psuedo-diet“) is that we’re looking for a solution outside of us. We’re looking for this “solution” because we don’t trust the way we are doing things. And we don’t trust the way we are doing things because we’ve been convinced (in a very compelling manner) that our bodies are somehow broken as they are and our instincts aren’t a reliable guide.
This broken body belief is informed by Diet Culture and reinforced by the internalized body talk we’ve integrated into our way of thinking, being and doing. By labeling the way we’re eating, and following a “plan” or set of rules, we’re diving (head first) into an authoritarian view of our bodies. I.e. someone outside of us knows better how to feed and nourish this body better than we do.
But what if that’s not true?
You were born knowing how to eat. When you were an infant you simply cried when you were hungry and needed nourishment. You stopped eating when you were full. Sometimes you ate for comfort. And that was ok too (truly). It still is.
But over time this innate attunement with our bodies was damaged as Diet Culture beliefs. And stigma impacted how we felt about our bodies. Bodies that are outside the idealized norm are stigmatized and made to feel less than. This dichotomy between the way our bodies are and what we are told they “should” be creates dissonance. Over time we stop trusting our bodies and hand over the reins to any and all variety of programs, plans and rules (aka. Diet Culture).
But you still innately know. Coming back to this intuitive knowing requires us to release the idea that you, as an individual, are somehow incapable of feeding yourself in a way that is nourishing to your body (and soul). Once we’ve released this old, unhelpful belief, we can begin to listen for, feel and honour our own innate body signals. As we practice this Intuitive approach we begin to reclaim body trust and the idea of having a label, seems absurd, because you are an (awesome) individual. Your needs, wants and desires are as unique as you are. Which means your way of eating will be completely custom to you and will evolve over time (alongside you).
Questions to ponder:
- Do you like the “label” because it legitimizes the way you’re eating?
- What does having this set of rules do for you?
- Does following rules or guidelines help you? Or hinder you?
- How does it help? How does it hinder?
- Do you feel any guilt or shame if you don’t eat in line with the eating style?
- If you rejected some of the ideas within the eating style, based on how your body feels, is that ok?
- If not, why?
- What is your biggest fear, were you to give up the label and simply ate according to how you felt?
- What if that fear came true?
Idea #2: We want to belong, even if it’s just how we eat.
I wrote about our inherent human need to belong in my book The Elephant in the Gym: Writing Your Own Health and Fitness Story. Belonging offers us feelings of acceptance, love, connection, meaning, purpose, inclusion, and more. In my book I posited that one of the reasons we do diets/ engage in “fixing” our bodies is because as a culture the desire to change our bodies so normalized. Changing our bodies is the norm.
We want to adhere to that norm to belong. We gather at water coolers, around tables and over coffee to bemoan our bodies and talk about how we will change them. It’s how we roll (as a Diet Culture informed collective).
Engaging in diet talk, following a plan, and labeling what we’re doing are simply the tactics and behaviours that align with that norm. By naming what we’re doing, we instantly become part of a crew. We’re not just in the “body hating crew,” we’re in the “I’m fixing my broken body this way crew.”
Welcome to the inner circle.
Let me help this land with an example. You’re at a party making casual chit chat with fellow party-goers, as trays of food pass you by. One of the wait staff stops and offers you a fancy h’ordeuvre. You decline, “no thanks, I’m ‘being good’/ watching what I eat.” Instantly (in most scenarios where the majority of party-goers are also entrenched in Diet Culture) an entire dialogue will ensue that will leave you feeling like you’ve “found your people.”
Now layer on “no thanks, I’m keto.”* And you’ve not only identified yourself as part of the “my body is broken crew, you’re a card carrying certified member of the keto* popular kids within that crew.”
*Note: I used keto but insert whatever diet plan is the latest rage.
Instantly the two other people you’re talking with chime in.” Ohh, me too or ohhh, I’ve been thinking about it. Tell me more.”
With just a few simple words, you have a connection with these people. A common bond. A sisterhood/ brotherhood of sorts.
It’s like how you felt in high school when you had the same (insert cool item) as the cool kids. You felt like you were one of them. Like you belonged.
But here’s the thing. It’s not really true belonging.
It’s actually more like “fitting in.” Fitting in is about conforming to what others want, rather than just being who you are.
Diet Culture is all about fitting in. Transforming your body to meet this idealized (and impossible) “accepted” standard.
And sadly my friends, fitting in is a fleeting and generally pretty inauthentic form of belonging.
Case in point, what happens when you no longer do the “keto” or bond over banning sweets? What if you (gasp) give up the “I hate my body and must fix it” mentality entirely? Do you still have a connection? If not, did you really belong at all?
Questions to ponder:
- When you engage in a certain style of eating do you feel as though you have freedom to adjust course?
- Do you have a black and white relationship with your style of eating? What happens if you don’t follow it (to the letter)?
- When you engage in a style of eating do you become a “diet evangelist” and invite all your friends to join you?
- Do you feel disappointed if they don’t want to join you? Or if your friends join you, but then quit a period of time later?
- If you don’t evangelize diet, do you have “diet evangelist” friends? How do they make you feel? Do you feel pressure to join them?
- If an approach isn’t working for you , do you still feel pressure to stick with a diet style?
- Do you persist with a style of eating in spite of not feeling great as long as it’s “working” (aka your body is shrinking/ conforming to the norm)?
- Do you resist changing what you’re doing because of the connection/ belonging you feel within your “diet community?”
The other way: body attunement, autonomy and true belonging.
I’ve got good news! There’s another way to approach this and feel pretty darn fantastic. And surprise, it involves Intuitive Eating. Shocker, I know. But it’s more. I think these concepts are absolutely fundamental. And not just to how you relate to food and your body, but to our entire approach to health. Let’s explore…
Body Attunement, Autonomy and your Health
I was talking about the topic of this blog with my friend Brenda, and she said, “What if we all just did the feel good diet?”
I laughed. Yes!
It’s sounds a little silly, but I think in her off the cuff comment she hit the nail on the head! So, I’m going to take it a step further and clarify just what I think the “feel good diet” means.
I eat foods that make my body, mind and spirit feel good.
How this translates:
- I have respect for my body and it’s innate capability to communicate with me.
- I trust my body to tell me what it needs.
- My body trusts me to provide it with nourishment.
- When I eat, I listen to how my body feels and take notice. The next time I eat, I use this information like a scientist, as data to inform my choices, no judgement!
- I eat foods that nourish not just my body, but also my mind and spirit because I recognize that food is about more than nutrients.
Does this mean we will eat anything (and everything). Nope. I actually think it means the opposite. Walk with me here.
If we blindly follow an arbitrary set of rules or a meal plan (as we so often are encouraged to do within the constructs of Diet Culture), we miss out on the opportunity to listen to and respond to our own unique needs. When we listen and respond to our own unique needs, it’s quite likely we won’t eat things that don’t work for our bodies, either because they don’t make our body feel good, or don’t give us the energy and vitality we want to have! Rather, we will more naturally select foods that serve our unique nutritional, energetic and emotional needs!
Let’s explore an example: me!
For example, I have Celiac Disease. My body has an autoimmune inflammatory response to gluten (a protein found in wheat and a few other grains). As such, I don’t eat foods that contain gluten. Not because some rule-book says so, or because being “Gluten Free” is trendy (though it’s becoming so), but because my body says so. In fact, I’d self-selected this choice for years prior to getting the diagnosis of Celiac Disease, because every time I ate gluten I had significant stomach upset, gastro-intestinal issues, and brain fog. Ugh. Not how I wanted to feel!
Let me give you another less black and white medical example. My body has a much less severe, but still significant response to too much dairy. So, I am also mindful of my dairy consumption. I can have it, but if I do, I simply don’t feel great. I seem to produce more mucous and am more prone to getting colds (TMI but the truth). Years of experimenting with this correlation has led me to this conclusion.
Sadly, while I love dairy, it doesn’t love me. So, without demonizing it or making it “bad,” I don’t eat it on the regular. When, on occasion, I choose to eat dairy, I weigh the cost/ benefit of having the food and the potential outcome of not feeling great. Sometimes it’s worth it (say ice cream on a hot day with my kids), sometimes it’s not (cheese on a hamburger). But I decide based on a list of checks and balances that are unique to me as an individual.
You might have foods like this too!
How do you find them and discover your unique approach to eating?
The practice of Intuitive Eating and specifically the Gentle Nutrition principle within this framework, is all about learning which foods work and don’t work for your body. We call this body-food choice congruence and it’s all about listening to your body (attunement) and respecting your individual differences as a human (autonomy).
In order to become attuned to your body, the first step is to reject the notion that there is a “right” way to eat or one specific set of rules that will work for all humans (aka. Diet Mentality). Once we’ve rejected that notion we can begin the process and practice of becoming reacquainted with your innate hunger signals, cues for fullness and re-establish body respect. The capacity to listen and honour your body without rules is there (it’s just quiet). You can find it if you trust the process and dig into the practice with patience.
How does attunement and autonomy relate beyond eating into how we move, sleep, and take care of our mental and spiritual health?
It means that you won’t just do the things you think you should do (because they’re popular, promoted by an influencer or because your bestie is doing them), but instead you’ll check in with your body, mind and spirit and explore what strategies and routines truly work for you! You’ll examine what your unique vision of “health” is, and get curious about which practices truly serve and support you.
Questions to ponder:
- What is your unique vision of health?
- What do you want to be able to do with your (awesome) body?
- Which practices of health best support that vision? Or enable you to do said things?
- What feels good in your body?
- How do you like to move? What brings you joy?
- How much sleep do you need to feel your best?
- What practices best support your mental health?
- What about your spiritual health?
- How do you find purpose in life?
Remember that you are an ever-evolving person. So the practices that resonate today, may not be the practices that serve and support you in a month, a year or 10! In fact, it’s likely they won’t be. Give yourself permission to change, evolve and grow, and allow your practices of health change, evolve and grow right alongside you!
Sometimes it might mean you feel like you are swimming upstream a bit. Because you might not be doing the things everyone else is raving about. But at the end of the day you’re doing what honours your unique body, and that my friends, is the point! Which brings me to belonging…
What about belonging?
Since Brené Brown is self-admittedly human, I’m going to look past her Diet Culture informed declaration of “keto” and reference her. Because as I stated earlier, while she may not be a nutrition expert, she is an expert when it comes to how us humans show up in life. And she has some wisdom around belonging I think is incredibly relevant and helpful right here.
I love Brené Brown’s definition of belonging that she shared in her book Braving the Wilderness.
“True Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to BE who we are.”
Ohhhh. Gosh she’s good.
Diet Culture is inherently asking us to change who we are to be welcome and accepted. This is fitting in. Belonging, as it relates to health, is living in your body (exactly as it is), and owning it! It is belonging to ourselves and being and living in a way that works for us as uniquely wonderful individuals.
Questions to ponder:
- If you ditched Diet Mentality and the tactics, strategies and beliefs (including diet labels) altogether, what would happen?
- If you redirected all that energy you’ve devoted to changing your body into loving your body (or at least finding neutral) what would be possible? How would that impact your life?
- If you ate the way you eat, lived in the body you’re in, and got out there and did cool things in said (awesome) body what might happen?
- Could you simply be who you are, and be cool with that? Then get out there and find others who are cool with that too?
- Who do you want to belong with?
The bottom line:
Your body isn’t broken, it’s awesome. The best way to eat is the way that makes you feel good. No labels required.
Get curious. Explore how foods make you feel. Then lean in with an intuitive, gentle and kind approach to listening and honouring your innate body cues. Nourishing your awesome body in a way that works for you. Consider your own unique checks and balances. Belong to you. Embrace your unique approach. And if you really want to call it something call it the Feel Good Diet, but frankly I think we can skip the label altogether.
If you want to ditch the diets, embrace an Intuitive approach to eating, and feel good, I’d love to chat! You can learn more solo in my virtual Intuitive Eating Course or if you’d like support, I work with clients either one-to-one or in groups in my Authentic Health Group coaching Membership the StudioCrew.