5 Ways You Equate Diet with Health — And Why You’re Wrong.
Let’s talk about health.
More importantly, let’s talk about why we shouldn’t be obsessed with it.
I’m a dietitian. If someone is coming to see me, chances are, they care about their health. That’s cool.
But there is also a chance that they don’t care about their health all that much. That’s also cool.
Because the most important thing is what you want.
But “what you want” isn’t so easy to know in a culture has put a huge emphasis on health. And that health focus creates a space where we’re forced to take personal responsibility for our health outcomes. That is a very blame-y place to be.
You are probably asking right about now “Why is focusing on health a bad thing? Shouldn’t it be the goal?”
The answer is both simple and complicated. Focusing on health isn’t inherently a bad thing. Again, this is your choice. But putting blame on the individual for any health issue is a problem. If achieving whatever level of health you’re aiming for is a goal, awesome. You get to choose that as well. And I encourage you to remember that not every aspect of your health is under your control.
So, this leads me to the point of my post: why we should avoid obsessing about our health.
Often, health is a reason why a lot of people are nervous about Intuitive Eating and (often outright) arguing about Health at Every Size and Fat Acceptance.
These arguments are super valid because we come from a culture that puts a ridiculous emphasis on health — and the amount of control we have over our health by diet, exercise, and controlling our size.
But many of these arguments are rooted in myth, misunderstanding, or flat-out fatphobia and misogyny.
So, let’s work our way through some of them, shall we?
“If I start trying to eat intuitively, I won’t stop eating ‘junk’ food and ‘unhealthy’ food! That can’t be good for my health!”
This is a super common concern when starting Intuitive Eating. We feel like we’ll be out of control forever if we give up control. And sometimes, in the early stages, that fear can feel confirmed.
Jes Baker calls this space “donut land”. This comes from all the time we restricted. We crave the things we restrict. We want them more. They become “sparkly” and take our interest. It’s like when we take a toy away from a kid that they haven’t played with forever: they suddenly develop an intense interest in it and can’t stop talking about it until you give it back. Then a week later, they’ve stopped caring again. That toy became sparkly the moment we tried to get rid of it.
We do the same thing with food.
If we’ve been avoiding eating cookies, chips, McDonald’s, or any other food we’ve deemed off-limits, they’re really exciting when we first give ourselves permission to have them. And yes. We may feel like we can’t get enough of them.
However, we rarely keep eating in that way. Eating cookies and chips exclusively often doesn’t feel as good as trying to live exclusively on kale (which doesn’t feel good — you can’t convince me otherwise). Also, if you do eat those foods for a long time, that’s okay, too. Because the most important thing is your relationship with food, not the food itself.
“But I need to lose weight in order to be healthy. There is no way I am healthy at this weight!”
How do you know you’re unhealthy? How do you know, if you do have a health problem, that it’s caused by your weight?
Because the truth is, there is not a single condition where we know unequivocally that weight loss cures. And with the ones that are seemingly “helped” by weight loss, we come up on two big problems: (1) We can’t guarantee that it was the weight loss that helped anything, because (2) it could be any of the behavior changes that led to the weight loss. Because we also know that cutting off your arm (therefore losing weight) won’t fix the problem either.
And even if we could guarantee that weight loss would help, we have no evidence-based way to tell you to lose weight. There aren’t any diets that work long-term.
We live in an inherently “fatphobic” culture. Basing your health on your weight isn’t fair. Because plenty of fat people are healthy and plenty of thin people aren’t — and vice versa.
“But if I just focus on eating the right food, I’ll be healthy!”
Healthy is as healthy does.
We only have a small fraction of control of our health. And that fraction includes all behavior — including driving with your seatbelt on, your current use of recreational drugs and alcohol, and whether or not you rock climb without ropes.
Our percentage of control is actually pretty small.
And food really is just food.
There is no food that will save you and no food that will destroy you (unless you’re allergic to it — then please don’t eat it). In an ideal world, we would eat all kinds of foods and have a healthy relationship with all kinds of foods. This is most likely what will lead to what health we have control over.
“There are all kinds of health conditions caused by being ‘obese’ — what about those?”
There is no health condition that exists exclusively in fat people. We are all at risk for pretty much everything — just to varying degrees.Correlation is not causation.
And we actually know that people in higher BMI’s (which is its own problem) are more likely to have better outcomes when we do have these problems (heart attacks, strokes, etc.).
Assuming we know anything about a person’s health based on their size is unfair. When you learn more about Health at Every Size, you can start to see the reason why this line of thinking is faulty.
“But so many people are following *this* diet! Why is it so bad?”
Our current obsession with wellness is bordering on, if not already fully in, orthorexia — which is the unhealthy obsession with being healthy.
It’s when we sacrifice social life, happiness, life events, and more because we’re so concerned about what we are eating. And it’s also when we are doing it “right” — and putting ourselves on a pedestal.
This is a negative relationship with food.
We’re setting ourselves up for pain when we “don’t do it right”. Because we crave what we are restricting. And then we feel guilt and shame — feelings that shouldn’t be part of our relationship with food. This stress and anxiety around food is more likely to cause inflammation (an actual cause of disease) than the food itself.
These are some of the questions and rebuttals I’ve heard, and I’m sure I’ll hear plenty more. We need to look at a more holistic (physical and mental health included) view of health. This includes that relationship with food and how it is affecting your life.
How is your relationship with food affecting your overall health?