Writing about health was my passion. Toxic diet culture killed it.
I thought I could change the world. It wouldn’t let me try.
When I was 19, I decided to dedicate my life to teaching people about health and wellness through writing.
Seven years later, I found myself working my way up to doing that on a much larger scale than I’d ever dreamed possible.
With multiple degrees in health and communications, enough professional writing experience to pay off all the debt I’d accumulated from those degrees, and more excitement than my heart could handle, I was ready to take on the world — maybe even change it.
I had plans. Big plans. Eventually, I’d migrate from my comfortable job as a full-time health writer for a virtually unknown brand to writing for science and health magazines. Providing guest columns in HuffPost. Maybe even The New York Times.
Even after my last semester of grad school, I kept studying. I did everything I could to become a better writer, a more knowledgeable science expert, and a more effective communicator.
More of my articles started taking off the harder I worked. I loved my job. I loved all the possibilities it offered. I loved feeling like I was actually making a difference, maybe even helping a few people make better choices, shift their habits, and live healthier lives.
But the more success my articles found, the more my dream-come-true began fading into a living nightmare.
Here’s the thing about publishing stuff on the internet: Anyone can read it. Anyone can respond to it. And many of the people responding to it are after nothing but blood.
Every time I wrote a fact-based, well-researched article that started getting traction, I started getting tweets. Awful ones. Almost every single one of them tried to tell me I was wrong or stupid, or felt the need to tell me that reading my work was a waste of time. (Not that they likely took the time to give it more than a skim, but I suppose you never know.)
I am not easily bent by internet trolls. These people don’t know me and are only trying to make themselves feel better by typing cruel words to strangers. I’m proud of the work I do and put in a lot of time and effort to make sure it is as well-structured, clear, and accurate as possible.
But these were the people I was trying so hard to help taking time out of their days to yell at me. Mothers screaming at me about the keto diet. Health gurus demanding I site more studies about saturated fat contributing to heart disease. Self-proclaimed “experts” trying to tell me food was not the answer — supplements were the only cure.
They were not offering me misinformation. They were stomping all over me, trying to use my work as a jumping-off point to tell others how foolish I was. How godly they were.
You could argue that this was a problem I actively chose to expose myself to. And you’re technically correct. I could have simply muted or blocked everyone trying to pick a fight with me, ignored them, or kept my Twitter private.
But that would have defeated the purpose behind my work as a health communicator. My job wasn’t to tell people how to live their lives. It was to start — and ideally engage in — conversations about biology, nutrition, and medicine.
Cutting myself off from readers would have made me an unreachable messenger. And that’s not what I wanted to be. I wanted people to feel like they could contact me directly with questions or concerns.
No one ever wanted more of the knowledge I was offering, though. No one wanted clarification on things that may have been confusing or poorly worded. They only wanted to belittle me for presenting facts instead of giving them easy answers or telling them what they wanted to hear.
I tried as hard as I could to justify their behavior. It was my age — they were all older than me so of course they thought they knew better. Maybe it was my lack of credentials — a master’s degree technically isn’t enough to sit among the experts these days, but I was just getting started. I was trying to build credibility one article at a time.
I tried to look at things from their perspective. And what I discovered in doing so was that it didn’t matter how old I was (they probably didn’t know and didn’t care), how many degrees I had or didn’t, how good my evidence was. How well-presented my arguments may have been.
They simply had their own beliefs about food and fitness and science, and nothing I was going to say or do would change that.
People believe what they want to believe. And there are also people who prey on individuals plagued with self-doubt, insecurities, and shame, telling them there is an easy way out. You can either spend months or even years working to improve yourself and make healthier choices, or you can pay $29.99 for this magic pill that will fix everything in 10 days or less.
Oops, wait — that magic pill didn’t work for you? You must have a different problem than most people. You’re special! Here, try this one instead. It’s only $69.99.
The weary will still go for the magic pills every time rather than thinking logically about their circumstances. What’s the point of screaming in protest if they can no longer hear you?
I could spend the rest of my life telling strangers on Twitter that they have been misinformed, either kindly or with fire in my words. Would it really change their minds?
That was the end of the line for me — realizing that it didn’t matter how many years I spent working as hard as I could to become a credible health expert. People would always treat my work as “fake news” if they didn’t agree with me. They would always toss my efforts aside and go seek out someone giving them the information they really wanted. No matter how wrong that information may have been.
In a choice between me and the guy with the magic pills, I’m nothing. I’m not helping anyone. Not here. Not like this.
There has to be another way. But I’m not quite sure what that is yet.
There were, of course, several factors that built up to my final decision to leave my work as a health science writer.
The internet seemed obsessed with ridding invisible toxins from its pores at the moment, for one thing. So I figured, why not rid my life of the toxic diet culture making me unnecessarily miserable?
Plus, Google’s August 2018 algorithm update also just happened to force the publication that employed me to switch from a mix of health and finance content to purely entertainment coverage because we couldn’t prove we were health experts and couldn’t build the credibility (or maintain the ad revenue long enough in the interim) to change that.
(By the way, thanks to everyone online promoting false, misleading, and dangerous health information on your WordPress blogs. You almost cost me my paycheck. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.)
I could have looked for another job in the face of uncertainty. Continued to pursue my dream, just on a different path.
Instead, I chose to set my ambitions aside. At least for now. At least until I figure out if there’s still a place for someone like me in a highly opinionated, anti-health-science culture like this.
I used to wake up every morning frustrated and anxious. Would people listen to what I had to say today? Would my words help someone who needed it? Would another celebrity fad diet make the social media rounds that would deeply disturb me, even though I’d have to fake thinking it was hilarious?
Now I’m no longer responsible for trying to send better messages about health. It’s someone else’s nightmare now. I’m done.
This worries me not because I’m no longer doing something I once loved, but because I for so long felt like the world needed my excitement, my resilience, my drive. When I left, what if the collective voice of reason got a little quieter, and the detox tea enthusiasts got a whole lot louder?
Despite those lingering anxieties, these problems are no longer in my hands. I am both joyful and saddened to admit I am relieved.
I hope there’s a way I can still make the world better. Bonus points if I can use my thousands of dollars’ worth of degrees and priceless amounts of passion to do it.
As much as we’d love to believe passion is enough to propel us through the worst of our professions, it isn’t. So many of us are underpaid and overworked. The majority of us are underappreciated and treated like trash. And that’s more than enough justification for walking away, if you’re able, don’t you think?
I’m sorry I couldn’t do better. But I need a break. I’m too stubborn to give up forever. But I also know when it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate how you can serve in an area that needs you to stay.
To all those who are still out there on the front lines defending scientific evidence and sending out information whether it’s wanted or not, good job. You’re stronger than I am.
The world still needs you, whether it realizes it or not. It’s up to you now. May the Force be with you. Good luck.