A Misunderstanding Towards Moderation
When you hear the term “diet culture,” what comes to mind? Everyone and their mothers on Weight Watchers or another week of a quick-fix low-carb, low fat-diet? Young men paying such strict attention to how many proteins and fats and sugars are in every food they eat that eating out for a single meal becomes unfathomable? Individuals so dedicated to their fitness that one missed gym day means there is no other option but to spend the day “clean eating” while counting and measuring every macronutrient and calorie and ounce to avoid a feeling of all consuming guilt? Men and women with six-pack abs and flawless physique posing in expensive workout gear?
Most likely, images like this are automatic, and it quickly becomes clear that today’s culture of fitness and diets is severely flawed. This isn’t an argument against a healthy lifestyle, and it’s important to note that it is absolutely possible for one to diet and exercise with pure intentions of becoming the best version of themselves.
That isn’t what this is about. This is about a culture so obsessed with health and fitness that the words food and guilt for some reason belong together. This is about a culture that regularly categorizes food into two categories - good and bad - and too many bad foods result in this food-guilt feeling. This is about a culture where spending a day at the gym doesn’t just result in a good feeling, but that good feeling isn’t possible with a missed gym day.
The problem with this diet culture isn’t that there is one. A diet culture can be healthy and unproblematic when, just like anything, it is treated with moderation. But just like a drug, when the right balance isn’t carefully moderated, it’s too easy to spiral into uncontrollable obsession until you can’t think about anything but diet and exercise. Until absolutely nothing is as important as eating a bit cleaner, running a bit longer, lifting a bit more.
If the ultimate goal is to become the best version of yourself, and you go in with the best of intentions, then what went wrong? Why did that 3 mile run a few days a week turn into a mantra of “if I don’t run 4 miles daily, then I’ve failed.” Why did that excitement for putting healthier food into your body turn into a constant “if I cave and eat a little junk food during our annual Superbowl get-together, I’ve failed.”
The simple answer is just that; simple. Things go wrong because the line between genuine health and a perfectionist obsession is so fine that unless you’re on your hands and knees with your face pressed to a magnifying glass on the floor, you can’t see it.
One day, everything is as it should be. You ate half a cupcake instead of a whole, you spent 40 minutes at the gym instead of 20, you walked to class instead of driving. All of these things are good. But somewhere along the line, something has gone horribly wrong and you don’t know why. Now you’re past the hour mark of your gym session and it still doesn’t feel like enough. Now one cupcake feels like too much, so you stick a birthday candle into a fruit salad instead. Now you’re stuck in a downpour, but you’d better walk to class just in case the power goes out and the gym closes early.
The difference between these two scenarios is monumental, yet it happens to people everywhere and they don’t even notice what is happening until it’s too late, until eating that dessert or skipping that workout or driving when it’s just as easy to walk is unfathomable. So that question gets asked again. What went wrong?
The quick answer: as a culture, we don’t have a good understanding or execution of doing things in moderation. We spend all day on the couch, or we run five miles. We eat so much that’s it’s hazardous to our health, or we eat so little or so incorrectly we’re in danger of being malnourished. This is a tricky position to be in because the world we’re living in is in two extremes, and whatever we try to amend it will be in direct opposition to the other extreme. A recent controversy has been released with hit weight-loss show, the Biggest Loser, showing just one way that we are prescribing for obese people what would be disordered symptomology in anyone else, and it’s likely that the opposite is also true.
Hard promotion of a life full of fitness and portion control does wonders for decreasing the obesity epidemic in the United States, but it can be deadly for those on the other end of the spectrum: restrictive eating disorders are the leading cause of death of any mental illness, and for them, this promotion of restriction and exercise is all but a death sentence.
On the opposite end, promotion of health and happiness could be a literal lifesaver for those who struggle with body image and self-worth, but is a silent killer for those who do nothing but enjoy that unhealthy life. The Association of Size Diversity and Health gives a good summary of the problem at hand — there are two extremes related to food and fitness, both in a lot of danger, that make finding a solution difficult.
No matter what we try to do to combat this issue, when this culture has two lifestyles where the solutions contradict each other, we get stuck and don’t know what to do. Where we stand right now, we have the question: how do we reach moderation? We know that we need to find some kind of balance that allows the overweight to lose and take advantage of strict diets that will help them, and allows the disordered eaters and beyond not to be concerned with the diet trend that put pushed them towards in that position in the first place.
We’re stuck because we have the question (How do we reach moderation?) and we know we have work to do to get there, but until we find a way to shift to a lifestyle that allows moderation in both directions, all we can do is keep a close eye on that fine line between health and obsession and do all we can to stop it from being crossed.