I meet Christy Harrison in a crowded Brooklyn bar on the first night of summer in 2017. She’s an extremely pretty brunette with chic, angled bangs and a great navy-striped dress. There’s also something just a little bit guarded about her. As we talk over pork belly sandwiches, I decide it might be from knowing she appears to fit seamlessly into one mold — stylish, thin, healthy-food-oriented — when, in fact, she’s been working hard for many years now to build a different kind of reputation. “I was a food writer,” Christy says, “who was really struggling with food.”
Christy was on staff at Plenty, a hip indie magazine that ran for a few years in the mid-2000s, and later at the iconic Gourmet magazine in the final two years before it folded in 2009. She wrote about organic farming, biodynamic wine, and the evils of processed foods. “Oh, and I definitely helped fan the flames of the gluten-free craze,” Christy tells me. She’s not proud of this. Because in between all those fancy press lunches, chef interviews, and junkets on organic farms, Christy was spiraling. What began as a diet in college turned into a full-blown eating disorder by her early twenties. “My symptoms never fit neatly into one eating-disorder diagnosis,” she explains. “I would move between restricting, bingeing, and over-exercising, over and over, but it was always sort of nebulous.” Christy can only see the patterns of her disorder now, in retrospect. At the time, she thought she was just “obsessed with food,” and really no different from anyone else around her.
Christy and I didn’t know each other during those years, but her story is familiar. I know the world she inhabited, because I was at its periphery, as a junior health editor at the now defunct Organic Style magazine, and later, as the kind of freelance writer whom women’s magazines call when they need a piece on which types of produce are the most important to buy organic, or why you should learn to cook quinoa.
On one freelance assignment in 2007, I found myself sitting at the bar of the famed farmhouse-chic restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, New York. It was noon on a Wednesday and the restaurant was closed, but I was eating the most delicious salad of my life, hand-prepared by the celebrity chef Dan Barber with greens picked that morning from his greenhouse and wild mushrooms foraged from the forests around the farm.
“We kept thinking we were finding answers. But really, we were participating in this mass marketing of disordered eating.”
I was there doing research for a book with a woman who, at the time, was a little bit famous for her philanthropy and her extreme vegan politics. After we ate our salads, the waiter brought out a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert. “Are those made with white sugar?” she asked. “I think we’re all done.” I had only eaten six mushrooms and three handfuls of micro-greens. The cookies, the waiter explained, were made with fair trade dark chocolate and butter from a cow named Tallulah. The vegan demurred again, this time citing her sympathy for Tallulah. Her assistant and the restaurant’s publicist followed suit. I took the cookie. Even the waiter seemed surprised.
Back then, I focused on eco-food issues because I thought that niche would help me avoid writing the kind of weight-loss stories that women’s magazines are so notorious for running every month. I wrote those, too — when you’re a broke freelance writer, there’s not much you won’t write about — but always with a degree of existential crisis and bargaining: I would write them for women’s magazines, but not for teen magazines. I would write one about the relationship between blood sugar and white sugar because that seemed scientific and important. But eventually, I stopped wanting to write any such stories; I hated trying to find definitive answers about weight loss when the science was constantly shifting. And I hated telling women how to make their bodies smaller when I didn’t really believe they should. And so I embraced the eco-food movement, because — on the surface, at least — it wasn’t about calorie counting or crash diets. It was okay to eat the cookie, I thought, as long as it was made with fair trade chocolate and local butter and eggs. But as I learned that day at Stone Barns, it still wasn’t okay to eat the cookie, no matter how sustainably sourced the ingredient list was.
This is because the eco-food movement, also known as the eco-gastronomy or alternative-food movement, was busy embracing the war on obesity, joining the front lines of the fight. And food became something to categorize — whole or processed, real or fake, clean or dirty — and to fear. Pretty soon almost every food and health writer I knew was dropping gluten or white sugar from her diet, then bringing it back, then dropping something else. Now that trend has gone mainstream; even my 88-year-old grandmother knows what gluten is and why half her family isn’t eating it on any given day. And that’s because the early to mid-2000s represented a kind of cultural awakening around food, driven by the success of movies like Super Size Me and books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. To be a food journalist, especially in New York City, at the glossy magazines that Christy wrote for, meant that you had be up on who made the best artisanal iced coffee and designer cupcakes, but also on the latest research showing why we’re not really meant to digest dairy, or the differing omega-3 quantities of grass-fed and grain-fed beef. It all felt really important, as if we were on the verge of discovering a profound connection between nutrition, health, and the environment that nobody had ever seen quite that way before.
Connecting all her food anxieties to a larger movement made Christy feel “like I wasn’t just this vain, selfish person trying to lose weight.” Suddenly, her obsession with food had a larger, nobler purpose. “I thought, ‘I can help change the landscape and make everyone healthier,’” she said. “There was some desire to be communal about it, a kind of social justice drive.” Giving up meat and gluten wasn’t dieting — it was a hard and virtuous life choice that would transform your health and boost your green street cred at the same time. But in the hands of those celebrity chefs, food activists, actresses turned health gurus, and the media who love them, “eating clean” involves trading one set of food rules for another. “Now, I think about how much I was struggling and so were all these other food writers I know,” Christy says. “We kept thinking we were finding answers. But really, we were participating in this mass marketing of disordered eating.”
It took several more years before Christy came to that realization and began to think critically about the alternative-food movement and the “clean eating” craze that it helped to fuel. As a food writer, she continued to cycle between the extremes of her disorder. Because a big part of the job is going out to eat exotic, lavish meals, at some point, a food writer who doesn’t eat just starts to look weird. “But I’d compensate by restricting even more when I was on my own,” she notes. And when Gourmet folded in 2009, Christy was still deeply passionate about helping to spread the gospel of whole foods, so she decided to get her master’s in public health and become a dietitian.
At first, studying nutrition all day only further entrenched Christy’s eating habits. She wanted to do well in school, and it seemed as if eating perfectly was part of being a model student. But one day in class, everyone was told to partner up and take each other’s body measurements. They got on scales, they wrapped tape measures around their waists, hips, and necks, and they used calipers to measure the fat on the undersides of their arms. Obsessively tracking body size in this way is the kind of thing that people with eating disorders do all the time; so much so that putting away the scale and the tape measure is often an essential first step in any treatment program.
Food became something to categorize … and to fear. Pretty soon almost every food and health writer I knew was dropping gluten or white sugar from her diet, then bringing it back, then dropping something else.
Although Christy was far from recovered, she had made enough progress to know how dangerous it was for her to obsess over numbers like these. But refusing to participate didn’t feel like an option. So, she wrote down all her measurements. Then she looked in the textbook to see how her numbers compared to the “ideal” weight for someone of her height and build. She was, as she puts it, “more than a few pounds” over the textbook limit. “At first, I panicked, like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to really double down and eat even better,’” Christy recalls. “Then I realized: the only time I’d been that small was when I was in the most intense restriction period of my eating disorder.” She was done. “That’s when I decided to just throw out that whole model of thinking about food and weight.”
When I reported nutrition stories in the early 2000s, conventional dietitians were often rattled by the organic foodie approach, and kept pointing out the surprisingly high calorie count of foods like olive oil, quinoa, and almond butter. But over the past decade, the two camps have slowly merged. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokespeople whom I interviewed for Redbook and Runner’s World became more fluent in the language of clean eating. They began talking less about how to choose chicken breasts the size of a deck of cards, and more about the nutrient profiles of various nut butters and how to cook whole grains. Meanwhile, the newer generation of alternative foodies has become much more interested in things like protein and carbohydrate grams, and how many of each you should or shouldn’t eat per day. And one core philosophy has always united both approaches: That we are what we eat. That food is medicine. And that there is no problem — be it constipation, migraines, infertility, or cancer — that cannot be solved, or at least vastly ameliorated, by changing your diet.
There is a kernel of truth in almost every one of these notions. The industrialization of agriculture and food production has led to an overabundance of high-calorie foods, many of which are marketed with a veneer of health because they’re “low carb” or “gluten-free,” while also being largely nutrient-free. Producing these foods causes significant environmental damage and involves the use of chemicals and ingredients that aren’t great for our health.
The problems begin when we consider the corollaries to statements like “You are what you eat.” If that’s true, then eating “bad” foods (Big Macs, Slushies, anything made with white flour or sugar) makes you a bad person. Or at least an uninformed, undisciplined one. Organic farmers and food activists may have originally banded together to take on huge corporations within the agricultural-industrial complex. But infusing their arguments with messages about health has led to the rise of a wellness-industrial complex, in which nutritionists, personal trainers, cookbook authors, and other “alternative-health experts” target us for our individual choices.
Alternative food and wellness are big business now. The Amazon-Whole Foods deal was worth $13.7 billion. Sales of old-school diet staples like Lean Cuisine meals may have dropped by $100 million between 2014 and 2015, but expensive, largely organic meal-delivery services like Blue Apron generated close to $1.5 billion in sales in 2016. The Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami, Florida, which conducts industry research, calculates that the worldwide “wellness economy” is now worth $3.7 trillion. They attribute $999 billion of that to beauty and anti-aging products, and another $648 billion to “healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss.” And the marketing around these products and services is just as powerful as any fast-food ad campaign.
We are now so certain that every aspect of our health can be improved through diet, we can only blame ourselves when those diets fail. When cutting out gluten doesn’t work, we move on to dairy, then soy. When we still don’t feel better, we start reading about the evils of nightshade vegetables or peanuts. Still feel bloated, or tired, or lacking in energy — all impossible-to-quantify symptoms that may just reflect the unavoidable state of being mortal and not part superhero? Probably it’s because you weren’t careful enough about that gluten. Nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. So, we read more books, pin more blog posts, buy more products, and sign up for more classes and consultations. And we don’t realize how many of the so-called experts guiding us through this new and constantly changing landscape are exactly where Christy once was — fighting their own battles with food.
Today, Christy still works as a dietitian, but she has dramatically revamped her practice. She worked in-house at two eating-disorder recovery centers in the New York area, and now coaches private clients, people who have gotten caught up in our culture-wide fixation with dieting and detoxes, and want to find a way out. She also hosts a weekly podcast, Food Psych, in which she interviews other dietitians, therapists, and people in the wellness industry who are trying to fight back against what Christy alternately refers to as “diet culture” or “the thin ideal.” Food Psych is well ranked on iTunes’ list of the Top 100 Health Podcasts, but when you look at the rest of the list — with names like Half Size Me, Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, and Vegan Body Revolution — you realize just how hard this thing is that Christy is trying to do.