diets · eating

Diets Disguised as “un”-Diets and the Food Police Strike Again!

???????????????????????????????The other day, Sam forwarded me a couple of posts (she is wonderfully savvy at keeping up with the massive volume of information that this world has to offer!) she thought would be of interest to me.

The first headline was about Evil health foods: “The so-called ‘health foods’ that are probably killing you.”  The second, from a committed intuitive eater who blogs at Not Much to Lose was about diet anxiety.

I’m not sure if Sam meant me to draw a connection between them, but oh how quickly it became clear to me that evil foods and diet anxiety go together like a trip to my favorite vegan restaurant and eating their outstanding triple chocolate cake  [not a link to their recipe, the code for which friends and I are attempting to crack].

First, to the evil “health foods.”  Of course, I have already gone on record to say that food is beyond good and evil.  I thought for sure this article was going to tell me that my blueberries were killing me in my sleep or that broccoli, against all odds, would give me cancer.  Why? Because when I think of health foods, I think of blueberries and broccoli, kale and cauliflower, green tea and green drinks, lentils and legumes.

What a relief to find that none of these were on the list. No, instead, it’s the fruit juices, “healthy” oils, whole wheat, agave nectar, sports drinks, anything low fat or fat free, any gluten-free junk food (confusing how anything identifiable to the ordinary person as “junk” food should be on a list of what we used to think was healthy but isn’t), energy bars, low cal “junk” food (there’s junk food again on our healthy list), and “healthy” breakfast cereals.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see any of these foods as something that people eat lots and lots of on a daily basis except perhaps whole wheat, which, in the scheme of things, is a lot better for you than refined flour products (and trust me, I believe there is a place for crusty white baguettes and strawberry short cake too).

I’m not sure anyone considers sports drinks and energy bars to be health foods. Pretty much no one thinks of “junk” food — gluten free or not, fat free or not — as health food.  The healthy oils they talk about are overly processed vegetable oils (not including olive oil, which the author describes as “good for you!”). Again, it’s not clear to me that these are considered health foods in the first place.

So my reaction to this list was (a) relief that I could continue eating blueberries and broccoli without worrying about imminent death, (b) that not many people consider these things to be health foods anyway, and (c) that even the things on this list can take a moderate place in our lives without killing us. Killing us!  Hyperbole for sure.

Lists like these are just another way for the food police to monitor and ban and regulate, making people do things like stop you from ordering fresh squeezed orange juice when you go out for breakfast (because you’ll die).

So what does a list like this have to do with diet anxiety?  By design, it is meant to make us worry about what we’re putting in our bodies and base our food decisions on something other than what we feel like eating at the time.  It’s the opposite of intuitive eating.

When the Not Much to Lose blogger blogged about diet anxiety, she had just purchased a new book called The Undiet. She started to read this book. It’s full of information about healthy eating — what to eat and what not to eat. She began to get anxious:

The moment I start thinking about what I should be eating, it brings back all the internal dieter’s thoughts.  I was reading along thinking, when I would start eating this way, and when I would start eliminating the non-negotiable foods that she mentioned. (NO!  Not my veggie hot dogs!!)  Even though there is no calorie counting involved, it felt like reading a diet book complete with meal plan ideas, etc.  And planning the meals for the week.  I think the planning could work for some people, but how do I know on Wednesday night what I’m going to feel like eating on Sunday night?  Not very intuitive.

I can really relate to what she says here. The more I think about what I should and shouldn’t be eating, the more likely I am to eat more than I need of foods I don’t really want.  Intuitive eating is not about that. Yes, we can make choices for health, but we need to get in touch with ourselves first.

How hungry am I? Would my hunger be best satisfied by something sweet or savoury, salty or spicy, hot or cold, crunchy or smooth, hearty or light?  When I used to diet, I never — not once — used to ask myself these questions. It was more about what was on the menu plan for that night. It might not have even been a plan I made (for many years it was some variation of poached fish, vegetable, salad with no dressing OR plain chicken breast, vegetable, salad with no dressing OR egg white omelet, vegetable, salad with no dressing).

Diet anxiety is the anxiety that comes along with having your choices be guided by what you’ve read, completely independently of any kind of checking in with yourself to determine what you need and want. Lists like that “healthy foods that will kill us” list generate diet anxiety.  Books that divide foods up into those that are good for you and those that must be avoided at all costs (soy is the latest culprit — more on that in a future post).

Lots of people go running in the opposite direction when they hear the word “diet,” not just those trying to follow the intuitive eating approach. Even Weight Watchers avoids the word “diet” as much as it can, always stressing that “this is not a diet.” Why? Because diets have come to be associated with deprivation and, much worse for potential consumers of diets programs and products: failure.

You can dress it up any way you like, restricted food plans (like WW) and food lists with forbidden foods (like the undiet) and lists of health foods that are killing you all promote the diet mentality and encourage us to police what we (and maybe even others) are putting in our mouths.

Anxiety seems like a perfectly reasonable response to that message, especially when it’s sneaking its way into our lives in stealth mode, packaged as the opposite (that is, as NOT a diet).

We’re not so easily fooled anymore.

10 thoughts on “Diets Disguised as “un”-Diets and the Food Police Strike Again!

  1. The amount of information and misinformation available is so overwhelming. I love to read your posts, because I feel like you are echoing the voice of reason all that “information” suppresses. I really identify with this post.

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  2. Love this post, it really helps put a few things into perspective! One would think that knowing what is healthy and what is not would be more clear-cut by now, but the waters are constantly being muddied by all the ‘scare tactic lists’ and diet fads out there. The ‘intuitive eating’ path and the ‘moderation is key’ credo (as cliche as it sounds these days) seem much more sensible to me. And I’m pretty sure that brownie I ate yesterday wasn’t REALLY out to kill me. 😉

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  3. I know a lot of what you are saying is true, Tracy. But I’m not sure where the “line” is, so I’m slightly perplexed. If God id dead, all things are permitted; if dieting is bad, all foods are permitted? Like, having pop and chips for breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and spaghetti carbonara for dinner – well, this isn’t healthy for you. From a moral perspective, it is beyond good and evil and so from this perspective it may be permitted, but that still doesn’t make it healthy for you. And well, orange juice, while it isn’t EVIL and while it won’t kill you just like a Coke won’t kill you, it isn’t healthy for you to drink either. So – is orange juice just like the occasional piece of carrot cake, fine in the same way – according to you? The EVIL you are attributing to the multi-million dollar diet industry is undeniable. But do we really have to throw the baby out with the bath water to break our susceptibility to the influences of this evil industry?

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  4. I don’t even believe that if God is dead, all things are permitted. So we disagree there. Being in touch with your body’s needs is incompatible with making healthy choices. Carrot cake and orange juice aren’t essential eating, but they can certainly be part of a healthy lifestyle. Saying that is not the same thing as advocating that people should make these the mainstay of their diet. It’s the all or nothing mentality that I find self-defeating and unnecessarily rigid. Sure, rule out certain foods if you want and if that works for you. But I’m not enthusiastic about basing my eating choices only on what the plan says I should eat and never on what I am moved to eat.

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  5. I didn’t mean to suggest that I believe that if God is dead, all things are permiited – which is my point. I also don’t believe that if dieting doesn’t work, that eating all foods in any amount and in any manner is permitted from the perspective of living a healthy life. I don’t want to police anyone, much less myself. The issue I struggle with personally is knowing how to differentiate bewteen resisting certain temptations, and policing myself in a bad way. I sometimes want pancakes smeared with butter and smothered in maple syrup. But I resist that temptation. I don’t believe that my body will come to not want it, except perhaps in boredom, i.e. I fear that if I get bored of it, I’ll want something different but equally unhealthy for breakfast (and other meals) at least a lot of the time. So I think we do sometimes just plain have to resist some temptations. What I struggle with, like I said, is how to do this without policing myself in a bad way. Point is: What I don’t want is to have to eat the darn pancakes so as not to police myself. I think I’m struggling with alot of the same issues as you, Tracy. You’ve thrown out going to the bod pod because it’s not consistent with what you want to overcome on a personal level – not simply because you’ve given up completely on fat to lean mass ratio as something even slightly meaningful from a health perspective. So you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water here because overall this is a healthy thing for you to do for you at this particular moment in time. I understand that; I appreciate it; and I respect your choice. But there is no right and wrong here – we all don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water in the same way, for the same reasons, because we’re different people, with different demons to slay – some of the time anyway.

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    1. Craig,

      Agree with you about the different demons. I’m sticking with precision nutrition and with the measurement of percent body fat as something I care about. But my issues are very busy family life and needing to focus on nutrition for me as well as caring for others. I don’t obsess about food. I need to deliberately take time to plan and to think about my choices.

      And we’re not all moderators. There are some foods I choose not to have in my house because I’ll eat them if there but on balance, I’d rather not. That sort of line strikes some people as deprivation and triggers the urge to overeat the food in question. Not me. I do continue to eat foods I really love, chocolate cake, in moderation. But again I don’t bring chocolate cake into the house…

      That said, different demons for different folks acknowledged (I don’t have Tracy’s scary diet history) I do think more women than men suffer from the ‘evil foods’ mentality and one approach to overcoming that is to think of all foods as permitted. That’s not my approach but I see the wisdom in it. Wish more of my women friends thought like Tracy. The language of virtue around food drives me nuts. It might be imprudent to eat chocolate cake three nights in a row. But it sure isn’t evil.

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  6. I agree too that we all have different demons and that there’s not one right way. I like to blog about the way that is working for me at the moment and at the same time to suggest some alternative ways of looking at things that might encourage people to be more critical about the fitness, health, and diet research that they encounter.

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  7. Thanks, Sam. I’m now quite sure that I simply do not completely understand the mentality against which many women have to fight. I have a glimmer now as to how the intention of my remarks could sometimes be misinterpreted. Without fully understanding this mentality though, it remains but a glimmer.

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  8. It never even occurred to me before that women could think of themselves as lesser and as “bad people”, unworthy of love, because they succumbed to the temptation of eating a piece of pecan pie. But now that I think about it – a women recently told me she works out so she can eat pie. This means somehow, so she can eat pie without being an unworthy piece of fu@%ing s&^t ?!
    I really had no idea.

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