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.