Diet Culture, Self-Esteem and Health
I was 28 the first time I restricted my calories with the intention of losing weight.
I had spent my 20s racing in triathlons and hitting the gym mostly for bodybuilding exercises. I soaked up all things fitness related, from magazines to blogs to the advice of fellow gym rats. More than one person suggested I should “compete,” and after a bad snowboarding accident left me with post-concussion syndrome, I decided to try fitness for aesthetics instead of function.
I was joining diet culture.
The anti-diet culture is patrolled fiercely by its advocates. Just ask Ashley Graham, the stunning model known for her curves and her beauty beyond size mantra. After some recent workout posts on Instagram, the model has been heavily criticized for appearing to look smaller. The comments range from unsolicited observational remarks on her size to attacks on her character for being “fake.” Graham doesn’t mention diet, make posts regarding food or engage in diet culture at all. And while many comments are generally positive, the sum total serves as a powerful reminder that the diet and fitness industry are policed by everyone for every reason.
Overall, the confusion about what you should do is as persistent as ever. While we know that restrictive diets fail over and over again. And we know that movement and exercise can make people healthier and help them live longer. So why are we trolling people who want to move and feel healthier? How an individual defines and achieves health is deeply personal. Food and exercise are often linked to core values, much like religion and politics, and everyone is passionate about his or her beliefs.
When I started my journey to the stage, I was prescribed the typical competitors diet: plain chicken or fish, grilled or boiled, with green vegetables and a little bit of sweet potato. I trained hard in the weight room and did hours of endless cardio. As my body shrank, so did my IQ. By the time show day arrived, I couldn’t be trusted to operate a motor vehicle. My now-husband escorted me to various hair, nail and spray-tan appointments and watched me stagger around on stage when my moment to shine arrived.
Everything about this experience was powerful. It exposed me again to the negative aspects of diet culture. Extreme restriction with food and calories? I was awful at the diet. I would have several good days of “sticking to the plan,” then spin out of control with sugar. It was a vicious cycle of eat well, train hard, binge on sugar, feel guilty and terrified that I was failing, then punish myself with 3 hours of cardio to get back on track. I was exhausted.
As I prepared for my show, I noticed a shift in my mindset. While I was never immune to comparison and the influence of the ideal beauty standard, it had never preoccupied me. But I was suddenly caught up in how other girls looked.
“Are her abs more visible? Does she have bigger shoulders? More cellulite?”
If you didn’t come into the fitness/figure arena with high self-esteem and a healthy relationship with food, the experience can be incredibly damaging. For example, micro-managing food doesn’t improve disordered eating, and for some it might even be the catalyst for an eating disorder.
My experience highlights something we already know: Extreme diets don’t work in the long term. Not for anyone. Not for the physique competitors who diet down to be as lean as possible for the stage, and not for any person looking to lose body fat. The calculated energy deficit works in the short term, but once we re-introduce the calories back into the diet, the weight comes back. The diet industry as a whole capitalizes on this. Quick fixes, skinny beverages, miracle pills—everything is available for the desperately unhappy and confused consumer. Everything but education.
As someone who teaches people about food, I find myself constantly checking in with our coaching team. Are we offering good advice? Are we sending the right message? Are we actually improving our clients’ relationship with food?
Paleo, Whole 30, vegan, vegetarian, macro tracking and Beachbody—just to name a few—are heavily condemned by the anti-diet culture. Moralizing food and attaching food to health are viewed as extremely problematic. What’s glaringly obvious amid all the debate is that the energy balance model has wreaked havoc with most people who have tried dieting. The No. 1 battle we face as nutrition coaches is actually getting our clients to eat more food.
I understand how this happened. “Clean” foods and “dirty” foods have been on my mind since childhood. Letting go of the idea that any one food was inherently bad for me was very freeing, but I can’t let go of the idea that certain foods make me feel healthy and contribute to my mental, physical and emotional well-being.
And if we want our clients to eat intuitively and thrive, we need to talk about food. Not just what it will make you look like but how it makes you feel. We need to talk, not judge.
I don’t scroll through my feed on Facebook or Instagram and patrol what other people are doing or saying about health and fitness. I don’t judge women or men based on what they’re eating, wearing or selling. I’ve come to realize that this type of behaviour says more about my own self-esteem than that of the person I’m casting judgement on. If I find myself uncomfortable with certain images and how people make me feel, I just unfollow them. But not before I have a conversation with myself about why.
Remember how I grew up with acne? Starting at 12, I stopped attaching my self-worth to my face. I didn’t feel pretty, but because of sport I didn’t feel worthless. I threw myself into competition and academics. I participated in events that had measurable, tangible results. If I was faster, I won. Period.
This doesn’t mean athletes are immune to body-image issues, disordered eating or self-esteem issues. In fact, in my next post I’ll talk about injury. Perhaps too much of my self-worth was attached to my body and sports success, and an injury provided a reality check on priorities and values.
In my next post, I’ll look at what a 10-year stretch of weightlifting, food exploration and education revealed to me, and I’ll face my own bias about body image, beauty and what it means to be healthy.
Despite the fact that my first experience with physique competition wasn’t super positive, I wasn’t done with the stage yet. Still, it would be a full decade before I circled back—this time with a very different approach.