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Diet Culture, Healthism, and Intuitive Eating: A Primer

We fail to recognize the many ways our health is impacted by racism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, poverty, and more. Through diet culture and healthism, the pursuit of wellness has been transformed into a highly moralized personal project.

CW: food, diet culture, eating disorders, disordered eating 

By Alexandra Xu

In recent years, our collective fixation with health and wellness has skyrocketed. People everywhere have eschewed gluten and dairy, adopted intermittent fasting, established rigid workout regimes, and even purchased standing or treadmill desks (for sitting is allegedly the new smoking)—all to achieve some illusory state of “perfect health.” 

We are constantly told that, by rectifying our eating and exercise habits, we will become truly well. Our “thin, healthy” bodies will be earned virtues that we can proudly flaunt to prove our dedication. And this heightened obsession with health has indubitably been enforced by the rise of diet culture. 

Under diet culture, the image of wellness and beauty is one of thinness and whiteness. There are many things that diet culture impels us to do, but the major ones are:

  1. To restrict our calories and cut out entire food groups.
  2. To equate diets and body weight with morals and character.
  3. To feel like we have to “earn” our food.

Through these three major tenets of diet culture, we are conditioned to experience immense guilt for consuming foods that the culture deems “unhealthy”—and, therefore, “impure”—and to punish ourselves via restriction and exercise for eating “bad” food. 

Within diet culture, the foods that are deemed “healthy”—and, therefore, “clean”—are very Eurocentric. There is no place for the ethnic foods from BIPOC cuisine which possess not only nutritional value but also extreme cultural significance. 

To strengthen their proximity to white supremacist ideals and align with the established rules of diet culture, many people of color end up renouncing ethnic, cultural foods regarded as “unhealthy” in attempts to achieve the thinness and “health” that diet culture promises.  

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The moralization of food via diet culture is directly linked to healthism, a term coined by political economist Robert Crawford in 1980.  He framed healthism as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary—often the primary—focus for the definition and achievement of health; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of life styles.” 

Crawford’s words are still relevant today. In the modern world, we construe health as a matter of discipline and willpower, a mere sum of our lifestyle habits. We fail to recognize the complex, multifaceted nature of health or how it is impacted by systemic factors like racism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, poverty, and more.  

Instead, we reduce it to an issue of personal responsibility. We believe that the optimal means of enhancing health outcomes is not in addressing the systemic and environmental barriers to well-being, but rather in shaming individuals and promoting discipline under the guise of “being concerned about others’ health.” The pursuit of wellness has thereby been transformed into a highly moralized personal project.

Consider the cultural narrative that fatness is the primary presage of disease in Black folks. This fictitious conception keeps many Black individuals striving for thinness because it is directly equated with health and also enables the most privileged in society to neglect the social inequities that actually worsen health outcomes in Black communities. 

In Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, she illustrates how there would be no diet culture without racism and colonialism. The historical evidence is compelling. As Protestantism and the Transatlantic slave trade rose in prominence, scientists linked fatness with “gluttonous, animalistic” Africans. By casting Africans as inherently savage and inferior, Euro-Americans were able to justify their brutality and psychologically transform themselves into civilized, enlightened superiors who could subjugate Africans without contrition.  Thus, they promoted the narrative that African men preferred “robust” women and that the cultural events of Black folks were designed to fatten African women.

Meanwhile, religious figures linked overeating with corruption, ungodliness, and paganism. Hence, fatness became synonymous with both Blackness and sinfulness, whereas whiteness and thinness became indicative of superiority and virtue at a moral, racial, and national level.

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Overall, by reducing the multidimensional phenomenon of health to personal responsibility and associating health with thinness, we uphold not only white supremacy but also capitalism. Under capitalism, citizens are expected to engage in the self-indulgent consumption of food but also subscribe to Puritan values of self-sacrifice and practice food restriction to achieve white supremacist beauty standards. With the emergence of the diet and wellness industries, which are worth over $4 trillion globally, individuals can now voraciously consume diet products and supplements and splurge on au courant workout classes and equipment, all in the pursuit of thinness.

Attempts to become and stay thin may be ineffectual in the long-term, but people nevertheless cling onto the maxim of personal responsibility, attributing their unfavorable outcomes to personal flaws (laziness, lack of self-restraint, ignorance, etc.) rather than design flaws in the marketed means of achieving weight loss. This means that many people develop deeply destructive relationships with food and exercise as our cultural understanding of health becomes increasingly about control, shame, rigidity, aesthetics, and innate self-worth.  Consumer optimism in individual agency vis-à-vis health and weight is unremitting.  

It is no surprise, then, that we are witnessing a deadly epidemic of disordered eating. To help folks heal their relationship with food, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch developed a framework for recovery known as intuitive eating. While these principles are directed towards individuals with eating disorders, we can all benefit from them, given the constant inundation of diet culture and healthism in our daily lives.  

Here are the ten principles of intuitive eating.  

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

Throw away any books or magazines that promise quick, permanent weight loss. Unfollow social media accounts that espouse a rigid mindset around food and associate food with morality and “cleanliness.” Recognize how diet culture and healthism work to uphold marginalization and oppression, and also how the diet industry profits from your suffering.  

2. Honor Your Hunger  

Trust your body and honor your biological cues. Your body is intelligent and knows what it needs to function and flourish. Fuel it with adequate energy and carbohydrates.  

3. Make Peace With Food  

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. No food should be forbidden or off limits. In fact, restriction often leads to an inordinate mental fixation with the very foods you are cutting out. You are therefore less likely to binge eat or feel out of control around food if you give yourself unwavering permission to eat and enjoy all foods.  

4. Challenge the Food Police  

Actively challenge the eating disorder voice that says you are “bad” or lazy for eating certain foods and “good” for restricting calories and avoiding certain foods. Do the exact opposite of what the voice tells you to do.  

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor  

Remember that food is fuel and nutrition, but it is also joy, celebration, and connection. Eating can and should bring you tremendous pleasure and satisfaction. Obviously, not every meal will be splendid, but try to rediscover the joy in eating.  

RECOMMENDED: NEDA Is Perpetuating Fatphobia and White Supremacy in Eating Disorder Recovery

6. Feel Your Fullness  

Observe the signs that you are comfortably full; check in with yourself. How does your food taste? How are you feeling? Are you still hungry? Keep in mind that it is completely okay and normal to eat past fullness sometimes, so do not punish yourself for doing so. In fact, in recovery from an eating disorder, you will need to eat large amounts of food to help your body repair after all that restriction.  

7. Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness  

Disordered eating often stems from attempts to deal with difficult emotions, from anxiety to boredom to anger. Food is not a permanent solution for unwanted feelings, so try to deal with the root causes of these issues. Trauma (including structural oppression, poverty, abuse, and more) often plays a role in disordered eating, so please seek professional help to help cope and process trauma as necessary. 

8. Respect Your Body  

We are all meant to be different shapes and sizes; body diversity is a beautiful phenomenon. Your body deserves respect and dignity, always. Practice self-care and self-compassion.  

9. Movement—Feel the Difference  

Please do not attempt to begin an exercise regimen until you have fully rejected the eating disorder voice and learned to have a healthy relationship with food. When you are ready, discover forms of joyful movement that you genuinely look forward to and that make you feel good. Do not focus on arbitrary numbers like calories burned or steps walked. Always ask yourself: if I knew this workout would not change my body, would I still be doing it?  

10. Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition  

This is the final step of any intuitive eating journey. Once you have healed your relationship with food, you can begin considering nutrition when making food choices. Nutrition is only one factor, however, and not the most important one; recall that food is pleasure, celebration, tradition, and connection as well. One food is not inherently better or morally superior than the other just because it contains more nutrients, and there is no such thing as eating “perfectly.” Focus on inclusion rather than exclusion; in other words, prioritize including tasty, nutrient-dense foods in your diet rather than excluding certain foods.  

For more information on intuitive eating, I highly recommend Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole’s book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. The intuitive eating journey is a difficult but rewarding one. Always keep in mind that recovery is not a linear process. If you believe you may have an eating disorder, please consider seeking professional help. Lastly, eating disorders thrive in isolation, so spend time connecting with friends and family doing activities you love and eating foods you enjoy. It is so crucial to find a community that will support your recovery. 

Alexandra Xu (she/her) is a high school junior at Rutgers Preparatory School. Through writing and content creation, she aims to assist individuals in eating disorder recovery, highlight the white supremacist and colonialist roots of diet culture, and discuss mental health and healthcare disparities. Find her on Instagram at @alexfoodfreedom

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