The Trouble with the Diet Mentality

More than any of the junk food on the market, I think the biggest obstacle to having healthy balanced eating habits, a good relationship with our body, and a healthy relationship with food is the diet mentality. In order to start truly making lasting changes to your eating habits, you have to start working on curbing that mentality from the outset.

What is the Diet Mentality

The diet mentality is a deeply ingrained way of thinking in our culture that emphasizes black-and-white thinking about eating habits. You hear it in the on-the-wagon-off-the-wagon notion and the idea of “good” foods versus “bad” foods. You hear it in the way we talk about our eating behaviors: “I was bad today because I had chips and dessert.” And it’s behind our negative self-talk when we pick apart our physical appearance, berate ourselves for not following our diet, and say cruel things about our bodies.

The diet mentality is critical for the survival of the commercial diet industry because it supports their unsustainable programs which focus solely on the food, counting calories, carbs, and points, and the number on the scale and ignore balance, the reasons behind our eating habits, and food quality.

Why the Diet Mentality is a Problem

The diet mentality is a big problem for a whole number of reasons. First and foremost, all of that negative self-talk and those unrealistic goals that it emphasizes throw us into a self-defeating, self-berating spiral.

Let me explain. Commercial diets rely on one common ingredient for all of their programs: self-control. Here’s the thing about self-control, it’s a finite resource for every single human being out there. It erodes throughout the course of the day, with stress, with lack of sleep, and the longer we rely on it. However, we are conditioned to believe that when we run out of the ability to exercise self-control, it’s a failure on our part. We are simply not good enough, not strong enough, not cut out for this. Have you ever had those thoughts about yourself?

Pretty much anyone who has withstood the diet cycle has had those thoughts. And what those thoughts ultimately lead to are beliefs that we are simply not good enough so why bother even trying. “Well, I already blew it today, so why not just go all in for dinner, dessert, and wine?” “I just can’t do it. What’s the point in even trying?” “I didn’t have the self control for no carbs….but maybe if I’m counting points instead that’ll be easier”.

This is the diet mentality at work. It make you feel bad about yourself, warps your self-image, and keeps you coming back for more and more diets.

Here’s the thing…

The diet mentality does not reflect reality. There are no good foods and bad foods – just food. There are foods you shouldn’t eat as often because they aren’t as nutritious, true. But eating those foods certainly doesn’t make you bad any more than eating a carrot would make Charles Manson good. See what I’m saying?

The goal that we all need to be working towards is BALANCE so that we can enjoy those treats that we like but also eat plenty of the more nutritious foods that our bodies need. The goal is BALANCE so that we can enjoy food without equating it with our worth, so that we can stop berating ourselves and heal our relationships with food and with our bodies.

Releasing the Diet Mentality

Only by working on quelling those diet mentality thoughts and beliefs can we focus on achieving that balance that we need. But it takes time because that mentality is so deeply ingrained not only in ourselves but also in our society. It’s all around us and we don’t even notice it most of the time. So it takes practice noticing those patterns and then flipping the script on them.

So here’s a homework assignment if you’re willing: grab a journal and write down the diet mentality thoughts and feelings you have today on one side of the page. On the other side of the page, flip the script on them, turn them into something constructive or more observational and not judgmental. For example “I was bad today because I ate a whole bag of chips” could be flipped to “I ate a bag of chips today and they tasted really good.” “I can’t eat bread because carbs are bad” could be flipped to “bread isn’t falling in line with the nutritional goals I have today but I can have it if I want it.”

To get you started: your worth is not dictated by the foods you eat. Your body is beautiful and amazing. You are not defective or weak.

Fitness Industry Sayings that Need to Go

I didn’t get into health and nutrition coaching because I wanted to create weight loss plans. I got into it because I spent most of my younger years obsessing over my weight  and I had a horribly unhealthy relationship with food and my body. I saw how much harm the diet and “wellness” industries caused myself and others and I wanted to help other people embrace healthy eating and balance. This isn’t an easy mission when the giant diet industry is spamming all of our feeds with toxic messages. My intern, Nicki, is totally on the same page about these messages, so we put our heads together on what language we think the industry needs to ditch.

1. Get your beach/bikini body

“Bathing suit season is coming.” “Get your body bikini-ready!” “Time to work on your summer bod.” UGH! We need to stop promoting the notion that only certain types of bodies are worthy of a bikini. This kind of mentality not only is harmful by driving people to extremes to lose weight, it also encourages the policing of other people’s bodies. As the meme says, “the only way to get a bikini body it to put a bikini on your body” and it’s true. Stretch marks? Cellulite? Jiggle? Rolls? Put a bikini on it. I’m no more worthy of a bikini than you or your neighbor and vice versa. 

2. Toxic “motivation”

You’ve definitely heard it or maybe been told it yourself, “motivational” sayings like: “sweat is fat crying,” “pain is weakness leaving your body,” “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” “unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going” (looking at you, Jillian Michaels). This is the kind of garbage that lands people hurt or ill. Exercise should not be punishment and ignoring your body’s warning signs is a recipe for disaster. What we need to be focusing on is positive encouragement, tuning into one’s body, and finding balance. It’s the imbalance that this mentality promotes that keeps people pumping money into the diet industry for unsustainable tactics. Also, have you ever had pizza? It definitely tastes better than skinny feels.

3. Good Food vs Bad Food, Healthy Food vs Unhealthy Food

As humans, we like having opposite categories, I will give us that. But, when it comes to applying blanket classifications to foods, we run into some problems. Are some foods healthier than others? Yes, obviously. But that doesn’t mean that one food is good and another is bad. As the saying goes “the dose makes the poison.” It’s about proportionality. You should eat more nutritious foods than less nutritious, caloric foods. But focusing on completely avoiding “bad” foods is unsustainable and can lead to disordered eating habits.

4. Superfood

And while we’re at it, we need to 86 this “superfood” label we are giving to a new fruit or vegetable every 6 months. Say it with me: there is no such thing as a superfood. This is a buzzword created by the food industry (yes, even agriculture is an industry) to increase sales of certain products. Fruits and vegetables are rich in highly healthful compounds called phytonutrients as well as vitamins and minerals. This is what makes them so good for us. But cauliflower is not more super than kale which is no more super than blueberries. They just have different amounts of different nutrients. What you really need to focus on is eating a wide variety of different plants so your body can reap the benefits of those nutrients.

5. “Get your body back”

There are few things that frost my cookies as much as seeing an ad for some program directed at new moms promising to help them “get their body back.” Here’s the thing, there is no body “lost” in the process of carrying a child. Does your body change? Yes. Is that a problem? It shouldn’t be, but in our sexist society some think it is. Until we can stop telling women that they need to “get their bodies back”, women will continue to belittle themselves, resort to varying, sometimes extreme, measures to lose weight, and internalize that hatred towards their own bodies. You body just did an amazing and incredibly difficult thing. Of course it’s going to change and it’s that change that makes it so amazing. What the message needs to be is that the postpartum body is amazing and beautiful and that new moms can focus on caring for themselves and their newborn. 

 

We’re not so naive as to think that this kind of talk is going to go away – it isn’t. But what we do want to encourage through this post is more dialogue around the effects of this kind of language. We want to encourage everyone to become more aware of how this mentality slips into their daily lives and focus on reframing those words into more positive, healthy, encouraging thoughts.

 

Jillian Michaels is part of the problem

Content Warning: Fat shaming, disordered eating, verbal abuse

Fat shaming takes many different forms and is everywhere – from blatant insults to shaming thinly veiled as concern about someone’s health. No matter its form, fat shaming creates and perpetuates harmful cycles of self-hatred, poor body image, and unhealthy diet and exercise habits. Jillian Michaels has built her career on fat-shaming and profiting off of dangerous, unhealthy habits.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you heard about her comments this week on Lizzo’s weight, which she then backpedaled on to use as false concern about Lizzo’s health, citing that obesity creates higher risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. OK, well since we are so concerned about people’s health, let’s talk about the health problems Jillian’s approach in The Biggest Loser, which has contributed to her ~$14 million net worth (source), creates.

Before we even dig into the physical problems created by excessive calorie restriction and exercise, let’s talk about her brand of “coaching” and “encouragement.”

  • “I don’t care if people die on this floor. You better die looking good.”
  • “I don’t care if one of your legs fall off or if one of your lungs explode.”
  • “The only way you’re coming off this treadmill is if you die on it.”
  • “Unless you puke, faint or die, keep going.”

And let’s just generally mention the screaming and name-calling from the show as well.

Sounds like a coach you’re itching to work with, right?

You may say those things were just stunts for the show to increase viewership, but you’re taking all of this in complete isolation, which is not how it occurs. When you are already struggling with self-esteem, body image, and negative self-talk like the contestants and many in the audience, words like these stay with you, regardless of their intent. They can become part of the self-hatred soundtrack playing in your mind engendering further negative self-talk, obsession, unhealthy habits, and extreme dietary measures not to mention depression and anxiety.

They also create unrealistic, dangerous standards for how you should be working out and eating. This kind of “encouragement” pushes over-workouts and tuning out your body’s internal cues that could be telling you that you’re in danger and need to stop. You begin to think things like “if I’m not in pain or struggling to breathe, then I’m not working out hard enough and it’s not effective,” particularly if you’re someone who is new to physical fitness.

And while we’re on the topic of physical fitness, let’s talk about the actual physical measures she has promoted. The show’s weight loss plan is based on extreme calorie restriction and excessive exercise designed to create a large calorie deficit which, in turn, leads to weight loss. It pays no mind to nutrient balance or food quality, just the calories in: calories out ratio. Our bodies simply are not designed for this.

A 2016 study following 14 contestants found the following after their stint on The Biggest Loser:

  • Extremely low levels of the satiety hormone leptin, leaving them feeling constantly hungry
  • Drastically slowed metabolism
  • And ss many as 6 years after the show, contestants’ leptin levels and metabolisms had still not recovered which led them to regain much of the weight.

The thing is our bodies are incredibly smart and will always tend towards a certain homeostasis. This means that whenever you make changes, your body will make internal changes to counter them to an extent. The decrease in leptin and metabolic rate seen in these contestants is their bodies’ response to extreme weight loss measures.

And these aren’t the only problems with the weight loss tactics espoused by the show. The exercise regimens prescribed to contestants greatly exceed what is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (source) and pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of someone who is not accustomed to strenuous workouts and is carrying a significant amount of excess weight.

As for the calorie restriction, anyone who has ever tried dieting or fasting knows that you might be able to do it for a bit but then you swing back to the other extreme. This is because humans don’t respond well to deprivation psychologically or physiologically. We need a certain amount of fuel and nutrients to keep our bodies running efficiently and that amount increases with several factors including physical activity. If that deficit is too great then there comes a breaking point.

All of this is to say that Jillian Michaels has a history of espousing weight loss tactics that put clients at risk of a number of health threats including eating disorders, heart failure, body image issues, depression, anxiety, and more. Given all of this, doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical that she is suddenly so concerned about Lizzo’s health?

The fact of the matter is that Jillian Michaels is concerned about aesthetics and her version of a physical ideal. That ideal is so important to her that she is unwilling to examine her own contributions to health issues. She refuses to acknowledge that you can be fat and not have chronic illnesses. You can be fat and be very physically active (have you SEEN Lizzo onstage). You can be fat and happy. She refuses to acknowledge that her brand is not coaching; it’s abuse. And she refuses to acknowledge her contributions to a culture of fat shaming.

At this point, you may be asking, as a nutrition coach, who am I to be calling Jillian Michaels out for promoting weight loss tactics. As a nutrition coach, I help people make dietary changes so that they’re eating healthier foods that nourish their body and often weight loss comes with that either as a motivating factor for clients or as a side effect.

I struggled with a poor body image for years and I still do. I’ve said things to myself about myself that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. It’s a struggle every day. And I’ve struggled with disordered eating and exercise habits. At one point when I was 19-20, I was eating yogurt for breakfast and a plain salad with no dressing for lunch and dinner every day (snacks were rare) and I was exercising for 2-3 hours a day 5-6 days a week. At nearly 5’5″, I was down to 112 lbs and was convinced I still had further to go. I’ve nearly passed out in lecture hall and I’ve curtailed my social life so I wouldn’t have to eat anything I saw as “fattening.” This is what happens when weight loss becomes an obsession, when your self-image is skewed, when unhealthy habits are promoted as acceptable.

While I’ve recovered in terms of eating and exercise habits, I still struggle with my negative self-talk and body image. My goal as a nutrition coach is to help other women silence that negative self-talk and use healthy eating as a way to nourish and celebrate their bodies. I don’t want people to live the way I used to live and I don’t want people to feel about themselves the way I once did.

As long as people like Jillian Michaels are out there parading themselves around as authorities on health and fitness and policing other people’s bodies, people will continue to resort to extremes to silence that voice of criticism from within and without. If you want to be role model and a coach, don’t comment on other people’s bodies, don’t fat shame, don’t speculate about other people’s health, don’t belittle and degrade. If you do, you are part of the problem.