Weighing In: Thoughts on Diet Culture


The topic of this post was inspired by a Washington Post article written by a dietitian that I read this morning, sent to my inbox by the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

The title of this post, however, was inspired by a 3-line conversation I had as an undergrad with a coworker while working our afternoon shift at the fitness centers.  And while I’m fairly positive he would not even remember having this conversation, it has stuck with me enough to mention it in a blog post 6 years later.

Here’s how it went:

W<: I have to lose 10 pounds.

Me: …by when?  (not sure why this was my immediate response)

W: Tomorrow.

Me: …

In full disclosure, my friend and coworker, W, was a sprint football player, who actually did have to “weigh in” to meet a weight qualification.   And while, yes, this is somewhat of an extreme depiction of weight manipulation, it is unfortunately a fairly accurate microcosm of diet culture in society today.  Here’s why:

While I’m sure very few people would agree that losing 10 pounds in less than 24 hours is by no means a healthy endeavor, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that if it weren’t for a weight limit, the sport of sprint football would not exist, and if spring football didn’t exist, these talented but physically smaller athletes would not be able to, or would at least be disadvantaged to compete at the varsity level.  But it also wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that perhaps this 4-year experience is not worth putting a college-aged kid at potential risk for a damaged relationship to his/her body for life.  I see this argument as very representative of those around diet culture today.

There point is that are always two or more sides to an argument (otherwise it wouldn’t be an argument).  I know already that there were reactions and opinions to the hypothetical debate above that were so extreme that they would rule out the other side as even being a side at all.  But in an ideal world, wouldn’t finding a solution that incorporated (or at minimum heard) the best of both sides be more beneficial to those we are trying to help in the first place than to play tug-o-war with the lay non-dietitian-regular-person caught in the middle? Whether this is possible (or even correct), I do not know and also do not claim to know.

The point of this post is absolutely not to push my opinion and beliefs (though I do provide them because I am asking others to do so too).  The point of this post is to acknowledge what I see as the newest edition of Conflicting Nutrition Messages 5.0 and to hopefully inspire others to “weigh in” as well.

Here are some of the questions that immediately came to mind for me after reading the Washington Post article:

1)  Is demonizing foods (also commonly known as labeling as “good” or “bad”) bad, but calling them “super” okay?

2)  Is self-care not exercising if you don’t enjoy exercising? Or is it exercising even if you don’t always want to because it is proven to have positive health benefits?

3)  Are dietitians today supposed to post pictures of their donuts (#treatyoself) or their chickpea-based cookie dough (#healthyswaps)?

And beneath all of this, the real question:

4)  Is there a line between anti-diet and anti-health?  Is there a point when rejecting diet culture takes a stance so radical that it begins to push back on eating healthfully and nourishing the body in its most literal, metabolic and scientific terms?  Can there be a gray area, or are dietitians going to find themselves stuck in a predicament forcing them to pick a side, anti-diet or healthy eating?

The questions I ask above are the ones that came up for me as a soon-to-be dietitian after reading this article — ones that I imagine must come up for the average non-dietitian consumer of social media, considering that I, a future RD, have asked them to myself.  They are questions that I have for all current and future dietitians with a diversity of positions on the matter.  And I’m hoping we can all “weigh in” with an open mind, a willingness to listen, and most importantly, without judgment.  I am hoping to gain clarity for myself and hopefully for others on what I have begun to see as an emerging dichotomy between the generations of past, current, and future RD’s.

In closing, and because I promised as such, here is my humble RD-to-be “weigh in” on my own questions above:

1)  I do believe that labeling and demonizing foods is a detrimental, unnecessary, and inaccurate practice.  It creates unnecessary anxiety around certain foods, especially when it is done in the presence of children and teens as they are in the most formative years for their future relationships with food.  I do not, however have an issue with positive descriptors for foods such as healthy, nutritious, wholesome, etc.  I also do not have an issue with the term “superfood” as I see it as a “pat on the back” for a food that goes above and beyond in its nutritional contributions.  I do, however, have issues with the word “clean” because it literally does not make sense. (Elaborations to be saved for its own blog post all-together)

2) I do not believe there is a “best workout.” Actually — there is.  It’s the kind you enjoy doing.  Believe it or not, regardless of those days where all you want to do is Netflix forever and ever, that feeling actually isn’t going to last forever and ever.  Eventually the body will want to move, whether that looks like your typical gym, running, yoga, hiking, etc. or just taking a solo walk on the beach is up to you.  So yes, while I am a firm believer in listening to the body and resting when needed, I also that it is important to take the time to invigorate the body by physically using it, however that may look.  (And it will look different for everyone despite how similar it may look on instagram).

3) I believe in authenticity.  I believe that, if you are someone to whom others turn for knowledge about food and nutrition, it is your responsibility to be truthful.  So if you eat a balance of donuts and chickpeas, proudly post that balance of donuts and chickpeas.  If you only eat beans and rice, only post beans and rice (but probably re-evaluate your need for an instagram presence).  This, like exercise is going to and should look different for everyone, so personally, if I see a feed that looks identical to a million others or that is color-coded, impossibly intricate, etc… I have thoughts.


4)  In my opinion, there is a balance to be struck between anti-diet and anti-health.  It can be easier to live in the black or white (we humans like structure and direction), but the truth is that much of life exists in the gray.  The same way I don’t believe in labeling your cupcake as “bad,” I don’t believe labeling your health professionals either.  I personally believe in the anti-diet approach, but also believe that it’s important to utilize the nutrition knowledge that we’ve worked so hard for to give advice and answer questions on how to make nutritious choices, to inspire new food products and recipes that elevate our food industry with wholesome ingredients, and to bring an evidence-based approach to weigh in on these nutrition topics that are important to the health and well-being of society.

While this was definitely a vulnerable topic for me, I know that passively observing the conversations around me is the opposite of what I believe  the approach to nutrition (and life) should be.  So I invite other dietitians, RD-to-be’s, and anyone else to not back away, but to actively “weigh in” too as this conversation is not going away anytime soon.

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