Toxic culture: Diets and “wellness”

Diet culture toxic when we hide it

Walk into a cafe. Among the friendly chatter of peers, there’s often an ongoing conversation.

What are you eating? When do you work out? God I want to lose weight so bad! 

These conversations may seem harmless, but that is also why they are so dangerous. The constant need to lose weight, diet, and be healthy is so common all around us that it becomes hard to even recognize the toxicity anymore.

The spread of dieting and losing weight disguised as “wellness” is everywhere, not just at the teenager’s lunch table. Social media like Snapchat and Instagram are filled with beauty bloggers, fitness models, and wellness sites that perpetuate the harmful conversation around weight and eating. 

“It is so pervasive in our culture right now, especially because we are not calling it dieting in the same way we used to, and now it’s under the umbrella of ‘wellness’ so it doesn’t always have the same connotation dieting has,” said Dr. Ariel Trost, a clinical psychologist with a focus on eating disorders.

These kinds of Instagram accounts and other people spread all kinds of wellness tips, from “How to lose 10 pounds in one month: Stop eating _____!” as well as the less blatantly obvious dieting tips like recommending diets and certain foods to “help you be healthy.” But they are simply fad diet tips disguised as health advice. 

“You can distinguish between whether something is actually about health by asking, ‘would you do this if you knew that you would gain five pounds from doing it, but it would be way healthier for you.’ Most of the time that answer would be no, ” said Trost, whose office is in Oakland. 

One of the reasons the diet culture is so toxic is because of the way we try to hide it, disguise it, and pretend they aren’t ketogenic to lose weight. Instead, we say they’re “keto” because it’s “healthier,” and it’s for wellness. 

The term “wellness” nowadays applies to anything that is supposed to make you healthy, but is often advice from regular people pretending to be professionals concerning nutrition and fitness. “Wellness” allows social media bloggers and fitness accounts to pawn off fake diets as health trends and ways to look skinnier without the negative connotation dieting has. 

But social media isn’t the entirety of the problem surrounding diet and wellness culture. We see diet culture in our parents and the adults around us just as much as we see it in our friends and peers. Parents nowadays are also involved in diet culture, eating paleo, keto, vegan, gluten free, and working out with CrossFit and Orange Theory to try and lose weight. 

These things alone are not harmful when used properly, and health is important for everyone. The problem arises when parents obsess over weight and body image, reinforcing these ideas into their teens.

“Oftentimes teenagers try out fad diets because someone in their family is trying it out or their coach or trainer is doing it,” Trost said.

However, just because diets are often abused today for weight loss does not mean all diets are inherently toxic or unhealthy. For people with serious health conditions such as diabetes or celiac disease, specific diets are important to stay healthy as they cannot eat certain foods, according to health literature. Diets, when used properly and are approved by a nutritionist, can have benefits. Proper diets can help you lose weight and stay healthy with the help of an active lifestyle and adequate hydration. 

The problem is not the use of diets, but the abuse of them. The problem lies with diets that propagate an unhealthy or unbalanced food intake or a severe caloric deficit are more abrasive than helpful for your body.

But what qualifies a diet as harmful? A diet is harmful when it causes you to obsess over what you eat, to ignore every single craving and desire out of fear of gaining weight, and cause nutritional deficiency or imbalance. This fear can change, grow stronger, and for some, it can develop into an eating disorder. The constant role of body image plays a part in the unhealthy obsession with being overweight, and fad diets are a stepping stone into eating disorders. 

“If you’re predisposed to an eating disorder, what might be a fad diet to one kid can spiral into a lifelong eating disorder for you,” Trost said.

The spread of misinformation by non-professionals is harmful to anyone who believes it. They sell their diet to anyone who falls for the pseudo-scientific information that they cite to back them up. 

Saying one food is causing you to gain weight is not necessarily true, and it may contribute to misconceptions such as “fruit is bad for you; avocados and bananas have so much fat they’ll make you gain 10 pounds!” Rather than believing in an Instagram fitness and lifestyle blog, talk to a licensed nutritionist who can give you the advice you need. Nutritionists’ goals, unlike wellness blogs, are not there to sell you false information and the diet tea their sponsor is paying them to like. 

But diet culture is old, and it plays on an even older social culture. People want to fit in with everyone else, and nobody wants to fit into the pack more than teenagers.