Gut Instinct: Diet Realism

Little, Brown and Company

Gut Instinct is a feeling of intuition, analysis, and reaction to the moments presented in life. Here, it is a column that aims to find a sense of deeper truth and learn from the musing of modern culture. 

New Year’s health and wellness goals set over Los Angeles every January like a fog. I don’t know anyone who makes a typical New Years’ weight loss resolution anymore, presumably because only 8% of people stick to them past the first month. Instead, my friends are doing bone broth cleanses, my Instagram is filled with ads for Classpass bargains, and a constant buzz of comments about shedding a few pounds circulates around the office. Suddenly, the New Year jolts back to my lifelong desire to be smaller. My desire for weight loss is no longer just an underlying insecurity, but an identity put back under a spotlight: I no longer know who I am if I am not someone who wants to lose weight. 

A distorted sense of self is the result of overarching, cultural pursuits of health, masquerading as weight loss that infiltrates my day-to-day reality. I’m continually reminded of the work of Mark Fisher, the late writer and cultural theorist known both for his music blog K-Punk and for coining the term “capitalist realism” in his 2009 book of the same name. In the book, he presents the thesis that capitalism and its repercussions are perceived not only as a viable economic system, but the only system possible;that it’s just the way the world works. Capitalism’s oppressive nature, he ultimately offers, is actually an Achilles’ heel – even the slightest glimmer of hope can collapse the fabric of capitalism and make room for a new system. 

Diet and wellness culture, I believe, operate in a similar paradigm, in that they exist as a perceived reality versus an oppressive system. Things like Ketosis, cleansing, and goal weights are considered states of being, rather than products of propaganda. In referring to diet culture, and the wellness craze — like the cultural intolerance of gluten and the pseudo-science schools of thought often advocated by Goop — I don’t mean the literal act of being on a diet. I’m referring to diet culture as a state, or reality, built on the narrative of dieting. 

Anti-diet and intuitive eating expert Christy Harrison — a registered anti-diet dietician, intuitive eating podcast host, and author of the book Anti-Diet — lays out diet culture as a world where thinness is synonymous with health, promotes a white, thin ideal, and ascribes morality to food and food choices, designating some foods are inherently bad or good. Similar to the concept of capitalist realism, it has made the pursuit of weight loss a default setting and thinness a universal aspiration. 

The wellness craze is placed under the umbrella of diet culture as it follows a similar cadence – it elevates certain foods and perfectionist regimine (kale, bone broth, “clean-eating”) while demeaning other foods with elimination (sugar, grains, processed foods, “impure foods”). It claims that wellness is not just about weight loss, yet thinness is still a part of the narrative – as well as being white, able-bodied, and wealthy. I’m not exempt from the pressures of wellness culture, or the effects of living in Los Angeles, a city that religiously ascribes to diet culture norms. On top of that, I’m stacked against the two decades or so of occupying a world that tells me weight loss is a productive achievement, and who I am is what I eat. 

My pursuit of wellness came first as the Whole30, the latest fad to not present itself as a diet, but rather an illuminating experiment with an idyllic result: eliminate problematic foods for thirty days and be rewarded with a set of tools to navigate the minefield of office treats, birthday parties, and Postmates. The results, at first, were wildly addictive: I felt lighter, stopped craving sugar (haha!), and my stomach looked flatter. Controlling food consumption suddenly gave me a sense of control in life. 

Inevitably, though, Whole30 came to an end, and suddenly, all the foods I’d eliminated began to present themselves. My backsliding would start with a few small bites here and there, and then my perfectionist eating would give way to participation in life – drinks on vacation, birthday treats, dates, movie popcorn. A year went by and my lifestyle change began to feel all too similar to the eating disorders and fad diets of my youth, cycles that I’d sworn off of in favor of health and — there’s that word again — wellness. Instead of feeling well, I found myself immersed in yet another cycle of restriction, binging, guilt, and fluctuating weight, which always led back to more restriction. 

The reality of eating clean whole foods, or compliant ones, and strict avoidance of “bad foods” is  no longer a way of life, but a broken economic system;elimination diets and what felt like an obligation to create maximal health left me feeling as if there was no alternative mode of being. Thankfully, I was soon introduced to the concept of intuitive eating by a friend, a theory that’s basically a glitch in the matrix of diet culture, or an out from that oppressive system. Instead of a reality defined by food choices and body shaming, intuitive eating operates from a different paradigm, that listening to our body’s natural hunger cues instead of a craze, and trusting ourselves, not pseudo-science, will accurately determine the needs of our body. 

Like Fisher dismantles the assumptions of capitalism, intuitive eating unpacks the ways in which diet culture warp our reality – guilt over celebratory treats, body shame plaguing our thoughts, an entire (capitalistic, natch) industry profiting off of the inevitable disappointment of not looking the way the same system dictates. Pursuing weight loss is then just the way the world works. Intuitive eating presents a world where the diet industry and its ramifications are removed from the equation, and health becomes truly holistic and inclusive instead – not just for white, able-bodies, and wealthy people. Wellness encompasses the totality of human need, where food is energy, food cravings are natural, important messages, and all bodies are allowed to hunger, to eat, and to take up whatever space they need.

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