Wellness Needs To Distance Itself From Diet Culture


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Even amid the backlash against restrictive diets like F-Factor, keto, and Paleo, the persistent cultural push toward dieting and weight loss finds sneaky ways to influence wellness-conscious Americans. In the third episode of The Well+Good Podcast, Christy Harrison, MPH, RDN, dubs this current iteration of diet culture the “wellness diet.” The “wellness diet” isn’t a set eating plan the way the aforementioned are; rather, it’s the way brands and influencers peddle us restrictive eating behaviors with language that evokes a wellness ethos. As this episode’s host, Well+Good general manager Kate Spies, puts it, “It’s a little bit of a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing.”

“Diet culture had to sort of shapeshift in order to continue capturing the market,” says Harrison. “Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are seen as your grandmother’s diet, but to really get this millennial market and survive into the future, diet companies are going to have to bring in wellness rhetoric. They’re going to have to bring in ‘clean eating.’ They’re going to have to change the ingredients in their food products. And so it’s really this calculated move to try to stay afloat and to continue growing and being this multi-billion dollar industry.”

Assigning words like “good” or “clean” to food is part of what successfully draws people to the wellness diet. Taking a closer look at the problem, Well+Good general manager Kate Spies dissects how diet culture found its way into wellness with the help of Harrison, Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, and Anna Sweeney, MS, RD.

“One of the most important things about the wellness diet right now is that it is something that evolves. It is kind of a transient thing so in this moment, this is about ‘clean food.’ And that definition is obviously not a definition of food,” says Sweeney. “While it packages itself in these beautiful little Instagramable packages, it is not so much about real enjoyment, it is not so much about real nutrition. It is about restriction and it is about elevating certain foods and making it so if you are not having those certain foods, you don’t get the pass into the wellness cool kids’ club.”

Photo: Anna Sweeney, MS, RD; Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN; Christy Harrison, MPH, RDN

So much of the language used in the name of health really just boils down to weight loss, says Harrison. “Debloating or reducing inflammation and things like that, these are code words for taking up less space,” she says. “Making your stomach flatter so that it doesn’t look fat making your body less puffy, you know, all of that, like what is that really? That is a desire to be less large. And I think we need to just call it what it is instead of this medicalization of concern about looks.”

At the end of the day, food is fuel and restrictive eating is unnecessary, says Spence. “Oftentimes we forget that food is providing energy,” she says. “Our body needs energy to function day-to-day. You don’t have to be an athlete to eat like the rest of the population. We all need food.” To restrict oneself of something like carbs, for example, deprives the body of its preferred source of energy: glucose. “[Your] brain alone uses a very high percentage [of glucose]. That’s why people on keto, they often complain about brain fog,” adds Spence. “I’m all for getting nourishment, but you don’t have to restrict yourself.”

The third episode of The Well+Good Podcast offers a refreshing perspective on what it means to be healthy and well. Tune in to hear how we can tune out the noise and listen to what your body truly needs.

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