The Diet Culture

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As a dietetic intern, I am interested in nutrition and diets, and I am  interested in food in general. Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a registered dietitian interviewing a dietetic intern from another state about her experiences with an eating disorder and the diet culture we have in this country. What I noticed was that we tend to like to put things into neat little slogans or catch phrases, even the professionals. We hear things like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and “lose weight, feel great” from companies and organizations trying to sell us on a particular product or philosophy about eating. I also hear “food as fuel” or “food as medicine” a lot. It is very ingrained in our culture. But as health professionals or nutrition experts we do the same thing. “Every food fits!” “Everything in moderation!” But these little snippets of a message are potentially just as damaging as the ones that promote being “skinny” above all.

The truth is there is no one perfect way of eating, but there are plenty of wrong ways. But if you really think about it, that’s pretty complicated. The little healthy slogans, by themselves, can be misleading and don’t really show the big picture.  I do believe that all foods can fit into a healthy diet, but I don’t want that to be the only message someone gets from me as an “expert.” Do they really get that it’s okay to have cookies, but it’s really important to get plenty of fruits and vegetables? Do they get the message that  while a bacon cheeseburger is not a sin, but it’s not a good thing to eat one every week? It’s hard to say what messages someone walks away with when all they heard was a cute little slogan that could be put into a meme on Instagram.

The message we really should be sending is that nutrition is complicated. Health is important but it cannot be achieved by following a specific set of instructions. We need variety in our diet and that means eating different types of meats or non-meat protein, different kinds of vegetables and fruits in all the colors available, getting whole grains and dairy in there too. We also need some balance. That means not eating all of one food group and nothing in another food group, but it also means not obsessing over whether our diet is “healthy” enough and it includes enjoying treats now and then. We also need to get the message out that we don’t absolutely have to count calories! We should be listening to our body’s hunger cues, eating and really enjoying our food and then listening when our body tells us we’re satisfied, but not stuffed the point that our pants are too tight. There is no food group that is off-limits (unless there is an allergy involved) and there is no food group that reigns supreme, either!

Good nutrition cannot be summed up by a catchphrase. We have some guidelines that are a good place to start, but there is no one perfect way of eating. Strive for variety and balance. Pay attention to your body. And above all, enjoy your food!

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