July 31, 2019 | News | No Comments
Diets are out, or so we keep hearing, but it seems that the wellness revolution has other ideas. In 2018, Euromonitor reported that ethically labelled “health” foods were valued at US$45.9 billion globally. But is this just a rebranding of foods that are actually all about weight loss?
“The Atkins, the grapefruit diet, SlimFast – the 1980s and 1990s saw the first wave of diet culture, and really it goes back even further. Clean eating, gluten-free, alkaline – this is the second wave,” explains Laura Thomas PhD, registered nutritionist and wellness advocate. A brief rundown of this new wave includes: alkalising (eating foods with an alkaline pH to allegedly counter the effects acidic foods); low GI (foods with low fat and sugar); paleo (based on a “caveman” diet, essentially whole foods rather than processed); keto (low carbohydrate, high fat); and intermittent fasting (plans vary from the 5:2 diet to alternate-day fasting). While each promises a new dawn of better health, fundamentally they all seem to link back to calorie restriction – ergo, shifting weight.
Even environmental concerns can link to diet culture in disguise. “I think the sustainable vegan diet is pretty complicated,” says Thomas. “On the one hand there is this huge, and valid, surge in concern for the environment, but at the same time, [some people may be adopting this diet] to mask an eating disorder. There is no more effective way to limit your food than by saying ‘I don’t eat dairy or meat’ or ‘I only eat locally.’”
How healthy is “clean eating”?
There are a series of mixed messages to contend with when it comes to clean eating vs health. Obesity is on the rise: in 2017, the World Health Organization reported that global obesity has almost tripled since 1975; and this July, a Cancer Research UK report put obesity ahead of smoking as a cause of some cancers. In response, media and medical organisations are talking up the principles of healthy eating and a balanced diet; and this has inevitably gained traction in emerging food trends too.
“With new research and the demonisation of the word ‘diet’, the industry has moved away from that label. Diet companies have become about ‘lifestyle change’,” says Christy Harrison, anti-diet nutritionist and host of the Food Psych podcast. “This shift, dovetailed with the obesity epidemic – it’s become a moral panic. The rise of the rhetoric that obesity is killing you works nicely for the diet industry. Now we don’t need to worry about aesthetics, but about health,” Harrison continues. “Today’s trends conveniently belie aesthetic aspirations. However, it’s still diet culture pushing weight loss under a different term.”
What’s the link between healthy eating and body image?
While body positivity is now a mainstream movement, society still places huge importance on personal image. “If you told someone who says they want to lose weight for their health that they could [improve it] without losing a pound, would they be interested? When you dig, losing weight more often than not comes down to looks,” argues Harrison.
The focus on aesthetics, she continues, is so ingrained in our lifestyle that it’s now almost instinctive. “We care about looks because for so long that’s been the key to success, the key to love and acceptance, belonging – everything that’s part of the modern human experience,” says Harrison. “Wellness plans and resets, while marketed for health, are represented by thin, able-bodied models – maybe slightly more muscular, slightly less emaciated than decades past, but that’s the look. The images are still aspirational.”
Thomas argues that there’s also a link between this new wave of wellness and perceived health, and wealth. “This intersection between wellness culture and privilege has a lot to do with social signalling, inherent in not to eat. What you’re saying is: ‘I’m so wealthy that food is not a focus, I don’t need to think about it.’ Meanwhile, the obesity epidemic is considered to largely affect those who are less financially affluent; those with more privilege can afford to buy these powders and vials to emphasise their ‘healthier’ lifestyle,” Thomas says.
How can we best approach healthy eating?
Embracing intuitive eating is a good first step, advises Thomas. Start by listening to your body’s signals to identify when you’re hungry and when you’re full. And enjoy eating without attaching labels such as “clean”, “good”, “bad” or “cheating”. Take a good look at your social media following too – make your feed a positive place of inspiration, rather than a conflicted wellness/diet culture minefield.
Laura Thomas debunks four “clean eating” trends
“Our livers are the central hub of detoxification, our kidneys too. We are detoxing when we go to the bathroom, when we breathe… even our skin is a system for detoxification. There’s no amount of green juice that will rid your body of toxins.”
“The main premise of this diet is to change the pH of our bodies. If we changed the pH of our bodies, it would deactivate our enzymes, which would lead to a potential coma and then we would eventually die. There is a fundamental misunderstanding in how an alkaline diet has been sold.”
“I’m not trivialising serious medical problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease. What concerns me is people suddenly cutting out (and later reintroducing) food groups. The bacteria in their gut gets excited about a new substance, which often leads to gas or bloating. This is then mistakenly labelled as an abnormal reaction to that particular food, when actually it’s simply about our bodies readjusting, which is completely natural.”
“There is very limited evidence to substantiate a connection between food and skin problems. It’s tenuous at this point and certainly can’t account for the vast majority of cases of acne, for example. Again, it’s one of those things that has been overhyped and prompted some to go down a restrictive food path. If you have skin issues, you need to talk to a dermatologist. Cutting out foods should really not be the first step in treatment.”
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