In some circles, diet culture has changed the meaning of living healthy. Have you ever decided to start working toward a healthier lifestyle, just to have everyone in your life assume you are on a diet and trying to lose weight? The weight loss industry has a strong hold on all of us, which can make it difficult to navigate the line between living life in a healthier way and getting sucked into a dieting mindset. It is especially frustrating if you are new to the concept of health and are not sure where or how to start.
As an experiment, I typed “how to live a healthy lifestyle” into a search engine. The first result was a website that gave a list of tips to follow for a healthy lifestyle. Number one on the list: measure and watch your weight. It is no wonder many of us believe losing weight will mean we are healthy. Thankfully, you can scroll down to the next article and receive advice like eating nourishing meals and getting eight hours of sleep a night. If you do your own research and investigate actual scientific studies, you will find that there have been few connections made between health and weight. In fact, many plus-size people can live full and healthy lives by ditching diet culture and embracing healthy living.
I have spent many years untangling myself from the grip of the weight loss industry. I believed for so long that I could only consider myself healthy if I reached a certain number on the scale. I ignored the fact that I was working out regularly and getting stronger. I ignored the fact that I was cooking delicious meals for myself that were balanced with protein, carbs, and lots of vegetables. I ignored the fact that hiking was easier, climbing up the stairs was easier, or even that getting down on (and up from) the floor was easier. The checklist of what makes us healthy is much longer than the number on the scale, and yet we can have a hard time seeing past that one data point.
One of the most difficult parts of navigating a healthy lifestyle is nutrition. There can be a lot of shame around having a huge salad when your friends are all having burgers, even if that salad is delicious and exactly what your body craves. Within our own minds, we can feel conflicted about whether we are eating the salad because we want it, or because we accidentally fell into a diet mindset again. We must work to change the language we use when embracing a healthy lifestyle. Think about how you feel and what your body needs at that moment, instead of punishing yourself for enjoying a brownie. Diet culture has held a monopoly on healthy eating for a long time, and separating those two is really daunting.
How do we differentiate between healthy eating and dieting? According to Well & Simple, “diets promote deprivation and moralization of foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories.” When you eat a food that your diet deems as “bad” you feel shame around the choice you made, which can lead to forms of self-punishment through exercise or further restriction. Alternatively, when you embrace healthy eating you “re-learn to tune into and trust your body so that you can securely give yourself permission to indulge.” Healthy eating does not come with a one-size-fits-all plan. Instead, you learn over time what foods your body needs to feel full, energized, and healthy.
I believe that is the hardest part. On the surface, diets appear easy because you are given a strict list of foods and meals to follow. Leaning into healthy eating feels daunting because no one is giving you a plan. You have to learn on your own through trial and error.
A simple first step you can take on your healthy eating journey is to keep a food journal. Not to track your calorie intake (as you would with a diet), but to track how your body feels after a full day of eating. How do you feel after three pieces of pizza as opposed to one piece of pizza and a bowl of mixed greens salad? How much energy do you have when your breakfast is a rushed coffee and a muffin, compared to when you have granola, berries, and maybe that same coffee, but without cream and sugar, and enjoyed at a more leisurely pace? Keeping a written track record in the early stages will help you learn over time which foods will help you feel your best.
If you are ready to live a healthier lifestyle but do not want to fall into the diet culture trap, you need to know that it will take work. Most of the work will be on your mindset, especially if you have spent many years (and probably a lot of money) on dieting throughout your life. Do research on healthy habits and work on small attainable goals like getting the right amount of sleep every night, or trying one new vegetable a week. Advocate for yourself with your doctor, especially if they are pressuring you to lose weight. And most importantly, scroll past any ads that promise you weight loss.