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How to Avoid Diet Culture After Your GI Diagnosis

Image of How to Avoid Diet Culture After Your GI Diagnosis
Image of How to Avoid Diet Culture After Your GI Diagnosis

If you have a GI condition, you might have been told that losing some weight can help relieve your symptoms.

There’s some truth to that—obesity puts more pressure on your esophagus, which can worsen your acid reflux. Plus, obesity can lead to other risks like increased chances of cancer or Barrett’s Esophagus (a fancy term for damage to the lower part of your esophagus).

But, let’s face it: While “you should drop a couple of pounds” sounds simple in theory, it’s far more difficult in practice. And, for many people, those words alone can set them on a path of fad diets, unsustainable workouts, and unhealthy habits. Not to mention, while weight loss may relieve some symptoms, it’s never a cure-all solution.

What actually is obesity?

Before we dive deeper into the toxicity of diet culture, it’s important to understand another term you’ve likely heard when discussing health and wellness: obesity.

To put it simply, obesity is an excessive amount of body fat. Every single body has a certain percentage of body fat—it’s normal, and even necessary. But, obesity occurs when fat makes up a significant percentage of your body composition.

“Obesity increases your risk for many serious health issues, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, GERD, sleep apnea, and asthma,” says Evens Medical Director Dr. Heather Gerst. “It does this through a variety of different pathways, some as simple as the mechanical stress of carrying extra pounds and some involving complex changes in hormones, metabolism, and cellular changes.”

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is the idea that your thinness and the appearance of your physique are more important than your actual physical and even mental health.

As the National Eating Disorders Association explains, diet culture is multi-faceted and includes a number of habits including:

  • Restricting foods and labeling certain ones as inherently “good” or “bad”
  • Labeling thin people as healthier and more worthy simply because of their body size
  • Viewing exercise as a punishment or way to “work off” calories rather than something enjoyable

Diet culture is complex, and even worse, it’s probably more ingrained in you than you realize. There are many norms and messages that reinforce the fact that the number on the scale tells you everything you need to know about your own (or someone else’s) well being.

Why is diet culture so toxic?

Most medical professionals will agree with the fact that your weight does play a role in your overall health. That’s based on solid, clinical evidence.

But, the problem with diet culture is that it looks solely at that number alone and completely ignores any other aspects of your body and your lifestyle. That glaring emphasis on only the scale comes with a number of diet culture drawbacks, including:

  • It encourages unhealthy habits like crash diets, unreasonable calorie restrictions, harmful workouts, and more. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 17% of adults over the age of 20 were on a special diet between 2015-2018, with a weight loss or low-calorie diet being the most common one reported. It’s big business too, with the U.S. weight loss market worth an estimated $72 billion.
  • It isn’t an effective way to prioritize overall health. While a fad diet might peel off some pounds in the short-term, it’s usually a quick and temporary fix. It’s estimated that only 5% of people who lose weight on a crash diet actually keep it off.
  • It fuels feelings of guilt and shame for not sticking with unreasonable plans and expectations (like doing an extra-difficult workout to punish yourself for eating that ice cream).
  • It leads to inaccurate judgments and even discrimination against people with different body types. One small study done in 2012 found that obese people often face stigma and prejudice in a variety of situations, including employment and healthcare settings.

In short, diet culture takes the spotlight off what should be your most important focus: your health. It shines it solely on something that can be relatively fickle and arbitrary: your weight.

How do you prioritize your health without getting sucked into diet culture?

Your health is important, but diet culture is dangerous for people of all shapes and sizes. And unfortunately, it’s around us constantly—in advertisements, shapewear, food labels, and even our conversations.

Being thin isn’t what makes you the picture of good health. Rather, it’s the less tangible things that indicate your mental, physical, and emotional health, such as:

  • You enjoy meal times rather than get stressed out by them
  • You’ve found an exercise routine that works for both your schedule and your body
  • You’re able to reduce the long-term impact of any chronic conditions you have

How do you get there? How do you strike a balance between prioritizing your well being and not falling into the toxicity of diet culture? Here are a few ideas to help you keep your eye on what matters most: your health.

Focus on nutrition first

Before you give into the urge to start pureeing celery or you restrict yourself to 1,200 calories per day, treat this as your golden rule: Nutrition and smart dietary choices matter way more than any sort of unrealistic and unsustainable fad diet.

You probably already know the nutrition basics you need to get the right fuel for your body. You should get plenty of fruits and vegetables, opt for lean meats, avoid too many sugary foods, and incorporate grains, healthy oils, and nuts.

It’s a little tricky, as this in and of itself could be considered a diet (it’s known as the Mediterranean diet, if you’re curious). But, the point here isn’t to jump on a bandwagon or stick with a super rigid eating plan. It’s to make sure you’re consuming enough of the foods that your body really needs—because, trust us, you’ll feel good.

If you do that and also indulge in a donut or a margarita? That’s called balance. It’s a beautiful thing, and not something that should be reprimanded or paid for.

Build in accountability

Perhaps you want to make a change that benefits your health. Maybe you want to get in at least a half hour of moderate movement per day. Or, perhaps you need to head the opposite direction and stop counting calories or checking your weight daily.

You don’t need to go it alone. Loop in a friend, family member, coworker, or another loved one who can help you stay committed to your goals and healthy habits.

Research shows that we make better choices when we know someone else is watching. So, don’t hesitate to find someone who will join you on a walk with your dog, take the stairs with you, or celebrate you when you forgo the calorie-counting app and enjoy a slice of birthday cake without shame.

Find what makes you feel good

Remember, diet culture has a way of treating the digits on the scale as the be-all and end-all, but that number is in no way an accurate summary of your health. Plus, obsessing over your weight often makes you feel bad—when, in reality, focusing on your health should do the opposite: make you feel good. A healthy body means you can do what you want with it!

Rather than getting hung up on your weight, find other health metrics that you can work on and feel good about. Whether you want to lower your blood pressure, build your strength, or judge your health based on your energy levels, find the measurements that carry meaning for you.

Particularly if the scale causes major anxiety and obsession for you, you might just want to skip it entirely (except for at doctor’s appointments where it’s required) and pay closer attention to what ultimately matters the most: how you’re feeling.

How to stop perpetuating diet culture yourself

When you’re making a conscious effort to move away from diet culture, you’ll still be bombarded with messaging and norms that try to drag you back in.

That’s overwhelming enough on its own. But, here’s the especially difficult part: You might be subconsciously feeding and perpetuating diet culture yourself. There’s no blame to be placed—like we said earlier, it’s pretty much ingrained in all of us at this point.

Even so, it’s worth paying attention to your own mindset and interactions to make sure that you aren’t keeping the diet culture snowball rolling. This can include even seemingly small changes like:

  • Finding other ways to compliment friends and loved ones, as opposed to mentioning weight loss, how thin they look, or even their appearance in general
  • Stopping talk about having a “cheat meal” or labeling different foods as good or bad
  • Avoiding negative self-talk or self-deprecating humor about your own body

Like any change, moving away from diet culture requires some conscious effort—and there’s bound to be a few slip ups along the way. However, doing so will create a safer, more positive, and more health-focused environment for you and any other people you interact with.

Your health is way more complex than what the scale can show you

The truth is that your weight does play a role in your health. But, too often, that well-meaning sentiment is twisted into the oversimplified explanation “thin means healthy.”

In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. While being overweight or obese does come with risks, the idea that we all should strive to be the same shape and size is dangerous and counterproductive.

Instead, focus on making choices that help you feel your best. After all, when it comes to your health, isn’t that the point?

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Daniel Faro via Death to Stock