Seemingly simple phrases like the ones below are designed to be guiding philosophies on how to eat:
Everything in moderation
Just be balanced
Eat well and you’ll be well
There’s nothing inherently harmful about these phrases, but in the context of diet culture, they can become problematic.
Let’s look at four reasons why these seemingly straightforward philosophies on eating can cause shame, gaslighting and confusion for a person who has internalized diet culture messaging. For context: 45 million Americans go on a diet every year, according to the Boston Medical Center:
Reason #1: The message that eating should be simple is in direct contradiction with the cultural expectation that you should be counting carbs, gluten, calories, and fat at all times.
Weight-cycling and food restriction - things that are applauded daily in our culture - are the opposite of “simple,” “balanced,” “well,” or “moderate.”
In a world without diet culture, eating actually could be simple - motivated by hunger, fun, desire, connection, intuition, and celebration. But diet culture teaches us that eating should be hard - motivated by discipline, control, self-doubt, restriction, and specialized knowledge about what is “good for you” and what "isn’t." Given the environment of diet culture, even simple or common-sense philosophies can end up leading to (even more) shame, guilt and confusion.
Reason #2: We as a culture conflate eating in a “simple/balanced” way with being thin.
Because fat bodies are presented as aberrations - not as natural extensions of body diversity - fat people’s bodies are seen as a product of being “unbalanced” in how we live, and especially how we eat. If pressed, I think many people see these pieces of eating advice as not only life philosophies, but also as recipes for turning anyone into a thin person (which, in our culture, is the same as a well person). This is fatphobia and also just factually inaccurate.
As we’ve discussed many times here at BPU, our culture conflates how we eat with the size of our body, but they are actually not the same thing. How you eat will very likely not fundamentally change your natural weight range.
Reason #3: For many people with a history of food restriction, disordered eating and/or body dysmorphia, even “simple philosophies” are just another set of damaging food moralizing rules.
As a fat person, I’ve possibly had more than my fair share of unsolicited eating advice, and it’s always presented as “simple.” There never seems to be any awareness that as a fat person I am, in fact, perhaps likelier to have dieted and also perhaps likelier to have a history of disordered eating.
Once I was drinking coffee outside a coffee shop called Verve in Santa Cruz, California and a woman came up to me and said, “Just stop eating pork. That’s how to get your weight problem under control.” Oh, just stop eating pork! Finally, the holy grail America has been seeking. Her body language indicated to me that she saw this uninvited intrusion into my caffeination ritual as her good deed for the day.
I told her this information was not welcome and I didn’t have a “weight problem,” I had a stranger-interrupting-my-coffee-time problem.
As specific as the pork advice was, it actually wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. In fact, one of my many chapters in disordered eating took the shape of vegetarianism, which did not turn me into a thin person (because I was never meant to be a thin person).
I had absolutely no idea what “balance” or “moderation” meant because at the doctor I was being told to just eat as little as possible - and absolutely no questions were asked about my methods as long as I’d lost weight between visits.
Before I had any critical awareness of weight discrimination or diet culture, I used to listen avidly to any advice about eating because I hoped it would finally help me get my weight “under control.” The simpler the advice, the more time I ruminated on it, the more like a failure I felt. I don't speak for everyone, but I know I'm not alone.
Reason #4: We don’t need more advice on how to eat. We need less fatphobia and diet culture.
Rules about eating have a tendency to allow us to forget that diet culture is a much, much larger problem than our individual relationships to food.
In conclusion, it's really difficult to have a balanced relationship to food when you're surrounded by diet culture. Food is always already loaded with morality, shame, and anxiety under diet culture. This is literally the recipe for a very un-balanced, not-so-simple relationship to eating.
Anyone of any size is capable of having a good relationship with food.
For some people, having a so-called balanced or simple relationship to food is their goal, but it doesn’t have to be yours. You get to make that call. You get to decide what your relationship to food is - you and only you.
Until we get rid of diet culture, food-shaming, and food moralizing, let’s all retire these adages for eating, ok?
+ Take a look at my books: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (I narrated the audiobook), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion