Our Culture Breeds Disordered Eaters - and That's a Problem

I thought I was a healthy eater. Actually, I thought I was a very healthy eater.

As a yoga practitioner and then instructor, I fell deep into the wellness well. More accurately - I dove in head first, believing that the deeper I went, the healthier I would become.

I started by going vegetarian. After crying through the movie Earthlings I decided I could no longer support factory farming and its destruction of the environment. The decision to give up meat wasn’t so much for my health as it was for ethical reasons. But it unintentionally opened a doorway into the world of disordered eating.

Being vegetarian made me feel good about myself. This encouraged me to find other ways I could feel even more good about myself, and because yoga and diet tends to go hand in hand, I was exposed to a lot of “alternative” (and supposedly “better”) ways of eating.

I learned about the virtues of eating whole foods and “superfoods”. I was told that the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) was making us sick and fat (and fat was bad). I was told that in order to “detox” myself from the toxins found in conventionally produced foods I should go on a cleanse. So cleanse I did, many times.

It all made sense. The media and even doctors said that fat was bad, and the cause of it was eating too much processed food and not exercising enough. So, if I did the opposite of that I should be super healthy right?

If only it were that simple.

An unexpected consequence of diving into the health and wellness world was that I became more anxious and fearful rather than free and easy; the opposite of what we expect when we subscribe to a “wellness” lifestyle. I mean isn’t the point of subscribing to these “lifestyle” diets to feel healthier and happier?

My fear and anxiety was twofold: I was afraid of getting fat, and I was afraid I would become sick if I ate anything that wasn’t “healthy”. Truthfully, my fear of being fat was the main driver behind this whole “wellness” lifestyle. I wanted to have that Yoga Journal body and be admired by everyone. Although I didn’t (and never will have) what we think of as a “model’s body”, I did receive many compliments and was admired, and that was intoxicating (no pun intended). The pressure to keep up this lifestyle and do everything right was intense. It was the opposite of healthy.

My eating patterns became a vicious cycle. I would eat all the foods that were “good”, which really meant restricting all the “bad” foods, then binge on all those bad foods once they became too hard to resist. Then I would “get back on track” only to later binge again, blaming myself each time it happened and feeling such deep shame for not being in control. I figured if I just ate “healthily” and stayed away from sugar (the last diet I subscribed to), I could be thin and healthy forever.

In order for me to keep up this lifestyle (and my thin body size) it had to become my life. It’s no coincidence that so many people create businesses and lives around their diet and exercise plans - it literally takes over your life. And it took over mine. When this was at its worse, I was bringing my own food to a dinner party and wouldn’t touch any of the food available because it wasn’t a part of my food plan. Really, I was terrified I would binge if I came into contact with all that delicious food.

Eventually my obsession and anxiety around food and body weight reached a breaking point. I didn’t know it at the time, but my “healthy eating” wasn’t actually healthy - it was disordered. I was confused. How could my eating be disordered when the top “wellness experts” were telling me I was doing everything right?

Because our culture normalizes disordered eating.

So what exactly is “disordered eating”?

According to eating disorders victoria in Australia, disordered eating includes any of the following behaviours: dieting, binge eating, regularly skipping meals, obsessive calorie counting, fasting and basing self-worth on body shape and weight to name a few. When you see it listed, it’s no wonder that 65% of American women between the ages of 25 - 45 report having disordered eating - in our culture it’s so normal, and with the rise of wellness culture, the potential is there for it to get much worse.

Having recovered from disordered eating and now eating in a way that is healthy for me (following an Intuitive Eating approach), I can see just how disordered my behaviour had become. To most people when I was at the height of the disordered behaviour I was viewed as “committed” and “the picture of health”. Seeing health in this way is dangerous and really misses the mark when it comes to understanding what is actually healthy for us.

Here are four reasons why our culture’s obsession with “healthy eating” and thinness is a big problem:

1. It increases the risk of eating disorders

Disordered eating (of which dieting is classified) puts people at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are no joke. They have the highest death rate of all mental illnesses. When we encourage restrictive diets like Paleo, Keto and The Whole 30 in the name of “wellness” (and thinness), we’re actually sending people down a potentially very dangerous path.

2. It can discourage health-forming behaviours

Following certain diets can take up a lot of time. From sourcing food to preparing it, it’s not uncommon to sacrifice sleep in order to ensure meals are ready for the week. It also can stop people from attending social activities like meeting friends at a restaurant, because of fear that there won’t be “on plan” foods available. Social connections are very important to our health and can easily become strained or fade if our diets become our top priority.

3. It increases anxiety and stress

It’s well known that chronic stress isn’t good for our health. We only need to look at our lives to see how our health fared during times of prolonged stress. Dieting and restrictive eating is not only stressful on the body when we’re in a state of calorie deficit, but it’s also mentally and emotionally stressful to be following a diet plan. It’s the opposite of what these diet plans are supposed to do for us in the first place.

4. It disconnects us from our bodies and our needs

We are not machines, despite the western medical model that treats our bodies as such. We are complex beings that have emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies. Food serves a purpose beyond simply fuel for the body - it is also a source of pleasure. There is a reason why foods have developed over time to be different in taste, texture, and flavour. Some days foods can be cooling for the mind and body, other days it can warm us up and give us comfort. To strictly follow a set of rules that doesn’t consider these factors leaves us unsatisfied and likely to overeat or binge when we do allow ourselves these foods.

There are many other reasons why our cultural obsession with diets and thinness does more harm than good, but people have written books that cover way more than I can cover here. If you haven’t already, add Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon to your must-read list, along with The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz for some very interesting historical insights on food and diets.

Much like the way it started out for me, people’s intention behind beginning a new diet or “lifestyle” comes from a good place. Unfortunately, for many people it ends up moving them further away from the health they were looking to achieve. What is my takeaway after going through this journey? Trust your body, trust yourself, enjoy food, and enjoy life. This is what it’s all about in the end anyways, isn’t it?

Ready to take the first steps towards re-developing trust with food and your body? Download my free Body Acceptance Jump Start Guide to get started.