"Bread is not the enemy": What I learned in one year of ditching diet culture
CW: disordered eating, mention of eating disorders
In Fall 2019, I wrote a piece about my experience struggling with and learning about disordered eating. If anyone is unfamiliar with disordered eating, I encourage you to read the piece, but briefly: disordered eating is the use of any disruptive or maladaptive eating or exercise behaviors to control your weight. It is not the same as having an eating disorder, but they exist on the same spectrum.
Over 50% of all women and around 30% of all men in the US will experience disordered eating at some point in their lives. Those numbers seem crazy high until you realize how many things actually are disordered eating: obsessively counting calories, restricting your calorie intake even when you’re chronically hungry, prohibiting yourself from eating certain “forbidden” unhealthy foods, cutting out whole food groups in an effort to make your diet perfect, refusing to eat after 8 PM even if you’re starving, exercising until you’re dizzy to burn off something you ate, not letting yourself eat a snack even when you’re too lethargic to focus, refusing to skip a day of exercise even when your body is exhausted...the list goes on. Yes, every one of those behaviors is considered disordered—because every one of them, even if it makes you feel better in the moment or make you feel like you’re healthier overall, negatively impacts your health or wellbeing in some way. That’s what is meant by maladaptive.
But you probably also noticed that those behaviors are all things that are called for by trendy diets, by successful fitness coaches, or by that super-skinny TikTok influencer. “Go keto to lose weight.” “Cut out carbs and processed sugar to make your diet cleaner.” “Your metabolism stops working at night.” “This is what I eat in a day, follow my super easy fat-burning meal plan!” Ring any bells?
One diet culture trend has been to replace sandwich bread with bell peppers.
That’s because most of the health and fitness “information” that’s fed to us most readily is dominated by diet culture. Diet culture is the system of beliefs that values thinness over all else, equates thinness to health and moral worth, and demonizes fat bodies and those who live in them. As my fellow writer Caroline noted, the diet industry makes an enormous amount of money off of convincing us that we need to be thinner and selling us products that claim to get us there, even though a strong body of research indicates that diets do not work in the long run. Diet culture is unbelievably prevalent—so prevalent, in fact, that we’ve come to completely normalize many behaviors that harm us in the name of being thin. When did we become afraid of bread? Carbs are not the enemy!
Since coming to terms with my disordered eating problem and starting the road to recovery, I have learned a lot about diet culture and how to fight back. Here are five of the most perspective-shifting and generalizable things I learned that I wish everyone knew. Please note that I am not a registered dietitian and you should always consult a professional if you have health issues and/or wish to make major changes to your diet—I am just relaying information I’ve learned from reliable sources and researched myself.
1. Being fat is not the same as being unhealthy.
We have all been trained to equate thinness with being healthy and fatness with being unhealthy. The truth is, even if we all ate the exact same foods and did the exact same exercise, our bodies would still look different. Someone who lives in a fat body might still eat plenty of nutritious foods and get plenty of exercise (and either way, it’s none of your business). Likewise, someone who lives in a thin body might eat foods that aren’t healthy and exercise very little—or that person might have an eating disorder, or they might have lost weight due to a physical illness, mental disorder, trauma, or grief, none of which we should be reinforcing or celebrating. (Also, while I’m on the subject, you don’t need to be super skinny to have an eating disorder). The point here is that any body can have any level of health, and there is no possible way to discern whether someone is “healthy” just by looking at them. Plus, given that we tend to be very concerned with the “health” of fat people and not at all concerned with the health of thin people, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s really about size, not health.
2. It’s okay (good, actually) to eat when you’re hungry.
And it’s okay to eat until you’re actually full. It's even okay to eat what you're craving! Whoever told you that hunger was your enemy, that you need to meticulously track every calorie that goes in and out of your body in order to lose/maintain weight, was either lying or deeply misinformed. That is not how weight works. Not all calories are absorbed the same way, not all bodies need the same number of servings or amount of certain foods to feel full, and nutrition labels can be off by up to 20%, so it’s all sort of arbitrary anyway. Your body is designed to tell you when you need to eat, and a growing body of evidence indicates that listening to your body’s hunger and craving cues while making mindful nutrition choices (a system known as intuitive eating) can be much more effective at helping you manage your weight—not to mention drastically improving your quality of life.
3. Your metabolism does not slow down significantly at night.
While the relationship between nighttime eating, sleep deprivation, and weight is a major point of contention among different scientific fields, there does not appear to be any evidence that you burn significantly fewer calories if you consume them at night. Most of the research that led us to that belief in the first place was flawed in its generalizability; it was based in populations and used models and measurement scales that don’t accurately represent the average person. It’s also important to note that the vast majority of sleep-and-eating studies are correlational, and you cannot conclude a causal relationship from a correlational study—there's a fairly strong correlation between Nicolas Cage films and death by swimming pool, but I'm pretty sure Nic Cage films don't cause people to drown in swimming pools, nor do swimming pool deaths inspire Nic to make more films. Likewise, even if there's a relationship between nighttime eating and weight gain (which, again, is up for debate), that doesn't mean that the nighttime eating in itself is what causes the weight gain.
4. Exercise doesn’t have to be formal for it to “count.”
Another diet culture lie is that you have to go for runs, get on the elliptical, or go to a workout class 3-5 days a week in order to lose weight and be healthy. In reality, most adults need about 150 minutes per week—which can be thought of as 20 minutes per day, 75 minutes twice a week, etc.) of moderate-intensity exercise in order to keep their body healthy. Going for a run or doing a workout class is considered very vigorous exercise, and if you enjoy that, great! But lots of people really do not, and it becomes a barrier to getting any exercise at all. You don’t have to do exercise you don’t like. You don’t have to do “formal” exercise at all. Anything that gets you up and moving and gets your heart pumping for a bit counts as exercise. My current favorite “workout routine” is taking a twenty-minute break a couple times a day to blast my favorite music and dance it out in my bedroom. A TikTok fitness trend I have been loving is those awesome rollerskating videos. Exercise can and should be something you enjoy—and the goal of said exercise does not have to be shrinking, changing, or manipulating your body!
5. Diets don’t work.
I mentioned this above, but just to drive the point home: in general, diets don’t work for weight loss. This includes keto, noom, paleo, whole30, or anything else that tells you to restrict intake and cut out certain foods—it doesn’t have to be WeightWatchers to be a diet. Sometimes a diet will cause you to lose weight short-term, but diets are unsustainable in the long run and dieters almost invariably gain that weight back, leaving them blaming themselves and feeling worse than before. In fact, evidence shows that diets can actually mess with your body and psychological wellbeing in ways that cause you to gain weight. (Sources: here, here, here, here, and here). I want to caveat that if you have a health issue and your doctor gave you specific nutritional guidelines, that’s different—I am not telling you to ignore medical advice. (Though be aware that doctors can be fatphobic, too, and it can affect the quality of their care—you should never be made to feel uncomfortable, humiliated, or less worthy of treatment because of your size).
Bread is not the enemy, diet culture is. It wreaks havoc on our physical and psychological health while tricking us into blaming ourselves for its faults. My biggest wish is that, armed with information and compassion, we can start to leave diet culture behind and instead value things that matter much more than being thin, like happiness, joyful experiences and genuine health.