Toxicity of Diet Culture

In utmost honesty, I never got around to writing this blog post until a cupcake. Well, truly, an extremely recent event encompassing a cupcake that I can play in my head over and over again as vividly as day. We casually met up with a group of people who were celebrating a birthday. Laid out on several tables was a cooler filled with kombucha and cider, while another table carried a bit more than a dozen vegan and gluten free carrot cake cupcakes. Around my left, I overheard a few girls speaking amongst each other, but some words struck out to me more than others:

“Oh, I really want to eat this cupcake, but I can’t.”

“I shouldn’t eat a whole cupcake.”

“I’ll only eat it if I have half. Do you want to split it with me?”

These words popped right out during the time I was gawking at the cupcakes, trying to find the largest and most aesthetic one (mind you, this was quite the endeavor). Hell, I would have even gone for a second–not that I did, because that would have been a little bit irrational. For a few seconds, the pressure to give in and exclude myself from the table of carrot cake cupcakes seemed practical. True, I already had enough to eat–not too much, not a crazy amount, but what would be a healthily moderate amount of food already. Here’s what I did: I fully acknowledged this thought, recognized its intentions, and simply acted accordingly…to my intuition, not to this mental statement. So yes, I ate a whole cupcake.

Even though I could always say that this cupcake was vegan and gluten free, those words mean absolutely nothing in the health department. Vegan and gluten free baked goods still have sugar and oil. This cupcake was coated with buttercream frosting and walnuts in all of its sugary sweet and fluffy glory–not to mention, I loved every part of it. Obviously, back when I first established my blog, I know I would have given into the pressure of diet culture and abstained from the cupcake. In fact, if I were to attend this street fair, I would have panicked and attempted to search for the closest item to a salad with protein. Yeah, totally making the most out of this experience.

The other day on my Instagram, I confessed that I ate a “stupid amount” of peanut butter. Even I didn’t quite pinpoint what I personally quantified as such–was it anything more than one serving a day, or an entire jar of peanut butter in one sitting? Look, I know that some people have medical conditions where their fat content may have to be restricted or at least limited to only the unsaturated fats, but COME ON, CASSIE. Despite that you may have joked around eating what might seem like a “stupid amount” of peanut butter, you still ruffled the feathers of the glorification of avoidance and/or restriction. It may not seem like such a huge deal because I did emphasize that price was the main dilemma, not fat and calories, but is it really that silly of me to go through nearly an entire jar of peanut butter in about a week’s time?

Speaking of drawing boundaries, where do we draw the line for restrictive and excessive dieting? The stigma of elimination and restriction are much more prevalent for valid purposes. Perpetuating food fears are never okay, but there are practices that may do so without actually being an action of disordered eating to that person conducting the action. For instance, some individuals consume less than a teaspoon of oil a week while others easily polish off a stick of butter a day (this is simply an observation, not saying that either one is ideal or superior to the other). One mechanism of eating may seem restrictive and the other might be excessive, but to certain individuals, such as those following a ketogenic diet, consuming around a butter stick’s worth of fat is a daily ritual, whereas anyone on a lower fat diet or even on a budget wouldn’t even think to wonder if not keeping oil in the kitchen is disordered. Again, is it considered restrictive for someone to actively avoid gluten, dairy, and sugar if he or she isn’t actually allergic to any of these foods? What about going out to a restaurant and requesting a burger to be lettuce-wrapped? Is it considered toxic if you look at a menu beforehand?

Lastly, there are certain food practices that may be common in modern society but are degraded so negatively in the diet world, such as eating a pint of ice cream the evening of a break-up or consuming a carb-heavy brunch after a hangover. Personally, I cannot say that I’ve done any of these rituals before, but man, there are days where all I want is to wear a face mask and eat a huge slice of vegan carrot cake in my room in peace instead of working out for the second time in the day and chugging another protein shake. Have I done that before? Yes, and it felt damn amazing. I still work out, I still eat all of my greens and healthy fats, but I also give into my sweet tooth. That doesn’t automate me as someone to target in our diet culture. However, whether you eat everything in sight and more or if you are doubted to even eat anything at all, someone will find a way to critique you. In short, no matter what you do in public, you never win.

To address all of these issues, there really is only one solution: don’t blink an eye at any of them. Simply consider what will make you feel and look your most physically and mentally nourished and what would not. You don’t have to eat right when you wake up, but you also don’t have to fast until 3 P.M. in the afternoon. Eat more carbs and less fat or eat less carbs and more fat. Many social media users tend to wear their registered dietitian hats of entitlement and harp on others for promoting a certain way of eating, even if this particular diet seems to be the healthiest one possible. However, unless you actually are a registered dietician, do not promote your diet as the one-size-fits-all approach and be sure to make that disclaimer.

Here are some personal examples as someone who is not a registered dietitian: I love to intermittent fast for around 14-16 hours, supplement with a multivitamin, and consume a diet of moderately high protein with carbohydrates and fats varying depending on my goals and intuition. For a long time, I ate three servings of nuts a day and/or multiple tablespoons of peanut butter accompanied by a vegan protein shake (just vegan protein powder, water and/or almond milk, and Stevia) with a tofu or vegan chicken vegetable dish for dinner and Health Warrior bars for dessert. The counterproductive aspect of this mechanism of eating was my constant craving for junk food, but I went along with it by tasting more vegan treats like brownies, dark chocolate, ice cream, coffee cake, and so much more. Eventually, I switched to a higher carb diet by integrating bean pasta, Japanese sweet potatoes, kabocha squash, and fresh fruit, yet I still allowed myself to eat lots of healthy fats and protein. Eventually, I recognized that all three macro-nutrients are critical for my ability to flourish. I need to distribute each of them relatively similarly. Not to mention–of course, treats were enjoyed. Many, many treats within a whole foods plant-based diet. And again, I make sure to supplement with a multivitamin that includes B-12 and drink more than plenty of water.

Also, remember that you can choose your personal standing in a culture that has its toxic areas. Either as a vehicle for change, conformity, or to not become involved at all. I genuinely believe that the true roots of diet culture’s issues pertain to profiting off of people’s impatience (the desire for quick fixes), extremes (“clean” foods vs. “dirty” foods), and the illusion that people are never enough (the desire for unnecessary changes). It’s either about losing as much weight as possible within a short span of time or stuffing your face every hour of the day because you’re not in “recovery” if you don’t. You’re automatically healthy when you eat a salad and you’re automatically unhealthy when you eat a serving of fries. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Re-program your perception of what you’ve read or heard rather than taking everything you consume as the truth. Like a slice of bread, you don’t have to stuff it in your face and call it a day. Eat the crust first and work your way towards the middle, or start in the middle and remove the crust. Whatever works for you and only you, both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

What are some of the worst misconceptions that you’ve seen in our diet culture?

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