Does Anyone Know What The Hell We’re Supposed To Eat Anymore?

What are we supposed to eat?

by Poorna Bell |
Updated on

I stood on the weighing scales at the gym, despite knowing that weighing scales are evil and don’t factor in muscle mass or water retention. But nothing prepared me for the jaw-drop that this was the heaviest I had ever been, having put on 10kg in a year.

Like a lot of people, I wanted this weight to drop immediately. I went into over-drive mode, and hit up Instagram and Twitter for advice on how to do this.

But while trying to quell this rising panic, I found myself caught in the cross-hairs of three movements: the diet industry, body positivity and the anti-diet industry.

On the one hand, I knew I wasn’t happy with my weight gain. And the diet industry made damn sure I was conditioned to want to lose it quickly even at the risk of my health. On the other hand, the body positive and anti diet movements made me feel like I was being a traitor to my body by wanting it to change.

With all of this conflicting advice burning in my head, I was trying on a dress I loved and paid a lot of money for just last year and it wouldn’t fit over my bum. I burst into tears.

Once I managed to wiggle the dress off, I realised that I had to make sense of what was going on. Surely I couldn’t be the only one overwhelmed by all this information.

The dieting world is heinous because it what it really sells is insecurity and food dysfunction. On the other hand, the message pushed by the anti diet world of ‘eat what you want’ was trapping me.

Was anti dieting yet another food tribe in a long list of food tribes? Or was there more to it?

The term ‘anti diet’ or ‘non diet’ has been popping up with increasing frequency in magazines, podcasts and on Instagram with the UK’s first ‘anti diet’ body positive clothing market taking place over the summer.

It’s also referred to as intuitive eating, and one of the most well known champions of it has recently been Ruby Tandoh, who regularly writes and posts on Twitter, with the aim of making us confront our guilt and shame around food.

Unfortunately for the anti diet movement, what is actually a complex message has been distilled to the masses into a ‘eat whatever you want’ and ‘love your body no matter what’ ethos. (Which is where I went wrong with it.)

While it has a powerful and noble aim – namely to demolish dysfunctional attitudes to food (including dieting) and relearn better, emotionally healthier behaviour, this simplistic take ends up trapping people who don’t know what to do with yet another piece of conflicting food garble. Literally, we don’t know what the hell to eat anymore.

I spoke to one of the leading nutritionists in the UK around intuitive eating, Laura Thomaswho also has a brilliant podcast called Don’t Salt My Game. When I told her about this conflict, she said: 'I get this from my clients all the time. It’s really hard when you’re bombarded with all of these messages from both camps. From the diet and weight loss industry, and body positive industry.

'You feel hugely guilty for wanting to diet but then you don’t feel great about your body, and then you feel guilty for not feeling great about your body.'

It’s also not just about eating whatever you want.

'It’s a specific intervention,' says Laura, 'that has 10 steps and is backed up by research. It’s a process you have to go through.

'Over years of diet culture, teen magazines, our mums telling us things, pseudo nutritionists on Instagram, trust in our bodies becomes eroded. Intuitive eating includes paying attention to how different foods feel in your body. Are they giving you enough fuel for your workout, how do you feel after you eat those foods?'

Basically, it’s about attunement to your body. 'I see a lot of people say ‘I’m not on a diet anymore and fuck it, I’m just going to go eat a bag of doughnuts’ she adds, 'and that is missing a really important piece of what intuitive eating is. Becoming an intuitive eater is a process and you have to go through all of the steps and pop out the other end.'

Dieting, for the record, works for a very small number of people. Yet two-thirds of Brits are on a diet all the time.

Jenna Daku, Eating Disorder Psychotherapist and Rachel Clare, Registered Dietitian, who set up a network and platform called Anti Diet Revolution say: 'There’s a growing body of research showing that it absolutely doesn’t work - only around 5% of people who diet lose the weight and keep it off. The rest lose it, then regain it - and more - within five years… which you won’t see in studies funded by the diet industry as they have a tendency to only follow up with participants for 1-2 years.'

What further muddies the waters is that we’re also increasingly getting a lot of our information from social media, and that can range from something as awful as Kim Kardashian appetite suppressant lollipops to an average fitspo promoting detox teas. Ban Hass, a London-based personal trainer and blogger uses a lot of her platform to call out people who are disingenuous or making life harder for people with mixed messaging.

She says: 'The rise of fitness of #fitspo has most definitely played a huge part in this. The normal everyday person is now turning to their favourite fitness influencers, instructors and bloggers for tips and tricks on healthy eating and/or how to lose weight. It becomes problematic when the advice is dangerous, irresponsible or an outright lie.'

One of the reasons why I had a meltdown was trying to make sense of all the fitspo stuff I was seeing on Instagram, and trying to restrict what I was eating. So it meant that I just felt guilty and shit all the time.

Ditching the guilt can be a huge step forwards, says authorMegan Jayne Crabbe also known as @bodyposipanda on Instagram. With one million followers is a huge advocate for body positivity and intuitive eating. She says: 'It isn't just that we can't eat cheese this week or that next week blueberries are back to being a superfood. We're being taught that eating cheese makes us sinful, and eating blueberries makes us virtuous.'

'When we place so much moral value around calories, carbohydrates and fat grams we're condemning ourselves every time we choose what to eat. It isn't just the food we see as "good" or "bad," it's ourselves.'

While removing the moral labels on food is a step in the right direction, some people may struggle with the idea of how they regulate that. Giving yourself labels doesn’t help either.

The biggest takeaway I’ve had since researching this feature is that it renders all of those nutritional guidelines as redundant. Sugar isn’t evil, fats aren’t the new saviour – they are food stuffs which have different effects on the body and fulfill a need in a certain way.

Too much sugar may be bad for you, but too much of anything is bad for you. If sugar comes in the form of a cake that comforts me from time to time, that’s perfectly acceptable according to Laura, as long as I’ve got other things that comfort me as well such as yoga or a good book.

For me, the biggest realisation was my lack of trust in my own body around food. I felt like the weight crept up on me, so how could I trust it?

'Everything around us – diet culture is set up to send us a message that we can’t trust our own bodies,' assures Laura. 'That’s the subtext of every Women’s Health article that tells us "five ways to trick your hunger" or "five ways to stay fuller for longer." We literally trust our phones to tell us what to eat more than we trust our own bodies. That process of getting back in touch with your body – it’s huge and it takes time.'

Since then, I’ve taken small steps to put that trust back in my body. I’m not going to the gym to ‘earn’ my chocolate bar, I go because it’s good for my health and wellbeing. But I am going to be mindful about how much I drink a week or how much cheese I eat.

It’s a relief, to be honest, to let go, and trust that my body will let me know what it needs

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