Food Culture and Guilt in America
If you aren’t on a diet yourself, you likely know someone who is on a diet, have been on a diet in the past, or have seen an ad for a new diet.
It seems as if every month, we are bombarded with new research telling us what superfood is outdated, and which new foods we should incorporate into our diets. Didn’t you hear - quinoa is no longer the go-to superfood, and barley and millet should be the new grain of choice. No one drinks lemon water in the morning, a cup of celery water is the way to go now.
Wait, so can I eat bananas? Or are those fattening now?
With all this advice being thrown at us from all directions, the diet industry, wellness industry, health and fitness industry, social media, and even commercials or advertising, how do we choose what to eat? Toxic food culture. Three powerful and weighted words that are now largely associated with American food culture and diet obsession that has permeated every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s intended for weight loss, inflammation reduction, or eliminating fatigue, there seems to be a new list of good or bad foods that can get us there.
For too many of us, food feels dangerous. Every bite we eat is judged as good or bad, and our worth is defined accordingly as well. Modern food culture influences how we think about food and is often in hidden and unconscious ways. We all know that the diet industry capitalizes on our insecurities to sell us products, telling us that if we just eat this gummy once everyday, we will lose 20 pounds and feel the happiest and healthiest we’ve ever felt. We know that. What I want to touch on goes even deeper than that.
This food culture draws the line between normal, acceptance, and healthy patterns of eating and unhealthy and pathological habits. This culture tells pregnant women to eat certain foods, to feed their babies and children according to standards of perfection, and to put their sick child on a magic diet to solve all their gastrointestinal problems.
Growing up, I was allergic to a list of foods so long it could be confused with a CVS receipt. Strawberries, meat, soy, wheat, dairy - you name it, I was allergic to it. As a sick child, my mother was very aware and mindful about the food I ate. Everything had to be organic, washed 3 times, cooked a certain way, supplemented with vitamins, and washed down with homeopathic medicine. This is all to say that viewing food as a cure to sickness is not a new phenomenon to me, and is one that I am overfamiliar with. I am healthy now, and not allergic to anything other than peanuts, but my personal experiences with an eating disorder and body image issues have made the issues Virginia Sole-Smith discusses in her book relatable.
I recently read “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America” by Virginia Sole-Smith, a book exploring how we learn to eat in today’s toxic food culture. I have always viewed the diet industry as the culprit for influencing our judgments on food as good or bad, but Sole-Smith had me questioning other socially accepted food rules largely overlooked.
In our society, there are good and bad foods, and the wellness industry was built around this good food/bad food dichotomy. We all accept that a diabetic must avoid sugar to prevent a dangerous spike in insulin. Likewise, patients recovering from cardiovascular diseases are never prescribed a diet of cheeseburgers and fries. But what about behaviors such as adopting extreme eating habits as a way of managing major medical conditions. Irritable bowl syndrome, gastrointestinal diseases, progressive MS, and other conditions for example. The list of prescribed diets for patients with any physical condition is endless, with elimination diets and “detoxes” or “cleanses” available to cure any symptom.
It seems as if everyday, a new food has been added to the list of “Foods to Fear.” Sole-Smith had me questioning “what if all those professionals are just as susceptible to the diet-culture messaging” as we are? I do not doubt that the research and science backing up some findings are notable, and that some of these diets or eating patterns may improve some individual’s symptoms.
The Eating Instinct had me questioning everything I know about health, wellness, and curing disease. I’m not saying that doctors should not prescribe their sick patients an extreme diet to find healing, but is it possible that other non-food-related actions can cure symptoms too? Do health practitioners take into account their patient’s history with disordered eating and how their diet may affect their mental health and overall wellbeing? Does anyone tell the patient with IBS who has tried the FODMAP diet 7 times but still experiences extreme gastrointestinal discomfort that he or she is not at fault, that he/she didn’t do anything wrong, but that maybe their symptoms are also related to something deeper than an elimination diet?
This is all just food for thought, and is part of the larger discussion on capitalism, body image issues, systemic racism, and other factors that influence the food culture we live in. So if you take away anything, take away this - you hold the right to determine what works for you and what doesn’t. Whether that’s a specific diet, lifestyle, or behavioral patterns, you do you. Be mindful of how many dietitians and life coaches are not qualified to offer the advice they are, and take in everything with a grain of salt.
All this talk on the wellness industry and the prevalence of body image issues and sensitivities had me thinking that at the end of the day, I do not want to offer advice to others that views anything as black or white, good or bad. Ultimately, there is research coming out every other week about the new health food, so how do we really know what’s good and what’s bad? Instead of labeling these foods, I want to just use my experiences with food to guide my future experiences - to recognize what foods I enjoy, how it affects my mood and body in the short and long run, and use that “data” to act in the future. Maybe that changes every week, maybe it doesn’t.
All I know is that I don’t know anything for sure, and that’s the approach I want to take with my food.