We need. To talk. About. Diet Culture.
The thing about the wellness industry is that it intersects with health, fitness and spirituality in a way that makes it possible for toxic, colonial concepts to leak from "diet culture" (which you may not think you're a part of) into spirituality and wellness. And why?
As we've talked about: in order to make profit from your suffering.
So let's unpack the roots of diet culture and examine how it's showing up in your wellness or spiritual circles.
Atkins. South Beach. Cabbage Soup Diet. Paleo. Keto. Veganism. No sugar. Low fat. (By the way, I'm not critiquing dietary options themselves, whether you choose them for medical or ethical reasons).
Every few years, a new diet scheme starts trending. (In the post social-media years, these have stopped being referred to as fad 'diets' - the word carries negative, 90's style connotations of WW dinners & Step Aerobics - and and now get marketed as a return to what is 'normal' or 'natural' for humans - Think CLEAN EATING or FUEL.) Diets are marketed this way now because people, in such a chaotic and overwhelming society, ache for simplicity and connection. Eating like their ancestors? Eating clean, in a world filled with negativity and grunge? It's no longer a dietary choice, it's a moral choice.
The most recent culprits: sugar, starches, meat; before that, fat.
Again, let me re-iterate: This isn't a debate about 'which diet is best or more ethical' - it's an explanation of why diet culture - regardless of the food consumed - is rooted in racism and colonisation, and how it's bad for the soul.
When we look at those 'food demons', that are considered to be toxic, evil, single-handedly destroying your health and wellness, fostering disease as you irresponsibly yet guiltily, shamefully consume them much to your own detriment; let's take two things into consideration. 1. The indigenous peoples of Australasia, Polynesia, Asia and the Americas have all for many centuries had these 'bad foods' as the centrepoint of their core diet. Think fruits, sugar, rice and corn. Second to this? Meats, fats and oils.
2. By and large, indigenous populations grew steadily, with solid life expectancies, until their respective points of invasion of colonial forces; at which point each were decimated by new diseases, infections and still-ongoing sensitivities to introduced alcohol and narcotics.
In other words: Why did much of the world's population thrive before colonisation, despite primarily consuming these 'bad' foods that apparently are 'unclean' to eat? Could it be that actually, the sugar and fruit and starch and fat wasn't...evil, causing illness, or killing people?
What changed with colonial invasion? What element of Western culture was enforced to the point that it still permeates how we eat, and how sick it makes us, today?
In a word: OVERCONSUMPTION.
The common factor between indigenous peoples diets, from the Koori to the Shipobo to the Lakota, was that their consumption of food product was sustainable to the population and to the environment. Food wasn't a 'today' thing, it was treated as a longterm resource. 'When we have this, we eat this. When these people need to eat, these people share what we have. When we have little, we rest. We care for our crops and our livestock as it sustains us, and we go to the food source, leaving the land behind us to regenerate.'
In Western, colonial, capitalist culture however, what do we do? We binge. We consume. We want everything, all of the time, and we have been taught to take and take until there is nothing left. When stocks run low, we control how much everybody else has so we can continue to take. We overconsume, we waste and we control. We demand ALL OF THE FOOD ALL OF THE TIME... and we shame those who don't 'control' themselves in front of it. Because if you're rich, a coloniser? You can afford to control yourself - you know that you'll always have more food. It's the ultimate in privilege: I want all the food, but not even to eat. Just to have.
Is it any wonder that so many people have a desperate, unhappy relationship with food, when modern Western society dangles allllllll of the options in front of you, challenging you NOT to partake? Does that not sound to you like some kind of weird, fucked up medieval Puritan ritual?
(One that doesn't work, considering the joy and health and sustenance that sugar, fruit, corn, starch and oils have provided native people for centuries? Our food, our cooking, our little sweet treats are symbols of love, safety, welcome, comfort, healing and warmth).
My point is that, instead of demonising this outdated toxic diet culture, what has become demonised is the food itself. And every few years, the health wheel is re-invented, with new 'good foods' and more 'bad foods'. We consume so much of our new chosen food that the (mostly indigenous) people who grow it can't afford to eat it; the rich get 'healthier' and those socioeconomically disadvantaged get left behind to consume cheap, processed food and be shamed for it. I can't count the amount of times a 'spiritual leader' in a meditation, yoga, Red Tent or shamanic group has shamed the consumption of a perfectly normal food as spiritually 'impure'.
The truth is that we damage the environment by raping our fields, overharvesting and poisoning the soil and water in the process. We give rise to terrible animal slaughter practices, by demanding huge quantities of red meat anywhere in the Western world at any hour of the day. We create slavery and pollution by forcing (mostly native) people to labour in mass-producing foods to be shipped around the world because we demand variety, all the time. The truth is, it's not WHAT we're eating, it's our culture of overconsumption, control and shame - of food, alcohol, stressors, pollution, information, fear and judgement, that make us sick.
And yet, and yet... no matter how much quinoa or low-fat yoghurt or broccoli or kale we eat, as a collective, we're still ill.
I speak to so many clients of all genders, who talk about 'guilt' and 'laziness' when they eat toast and tea for dinner, or feeding their kids chicken nuggets when they pick them up from football practice, or needing a bag of Milky Ways to get through exam preparation. Being on the peripheral of the wellness industry means a lot of contact over the years with trainers, bodybuilders, nurses, beauty therapists, athletes, yogis, people in recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction or eating disorders, new mothers, chronically ill and folks struggling with mental health, witnessing this intersection of 'diet culture' and 'wellness'.
And nearly EVERY TIME someone grips onto a new diet masquerading as a 'clean/natural eating' plan, they eventually fall off (which is totally normal, actually - diets have been proven to NOT WORK) but more significantly, wear this as a spiritual or moral failure (which is NOT normal). The sheer terror with which people ride the muscle definition or weight scale up and down for years - like it defines their morality or spiritual excellence- is crazy.
What I'm getting at here is that the concept of judging these foods as 'bad' and 'unclean' stems all the way back to colonisers' fear and confusion of the natural abundance of the lands they invaded. Why were they not peaceful, and healthy and strong and restful like their indigenous counterparts? Because instead of consuming food in a sustainable, cohesive way, the culture was and still is, to take, mass-produce, binge, overconsume and control others' access.
Western colonial culture is seeing a happy, healthy person eating a mango. So you steal their mango tree, eat thirty mangos, make yourself sick and conclude that mangos are a poisonous and unnatural food. The original, now colonised person who thrives off mangos, is physically and mentally restricted from eating them and grows shamed, unhappy and unhealthy.
And Western diet culture, in shaming sugar, fruit, starch and fat, promoting certain diets free of those as 'clean' or 'ancient' or 'natural', centres ONLY wealthy, white Western people - the descendants of wealthy, white Western colonisers - as the 'correct' body, as the 'normal' pinnacle of health. It doesn't take into account how your skin, brain or hair thrives if you're black, or Asian, or a woman trying to get pregnant or a person recovering from surgery. It dismisses and disrupts all of the millions of people who were, and do, just fine eating the way they've always eaten before colonial invasion. It introduces shame and fear to our food.
'Wellness' media will tell you in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that you WILL die, get wrinkles and cancer, if you eat too many bananas or if you put sugar in your tea or if you have potatoes or chocolate. That a craving is something to 'beat', it's a deficiency - not just physically, but morally. That a desire for sweetness is a weakness, an addiction, you're an addict who needs to go cold turkey. The shame! The shame. The shame that you 'don't love yourself' because you don't meal prep each Sunday. The shame that you eat butter (bad fat) but aren't adding chia seeds to your smoothie (good fat) when you 'should know better'.
Again - because I know my inbox is going to fill up with people insisting that a TRUE 'spiritual leader' only eats XYZ - my point is not WHAT you are eating. The old adage about food is true 'Eat. Not too much, and mostly plants'. My point is that what is being marketed to you as 'wellness' and 'health', as a diet culture that is clean and ancient, stems from racist invasion and is still steeped in judgement, shame and colonisation.
I say this as someone who calorie, macro and nutrient counted for YEARS in order to stay 'optimised' - the healthiest I have ever been, the fastest I have ever recovered from injury or mental unwellness, the easiest my body has recovered from PCOS and Chronic Fatigue/ME was when my diet was the highest it had ever been in fruit, in sugar, in sweet potatoes, in oils, in a plethora of 'bad' foods that I avoided for years. The best thing I've ever done for my body was a) demand that society leave it the fuck alone and b) embrace that it CHANGES, not on a 'better - worse' sliding scale but in its own rhythm. And my spirit has grown tenfold in the process.
The other way in which our spirit is colonised by diet culture is by the gym-bro attitude of 'eating is fuel and the body is a machine'. You've heard this by some Red Bull-amped PT before, right? You need to fuel your machine. You need to top up the tank. You want to look like a weapon. You only get out what you put in.
A machine? Your body, the physical being that holds you for your entire life, the heart that beats even when you're asleep, your body that craves affection and loves to swim and dance and can sense when something is coming - a machine? Yet another soulless device to be controlled, to be judged on output, a piece of machinery to consume and work? Do you know what a huge red flag of repressed trauma is, in a person? Disembodiment. Identifying outside of the body rather than in it. Do you know who else surveys and objectifies bodies as simply a collection of worthless limbs and orifices? Rapists, pimps and slave-owners. So I deeply, deeply discourage you from experiencing your body as a 'machine'.
I know, I know, those phrases are supposed to be motivating and encouraging, or some shit, right? But again, knowing where this messaging stems from... can you see why it doesn't feel good energetically? If you're using this messaging as a fitness, diet or wellness leader - is it time to change?
What's toxic about the 'body as a machine' concept is as I mentioned before: the incorrect belief that health or fitness is simply an equation, a matter of what you put in is equal to what you receive back. (Like your body owes you something. More than, you know, life.) Which, if you're a healthy white male between 20 and 40, it probably does. When you centre that population as the 'norm', the yardstick by which everybody else's health, diet or fitness is measured by, you cause harm to a lot of people.
If 'what you put in is what you get out' of your diet and workout is the sum entirety..
What about if you're in a wheelchair, missing limbs or with muscle-wasting illness?
What if you have inherited illness? What if you're in the public health system waiting for a diagnosis? What if you're a new mum eating all the right foods and training hard to 'bounce back after baby', despite pelvic floor injury and diastasis recti?
What if you have PTSD and the adrenaline spike of even a short jog or kettlebell swing could trigger a panic attack?
What if you're a labourer who works sixty hour weeks in a food-desert area?
What if you're a single parent with no support?
What if you're transitioning and on hormone medication?
What if you're below the poverty line and on food stamps?
What if you're native, Asian, black or a person of colour?
What if you're fat, female, old, homeless?
What if you're on hormonal contraception or antidepressants?
What if you're asthmatic or in recovery from addiction or eating disorder?
This isn't about 'finding excuses' not to eat well or not to exercise. It's about decolonising the narrative we ALL have within us, that centers the demands and experiences of Western (mostly white, wealthy and male) culture as the norm for our diets, health and wellbeing, and uses shame as a control tactic for those who exist outside those parameters.
Has your spirit become so colonised, that despite all you have survived, you feel shame for... eating sugar? Are you forgetting your ancestors who thrived and survived and celebrated those 'bad' foods? Are you, as a fitness or wellness leader, inadvertently sharing this shame with vulnerable others in trying to 'help'?
To decolonise your spirit, it's essential to decolonise how you treat your body, your food and your exercise.
I encourage this: Treat your body with curiosity, on the days that you cannot treat it with love. Ask questions. What do you need? What do you want to feel?
Don't continue to colonise your spirit by treating your body with shame and judgement. 'Why don't you look like X? What's wrong with you for eating chocolate again? Why can't you stick to anything? Why are you lazy? Why aren't you motivated?"
Foster trust in your body's processes. If you're having a hard time at work, and eating Chinese takeaway every night out of sheer exhaustion... trust yourself to eventually want something else. It may take six months and 5 kilos, but if you TRUST YOURSELF as the sovereign of your body - instead of allowing a toxic diet culture to colonise your body and spirit - trust me, you WILL find your level. Explore and adventure with your body! Maybe the sex is better when you eat more and carry more weight. Maybe having fruit instead of caffeine wakes you up better in the morning. Maybe your menstrual cycle is less painful when you only sleep and eat toast for a week. Who knows? Give yourself the time and trust to develop that relationship.
Decolonise your spirit of diet culture. Treat your body with love. When you can't, treat it with curiosity.
Treat your body with trust. When you can't, rest. Eat as simply, and locally as you can.
Value the work that your body is doing outside of strength or beauty. It may be recovering from stress or injury, it may be allowing you to paint pictures or dream lucid dreams, it may be growing a baby or demanding that you rest, it may just be functioning while you overcome mental illness. Refuse the shame. Embrace the sweet.
Your morality is not up for debate.