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The Role of Diet Culture and Emotional Numbing on Eating Disorders

I follow a lot of eating disorder recovery accounts on Instagram and there’s much talk about diet culture. We live in a diet-cultured society.

Before I express my highly uneducated opinion, I want to clarify the confusing difference between diet, diet and diet.

1. Noun: the food and drink usually eaten or drunk by a person or group:
Diet varies between different countries in the world.
Rice is the staple diet (= most important food) of many people in China.
2. Noun: an eating plan in which someone eats less food, or only particular types of food, because they want to become thinner or for medical reasons:
I’m going on a diet next week and hope to lose 10 pounds before Christmas.
A crash/strict/calorie-controlled diet.
3. Verb: to limit the food and/or drink that you have, especially in order to lose weight:
You should be able to reduce your weight by careful dieting.
DIET | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary

I have a diet (1.) – even if it’s restricting, binging or any eating disordered behavior. People with no diet soon die. I want to talk about the other diet words – consciously modifying how you eat in order to lose weight.

This Is a Sensitive Topic.

There’s a good chance you – my lovely reader – have been on a diet. You don’t have to have an eating disorder – now or ever – in order to engage in dieting behavior. I’d hazard a guess that most of western society has dabbled in a dietary plan. Statistics show more than 50 percent of Americans are on a diet at any given moment. While people who are genetically (or environmentally) vulnerable to eating disorders can be triggered by dieting, most people don’t develop eating disorders.

Also, most people who diet don’t maintain loss. And there’s evidence that constantly losing and regaining weight has long term health consequences. The $72 billion weight loss industry, however, really does benefit a lot from all of us dieters out there.

There are two things that make me ponder the wisdom of diets. The first is the obvious temporary nature of weight loss, which can bring all sorts of distressing emotions when (for most of us) the weight returns a year or two later. But secondly, our image-obsessed society makes us want to diet away perfectly healthy bodies.

A Connection Between Weight and Health Has Developed Which Is Quite Often Blatantly Untrue.

People with smaller bodies can be unhealthy and people with larger bodies can be very healthy. And the reverse may be true. For most of us, there’s no correlation between weight and health. Health is more related to regular (non-obsessive) exercise in combination with the first definition of diet – not a restrictive, controlled method of eating, but the lifestyle you’re accustomed to. We all know that living on chips and chocolate won’t lead to a healthy lifestyle. But nor will eliminating chips and chocolate. Anything “banned” can become a mind game where we have to white-knuckle to avoid the so-called “bad” food. (Note… there’s no such thing as bad food.)

So What Exactly Is a Diet?

Well, as stated above, any eating plan that targets weight loss by removing particular foods, following prescriptive diets (meal plans, shakes etc), counting something (calories, carbs, macros, points), skipping meals or any behavior that seeks to overcome natural body cues.

The healthiest way to eat is to feed your body when you’re hungry and stop feeding it when you’re full. At any hour of the day. Identifying satiety can be difficult to learn but as old dogs, we can only but hope to master new tricks. Satiety should be coupled with a wide variety of foods and nutrients, without a weight loss goal. In modern-day times we call it intuitive eating – although that’s become a bit of a buzzword being picked up by the weight loss industry to make even more money.

The principles work by either cultivating or removing obstacles to body awareness, a process known as interoceptive awareness.
What is Intuitive Eating? | Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating seems the most natural way to eat. It doesn’t mean stocking up from the confectionary aisle and working through bags of crisps every evening. A lot of people fear that letting themselves eat what they want when they want will lead to binging and poor health, but studies show the opposite is true.

Part of intuitive eating is (should be) acknowledging emotional eating and addictive or habitual behaviors and dealing with the underlying issue. Stress, anger, fatigue, etc. There are a million non-food-related reasons people eat. Emotional eating isn’t in and of itself a bad thing – we all do it and after a really stressful day; a doughnut and a nice hot cup of tea might be very soothing. Twenty doughnuts and a bottle of tequila won’t be soothing in the long run.

The Important Thing Is to Acknowledge the Emotion.

This has been a big contributor to my eating disorder – emotional numbing. Which I’ve spectacularly achieved in a myriad of ways, including overeating or starving. In order to attain the holy grail of intuitive eating, I have to feel the emotions.

For me, disconnecting body dissatisfaction (an emotional issue) from my daily food intake (a life-sustaining and potentially enjoyable behavior) is a work in progress. I need to work on the first and embrace the second no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I’ve mastered intuitive kindness, complaining and crying, I can get intuitive eating under control. Right?

Eating should be enjoyable – whether it’s satisfying hunger, socializing, appreciating something delicious or comforting the end of a bad day. The Japanese have a most delightful word we could embrace in the west:

Kuchisabishii: When you are not hungry, but you eat because your mouth is lonely.
Kuchisabishii – SEEKAPOR | an Educational Companion

Instead of dieting to lose weight to achieve a body I was never genetically predisposed to have, I can keep my mouth company with a nice bowl of porridge for breakfast.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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