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How to Find Freedom in Breaking Up with Diet Culture

It is January and we are inundated with the idea of setting goals for the new year, much of which revolve around losing weight or getting in shape.

At the same time, we talk about body positivity and that all bodies are good bodies. We want to accept ourselves as we are and know that should be something we strive for, but it sometimes seems like that message is really for everyone else and not us, personally, right?

It’s a dichotomy: we need to accept our bodies and not conform to something society has decided is “beautiful”, but we desperately want to achieve that body or look that society has deemed acceptable.

So how do we finally find freedom to use food and exercise as it is supposed to be used? How do we find freedom in nourishing our body with food, enjoying foods we love without judgement based thinking regarding whether it is “good” or “bad”? How do we embrace exercise as movement and something our bodies have been designed to do without feeling the pressure to go overboard, stressing our bodies out?

Generational messages have been engrained in us and it filters down. Things that were acceptable to say regarding bodies, food, exercise, etc even 20 years ago are not how we discuss these things now. But people who grew up thinking “I have to exercise to make up for the cookie” have this engrained in their view of food and nutrition. They may see exercise as something they have to do so they can eat what they want. 

People who grew up in the Cabbage Soup Diet era may say things such as “I need to watch my calories” or find themselves on every single diet ever created, which really messes with how they view food! These people likely view food as something that helps them manipulate their body and how it looks vs something that provides nourishment and helps the body function optimally for health.

Disordered eating in rampant. While you may not have an eating disorder, per se, disordered eating is quite common. There is a spectrum and on the far left of the spectrum, picture intuitive eating, when someone eats to nourish and fuel themselves and has almost a neutral relationship with food. At the other end are clinically diagnosed eating disorders. Between these extremes falls disordered eating, which encompasses behaviors around food that have negative consequences but don’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. 

Disordered eating includes irregular or inflexible eating patterns, attitudes toward food and exercise, and body perception. Some common examples of disordered eating patterns include:

  • Dieting: Though it’s so normalized in our society, dieting with the intention of weight loss is a prime example of disordered eating. This can include engaging in fad diets, avoiding specific food groups, or limiting calories to achieve a specific body weight or shape.

  • Compulsive Eating: Sometimes, food is used as a coping mechanism for emotional distress or stress, often leading to episodes of overeating without a sense of control. This includes binge eating and emotional eating. 

  • Exercise and Compensatory Behaviors: Exercise can become a sign of disordered eating when it’s used to compensate for calories consumed. Other compensatory acts, such as purging or using laxatives, are also types of disordered eating behaviors. 

  • Body Dissatisfaction: Another sign of disordered eating that is all too common in our society is body dissatisfaction. This includes persistent negative thoughts about one’s body, feeling the need to change its appearance, or feeling guilty about eating because of how it affects your body.

  • Food Preoccupation: Food is an important part of life (it gives us the energy to do all the amazing things we do each day!), but how or what we eat doesn’t change our intrinsic worth. When someone is overly preoccupied with food––constantly thinking about food planning or the number of calories—this can be a sign of disordered eating.

Do any of these resonate with you? Each and every one of them is a part of diet culture. So how do we break free from these behaviors and, essentially, break up with diet culture? 

View food as nourishment, not a number

Food is more than a number. It is more than how many calories it provides, how many grams of protein, carbs or fat it provides. It is more than how much it weighs or if it is subjectively “good” or “bad”. Food is more than a number of servings is provides. What if you began to view food as nourishment for your body instead of something that has to be meticulously tracked? When you see social media posts telling you the only way to lose fat or gain muscle is to track everything, that is diet culture.

Can you benefit from tracking once in a while to see where you are or to observe a trend? Sure. But are you obsessed with tracking every single thing that you put into your body? Are you afraid to eat out because you don’t know the exact amount of carbs, protein, fat, calories, etc in an item? That is diet culture, not nourishment.

Are you afraid of eating whole eggs because of cholesterol? Because you were told eggs are “bad”? That is diet culture. Learn about food and how it can nourish you physically and mentally and find freedom in breaking up with diet culture.

View exercise as movement, not punishment

Do you view exercise as something you have to do so you can go eat out? Or something you have to do because you were “bad”? Exercise is movement for our bodies. Our bodies were not designed to sit all day. When we add movement into our day, we help the body with circulation, we improve our mood and we allow muscles to move as they are intended to. 

Just as food is more than a number, exercise is more than how many calories you burn, how high your heart rate rose or how much you sweated. Movement, exercise and training are all different things, but, fundamentally, they all require us to move our body!

Instead of dreading going to the gym and feeling like you only had a “good” workout if you are sore the next day, focus on movement for your body. In whatever way you enjoy getting movement. Are you just starting out, an intense HIIT class is probably not the best place to start. You will be sore and not want to go back. Give yourself grace and permission to start where you are. Maybe you need to start with walking, yoga, tai chi, etc, because that feels more doable and something that you can consistently stick with. Are you a social person? Going for daily walks with a friend is beneficial and nourishing! You get the movement and the connection with another.

Does the idea of running for an hour sound like the most horrible idea but you love playing tennis? Choose to play tennis—it will nourish your body and soul. The idea is that your movement is something you look forward to and not a chore or another check list item for you.

Discover your own feelings, thoughts and ideas around food and exercise

What are your own feelings, thoughts and ideas around food and exercise. This may require some introspection and journaling, but consider what you think about your body, what you think about food, etc. What may need to change to improve your relationship with health and wellness?

If you go to the doctor and every single visit they are telling you to “just lose weight”, your relationship with your body, food and exercise is likely skewed. It becomes shame-based. Identifying this and how to work through it to get to a place of true balance is essential to breaking up with diet culture. 

If you grew up with a parent who was also affected by diet culture, those actions and words stick with you. In order to shift away from diet culture, you have to be able to identify those thoughts and actions and make a conscious effort to do the opposite. It’s hard and requires work that has nothing to do with a meal plan, calorie counting or cardio.

Find balance

Is there a time for weight loss? Absolutely. If you are obese, it impacts your health. Plenty of studies and research have shown time and time again how being obese is bad for our bodies leading to chronic conditions, lowered quality of life and how losing fat can improve those conditions. But are you obsessed with it? If you have been on a diet for as long as you can remember, it’s time to break up with diet culture. When you embrace the idea of nourishing your body and giving your body the movement it needs, the fat loss that will improve health will come naturally. When it is forced, we may begin to self sabotage, restrict and restrict until we allow the pendulum to swing the other way and binge on foods. Or, with exercise, we may begin to be obsessive with exercise and movement until the body is so tired that we become injured or sick, which makes the pendulum swing the other way, forcing us to take time off and beating ourselves up because it’s hard to create that habit of movement again.

By embracing intentional choices, food freedom and self-love, we can cultivate a healthier relationship with food and our bodies, and ultimately reclaim our power and well-being. Reject the diet industry's empty promises, and instead, nourish your body and mind with self-compassion, balance, and joy.

All content of this blog is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this blog.

Are you interested in learning how to Master Your Metabolism once and for all? Make sure you are a part of the Master Your Metabolism community where you can receive recipes, meal plans, grocery lists and exclusive challenges to help keep you accountable and motivated!

Kelly Sherman, MS, NC, CPT, is a licensed nutritionist specializing in empowering women to reclaim their health by cutting through misinformation and ditching the diet culture. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and is degreed in exercise science as well as a certified personal trainer. With over 20 years of experience in the field, she combines the best of both nutrition and exercise sciences to best help her clients reach their potential. To nourish is to flourish!


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