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  • Lauren Feder

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Wellness Culture

Diet culture under the guise of Wellness

Just like any industry, the Diet industry utilizes marketing strategies that produce intentional trends to maximize profit. Companies and individuals that profit from the diet industry continuously produce deliberate transformations to the image of specific diets. In order to reduce the potential health risks that the diet industry poses, it is necessary to identify that the diet industry has methodically and successfully transformed low-fat diets that emerged in the 1980s into high-fat low carbohydrate diets such as Keto and Paleo diets, which have been flourishing in popularity in the last two decades. Most alarming, however, is diet culture’s ability to package and advertise new diets as “healthy” and have successfully positioned these dieting trends as central within the confines of “Wellness Culture.”

The 1980s and 1990s were periods marked by diet trends defined by low-fat food consumption. The “low-fat craze” informed the placement of brands such as Skinny Cow ice cream- which I remember finding in my freezer growing up in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. In the following two decades, diet trends have shifted to prescribing “high fat and low-carb” food consumption and even evoked a phenomenon that has initiated the cultural demonization of carbohydrates.

Beyond the clear contradiction of the demonization/adoration of fat between the time periods, diet trends after the turn of the millennium are considerably more dangerous. The predominant discourse embedded in modern diets is their calculated shift in focus; diets are no longer chasing thinness but characterize themselves as scripts that falsely promise increased health.

More specifically, diets have gone to great lengths to utilize language such as “lifestyle” to serve as an artful strategy to convince consumers that their diet is unique in its ability to promote health and wellness. In doing so, companies and individuals that profit from diet culture have expanded their audience, placing a higher number of individuals at risk for developing mental health disorders.

For example, Weight Watchers, a global company headquartered in the U.S. that sells weight-loss regimens and products changed its name to WW in 2018. WW knows that promoting overt calorie restriction is not in their financial interest, as being on a diet is no longer something to brag about. This name change strategy also serves to minimize the company’s problematic use of diets, as individuals easily become victims of diet culture due to their effective strategies in masking their dieting practices as health and wellness. Ultimately, diet culture’s re-framing of dieting as health and wellness continue to trigger and exacerbate mental health issues in their growing audience of participants. Companies are simply wrapping their diets in different “guilt-free” snacks.

Eye Spy Wellness Culture: How to Spot A Diet

Diets Under Different Labels: Look out for keywords such as detox, cleanse, lifestyle change, or reboot. These products or regiments are most likely diets.

Other Features of Diets to look out for:

1) Food group restriction, calorie counting, or weighing oneself as a measure of success

2) Tracking and engaging in exercise “x times per week,” regardless of your body’s intuition

3) Instruction to ignore hunger cues or “distract yourself” from eating

4) Alternatives to “processed foods,” and advertisements that promote fear of sugar or convenience foods

5) Allotted “cheat days” which often promote binge eating behaviors following intentional restriction

6) Attaching moral value to thinness as diets usually engage in the systematic oppression of bodies that don’t fit the current trending image of “health”

7) Claims to be “psychology-based” (are false!)

  • E.g. Another example of stealthy strategies diets use to market themselves as “health” is Noom’s use of color coding products. Noom, a U.S. subscription-based app is used for tracking food intake and exercise.

  • Noom is cognizant of the growth of resistance against diet culture, nonetheless, the company still uses the slogan “anti-diet” while actively participating in the moralization of food groups by marking them as red, yellow, or green.

  • It is important to engage in critical thinking; do not assume diets are healthy, sustainable, or any different than any other fad diet.

While wellness culture has become part of the air we breathe, it is our job to think critically about these new ideas, methods, and ways of embodying health. The glamorization of health and wellness plants dangerous seeds of obsession which can culminate in mental health disorders. The birth of wellness culture paired with the decline of blatant labels of dieting has produced a new form of eating disorder; orthorexia. Individuals diagnosed with orthorexia tend to feel inclined by the facets of a diet under wellness culture because they are able to mask their disordered behavior as pursuits of health. Despite our culture normalizing wellness blogs and “clean eating,” the psychological harm and dysfunction these platforms produce are not eliminated. If you feel like your quest for wellness has gone too far, please seek help.

If you are curious about seeking nutritional advice or managing a diagnosis such as celiac disease or diabetes, there are anti-diet dieticians who can help you address symptoms and navigate food choices. Credible dieticians rely on evidence-based research and do not view weight loss as a sign of health. Skillful dieticians ask you questions about your intake and relationship with food, without assuming you need to eat less. A dietician, like any healthcare professional, works for you and should be there to benefit your health holistically. I recommend clearly expressing your goals to your dietician. If you want to “eat healthier,” a good dietician would recommend adding vegetables into your diet, instead of focusing on what to eliminate. An anti-diet dietician would help you work with your body, not against it. Lastly, be wary of nutritionists who have not received proper training. Today, there are many self-proclaimed life coaches and “food experts” who have their own disordered relationship with food and have tailored their job to fuel their obsession with dieting.

Our culture might see wellness influencers as aspirational, but it is evident that these lifestyles are often unattainable and it remains unclear whether these influencers are even mentally or physically healthy themselves.

Stay tuned for the next blog! I will further advocate for why life is too short for Skinny Cow ice cream and why the pursuit of health is not an obligation.

As always, if you have any suggestions or topics you would like me to cover in future blogs, feel free to email me:

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