• Lauren Feder

"Health" Is Not A Moral Obligation

No one is morally obligated to engage in wellness culture, diets, or “clean eating.” Diet culture is so powerful that we often find ourselves adding values such as virtue to the economic privilege of being able to purchase a $10 green juice.

While buying organically grown foods and partaking in veganism are two personal choices that are not directly linked to the degree of danger and risk associated with dieting, there is currently not enough research to suggest that any of these diets, or lifestyle changes, directly decrease the prevalence of disease. Accordingly, if the pursuit of wellness causes you mental stress or turmoil, then that is a sign your overall health is being jeopardized, raising your cortisol levels and putting you at risk for an eating disorder.

The majority of our genetic makeup is already decided by familial influence and susceptibility to disease due to environmental influence. The notion that an individual can be in complete control of their health is a lie. Fueled by companies that benefit from diet culture, media sources are also complicit in deceiving consumers to believe we are responsible for losing weight, having younger skin, and that investing in our health is worthwhile, despite the multitude of life factors that arise and take more of a precedent than green powders and detoxes.

Wellness culture has made millions of dollars from engaging in fear-mongering practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced people to reconsider the role their health plays in their day-to-day lives. I firmly believe that one can be healthy without participating in wellness culture and spending enormous quantities of money when doing so.

I offer a few check-in questions to reflect on the extent to which wellness culture has influenced your daily judgments: Do you often look down on individuals for choosing convenience foods over home-cooked meals? Do you assume someone is healthy because they eat salads or prioritize going to the gym? Does your exemplar of health look exclusively thin? If it does, perhaps it's time to consider the privilege required to keep up a fitness regimen and participate in wellness trends. If you are low-income, a busy parent, or a student, health is still accessible to you, and if you decide to put health on the sidelines while going through a busy period, that does not take away from your worth or the values you hold.

Expensive ≠ optimal health. Even on the topic of juices being inaccessible to low-income shoppers, whole fruit is more nutritionally beneficial than pressed juices that undergo fiber extraction. Our bodies do not find increased nutritional value in glass bottle packaging that is often paired with celebrity endorsements, which are either purely for financial gain or because the celebrity has the privilege of trying every promoted possible panacea.

Health is not all or nothing. If you can’t afford acai bowls or fresh berries, frozen fruit is just as nutritious at half the price. If you have the means to attend yearly medical check-ups, this is your opportunity to check in with a reliable source on your body’s current health status. There is no need to purchase a gym membership or feel pressured into trying hot yoga unless that honestly sounds enjoyable to you. Walking is the most sustainable type of movement, benefiting mobility while also being incredible for mental health.

With this knowledge of the stealth of wellness culture, be wary of “obesity messaging” which instills fear in consumers that they must actively avoid weight gain or diabetes. This false responsibility can quickly lead to disordered eating and contribute to weight stigma, which is a health risk factor of its own. If you are at genetic risk for diabetes and are concerned about your health, consider seeing a weight-neutral, Health At Every Size dietician. Health At Every Size dieticians promote mental and physical health by supporting bodies of all sizes and abstaining from moralizing food groups and prescribing food deprivation.

I recommend treating yourself like you would (or should) others. I personally do not choose friends based on their perceived health or economic ability to try the latest crowned superfood. If anything, I would consider limiting the people in my life who do hold these notions of wellness culture as scripture. The temptations of advertising have allowed me to confront my own biases and insecurities, and remind myself what values take precedence in my life.

Valuing a concept of "wellness" that has such rigid or precise definitions is not beneficial or healthy. It could mean forever chasing the fountain of youth, never present in what time we deem as so quickly fleeting. Might we view "wellness", or the pursuit of wellness, instead, as that which reminds us to tune in and really ask our body what it needs to feel nourished and satisfied?

If you have any questions, comments, or topics you’d like to see covered, email me at: lhfeder@ucsc.edu

Stay tuned! The next blog will address common misconceptions and eating disorder myths.

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