What Are We Losing in Our Pursuit of Wellness?
The wellness industry is a multitrillion-dollar behemoth that may not always be delivering the right message.
Photo: Getty Images / Foxys_forest_manufacture
The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Jessica Knoll titled "Smash the Wellness Industry" and it's been making waves. In the article, Knoll talks about "wellness" messaging being diet culture in disguise and explains some of the harms surrounding the ever-growing industry. It's definitely worth a read, and likely will make you pause and think about some of your eating habits and question the why behind some of your food choices.
It definitely got me thinking. I work in the media (if we're being technical, the wellness media) and I'm a Registered Dietitian, so I see messaging all.the.time that makes it seem like you need to drink celery juice, eat keto, cut carbs, ban sugar, eat less fruit and, of course, only eat organic, homemade versions of foods that your grandmother used to whip up in her kitchen. While I am a firm believer in good nutrition and physical and mental well-being, I've seen plenty of people making themselves unwell in the pursuit of wellness (which, um, defeats the purpose).
Wellness messaging may have changed to sound more wholesome, but a lot of it is diet culture in disguise. Intentionally losing weight or having a thin body does not equal health. Anorexia nervosa is the most deadly mental health disorder, and eating disorder prevalence is on the rise. An estimated 8 percent of people worldwide have an eating disorder and many, many more people suffer from disordered eating behaviors. On top of that, people living in larger bodies continue to face discrimination (some of the reactions to Nike releasing plus-size mannequins was a glaring reminder of this), while thin bodies are glorified. But, thin does not equal healthy.
A healthy body does not look the same for everyone, and body size and shape has a lot to do with genetics. Yet, people continue to pursue a certain body type at the risk of their health and well-being, in part because of a wellness culture that values thinness, sometimes, seemingly, above all else. This is not to say that changing your eating habits to improve your health is a bad thing-it's not. But it's not always a good thing either.
How can you break the chains of diet culture messaging? Intuitive eating can help you enjoy food, listen to your body and say goodbye to diets for good (read more about what intuitive eating is and how to get started). In addition, here are some red flags to watch out for in wellness messaging that may have seeped into your own thinking. It's time to start asking questions and breaking some of "the rules."
"Wellness" behaviors that may do more harm than good
Cutting out foods or entire food groups
Some very popular diets have rules about not eating foods like beans, dairy or any carbs. To which I say, show me the science. I haven't seen any research compelling enough to cut out entire food groups or macronutrients. Granted, some people do have specific dietary sensitivities, intolerances and allergies. But lots of people don't. Just because your friend or an influencer decided to eat less dairy or go gluten-free doesn't mean that it's a thing you need to do.
Not only that, cutting out foods in the name of pseudoscience can do harm. Beans and whole grains are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins. Most of us aren't eating enough fiber (women should aim for 25 grams; men, 38) and fiber is important for gut health, heart health and more. Extreme low-carb diets aren't sustainable long-term and may cause harmful side effects including constipation and hair loss. Not to mention, the stress and worry about avoiding foods can create unnecessary anxiety around eating.
Defining foods as "good" and "bad"
Growing up, almost every time I watched adults eat a brownie, all they did was talk about how "bad" they were. I continue to hear people praise themselves as "good" for ordering salads in restaurants instead of french fries. After a few indulgent days, people often say they're not eating [insert food] and they start the whole restrict/binge cycle all over again.
Food is not inherently good or bad. Sure, some foods have health benefits and nutrients that others may not, and some foods may provide more lasting energy, but you cannot live on kale alone. You would die if all you ate was kale. We need to eat a variety of foods, and they're all benefiting us in some way.
Convenience foods can satisfy your hunger in a pinch. Dessert can be social and also taste really amazing (and it's perfectly healthy to enjoy food that tastes good). When you stop giving moral value to foods, you can really reduce the stress around food and enjoy what you eat. It can be really hard to do that, but it's absolutely worthwhile.
I used to think as a dietitian, I couldn't admit that I didn't eat "perfectly." I didn't want people to know that I loved brownies and pasta. Just because I learned about the Krebs cycle and amino acid structures in school doesn't mean that I don't have taste buds. I will not apologize for being "bad" because I enjoy delicious food. And yes, this is easier for me to do as someone living in a societally acceptable body, but it's something that everyone should be able to do.
Thinking organic foods are always "better"
See above re some foods being better than others. Organic food doesn't deliver more nutrients (with a few exceptions), but it is more expensive. I'm in support of learning about where your food comes from, and realize there may be environmental benefits to purchasing more organic foods. But, for many people on tight budgets, organic isn't an option. In that case, eating more fruits and vegetables of any kind is better than none at all.
If eating organic isn't in your budget, know there are other food choices that positively impact the environment, such as trying to reduce food waste, eating more seasonal foods, using reusable water bottles and eating more plant-based foods,
Believing calories are a bad thing
I get it. I used to cut calories. I used to choose foods that had fewer calories thinking that they were always the better choice for me. But thinking of calories as only a negative thing that we need to eat less of is just plain wrong. Calories are just a measurement of energy. And if we're getting specific, the calories listed on foods are kilocalories, defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
For humans, calories provide our body with energy. We need energy to keep our body functioning (our heart, brain, lungs and everything else needs energy to work and keep us alive). Just like foods aren't good and bad, calories aren't bad. They are energy. Sometimes we need more energy, sometimes we need less. Our bodies are not machines-our energy needs vary depending on lots of different factors-but we always need energy.
Buying super-expensive ingredients and foods
You don't need adaptogen powders (or any powders really) to eat a healthy diet. You don't need to spend $7 every day on a bunch of organic celery that you're going to juice (that won't provide you with much energy). The wellness industry often forgets that purchasing these types of foods and ingredients is a privilege.
Just having access to nutritious food is a privilege. It's important to mention that there are 40 million people in the United States living in food-insecure homes. They may not know where their next meal is coming from. They might not have access to healthy food. The average monthly SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) benefit amount for one person is $134, which comes out to about $31 per week. That is not a lot of money for food, and certainly not enough to buy only organic vegetables and whatever latest diet trend has hit the shelves.
It's possible to choose healthy foods on a budget, but it's definitely harder. Frozen vegetables and fruits are just as healthy as fresh and are typically cheaper (plus you're less likely to waste them). Canned beans are inexpensive and a great source of protein and fiber. Peanut butter has heart-healthy fats and protein and is much cheaper than other nut butters. Bananas are one of the cheapest fruits you'll see at the store and deliver potassium and fiber. We just don't often hear these options called out by the wellness industry.
What we eat is just one piece of the puzzle
Here's the thing: I truly believe good nutrition is important, but food is only one part of the equation. I've seen people get really stressed out about everything that goes into their mouths. I've seen people work out through injuries and brag about it. Neither of those are healthy behaviors. Rest days are important. Listening to your body is important. There may be other things in your life that you prioritize over eating a salad, and that is important too. Sometimes, I'm too exhausted to cook and I eat cereal for dinner and have chocolate after that.
The truth is, there is no perfect diet or body type. Wellness is about taking care of yourself and that doesn't always look like what we think it does. One thing the wellness industry can do is show us that wellness doesn't only look like thin, white women eating salad. It looks like lots of different things. It looks like all bodies, all ages, all races doing things that help them feel good.
It's moms taking care of their kids and also themselves. It's going for a walk with a friend. It's sometimes hitting snooze and sometimes waking up for an early workout. It's enjoying an ice cream cone as a tasty treat and not stressing out about the sugar or calories.
Like Knoll said in her opinion piece, women should be able to eat without discussing their diets and their bodies. It's time to start breaking the rules and making new ones.