Has January Morphed into Anti-Diet Season?

The Four Seasons - WinterIt is something of an underground PR triumph. What has long been a season of short-lived diets and unused gym memberships now seems to be a season for mindfulness and intuitive eating. It is a season for beating up on diet culture instead of beating up on ourselves. A descriptive title for the mood of this January might be Anti-Diet Season.

The wellness section of the New York Times has spent the month running an anti-diet feature every week, calling it The Eat Well Challenge. Every week it dispenses anti-diet wisdom like:

“Diets make you feel bad. Try training your brain instead.”

“Mindfulness techniques like ‘urge surfing’ can help curb overeating without banning favorite foods.”

“Try intuitive eating to break the diet cycle.”

Defining Diet Culture

The Times is hardly alone in its campaign against diet culture. But apart from clarity that diet culture is bad, it’s hard to come up with a clear definition of what it is.  Recognizing that it “has not been defined holistically,” Natalie Jovanovski and Tess Jaeger set out to demystify it. They conducted a qualitative survey of feminist researchers, fat activists, and health professionals focusing on the concept of diet culture.

Through thematic analysis, they concluded that three ideas can serve to define diet culture. One theme is the promotion of equating health with weight. Another is a moral hierarchy of bodies that idealizes thinness and demonizes fatness. Then finally come the systemic problems that underpin diet culture. These are patriarchy, racism, and capitalism.

Altogether, this is quite a diverse set of issues that folks concerned with diet culture have woven together.

Intuitive and Mindful Eating to the Rescue

For these diverse problems, people campaigning against diet culture have a simple alternative. It is intuitive and mindful eating behaviors. Tara Parker-Pope gives us exercises in mindfulness and intuitive eating to support positive changes. She tells us to play a game of “I spy diet culture” and reject it. Honor our hunger. In other words, root out diet culture and replace it. It sounds very much like a new culture to take the place of the old one – until it too gets old and tiresome.

The problem with all of this – diet culture and anti-diet culture – is that none of it is as transformative as its apostles might suppose. The problems with old approaches centered around dieting are told quite well by the vocal leaders of this anti-diet season.

But mindfulness and intuitive eating are nothing more than techniques that can be helpful to some people. Not so much for others. A recent systematic review in JAND tells us the existing research is of poor quality, suffering from insufficient rigor. Most of the studies in this review did not find meaningful benefits.

The “Right” Way to Eat

In the end, we’re not sure that a focus on fighting diet culture puts us in a better place than a focus on the latest diet trends. Either way, we can wind up obsessed with the “right” way to eat instead of the joy that healthful meals can bring.

Click here for the analysis by Jovanovski and Jaeger and here for the systematic review in JAND. For more from the Times’ Eat Well Challenge, click here.

The Four Seasons – Winter, painting by Paul Cezanne / WikiArt

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January 18, 2022