Seeing the response to the #WakeUpWeightWatchers campaign these past couple weeks has been so heartening. I knew my fellow non-diet dietitians and therapists would speak up, but I was happily surprised to hear the outrage from outside of our little bubble. It's really encouraging to know that others see how putting teens on a diet is unethical and wrong.
That said, there is one response that I've seen more than a few times that makes me want to slam my head against a wall while simultaneously screaming into a pillow:
Weight Watchers isn't a diet. It's a lifestyle.
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! OH MY GOSH IT'S CALLED WEIGHT WATCHERS FOR GOODNESS SAKE!!!
While in my heart I want to spit out an expletive filled twitter rant, in my head I know that's not really productive. Because even though yes, Weight Watchers is clearly a diet, their comment taps into something really important - the blurry line between dieting and wellness lifestyles.
A few years back, there was a large marketing study done which showed that customers are moving away from the word "diet." People aren't buying diet cookies anymore. They want gluten free cookies. They want 5-ingredient clean eating organic cookies. They want superfood cookies. But they most definitely do not want diet cookies.
The diet industry has gotten wise. They haven't necessarily changed their products, but they have changed their name. Diet books have dropped the diet and instead use words like cleanse, reset and lifestyle. They use the language of body positivity, implying you can love your body into a smaller size.
(LOL sidebar here. I was trying to google a great article by Isabel Foxen Duke about the "love yourself thin diet," which I couldn't find, but I did discover there is an actual Body Love Diet which claims to be "A PROVEN System To Lose Weight, Create Miracles, Attract Love, and Get Deliciously Happy in record time so you can enjoy the freedom you desire and the LOVE and vitality you deserve, while learning to nourish yourself with healing foods, and mind, body, and soul wisdom to create your rich and juicy life." Oye.)
Of course, it's a little more blatant when someone like Weight Watchers pulls the whole "not a diet" claim. Again, hello, it's WEIGHT Watchers. But it gets a little more confusing when we get into the "wellness" arena. Are you doing whole 30 to figure out if a specific food is triggering your chronic stomach issues, or is it a diet? Are you going meatless because you truly care about the ethics of not eating meat, or is it a diet? Are you avoiding processed food because you want to feel better, or is it a diet?
Inspired by this article by Virgie Tovar (love her - highly recommend you read everything she writes), here's 8 questions to ask yourself to see if you're lowkey dieting:
- 1. Is food categorized into binary labels, like good/bad, clean/unclean, healthy/unhealthy? Non-diet approaches recognize shades of gray. For example, if you are allergic to eggs, eggs may not be good for you, but it's not because eggs are "bad," just bad for you. Or, it may recognize that some foods are more nutritious than others, but appreciates that eating a food with less nutrition can still be healthy (i.e. mindfully savoring a really enjoyable slice of cake).
- Is food broken into numerical units? Do you have to count calories, grams, points, or macros? Is food assigned a numerical value?
- If you gained weight, would that be a sign that you're doing something wrong?
- Is weight loss celebrated?
- Are the people who represent this lifestyle all thin? If you look to the book/social media/website/program/etc for this lifestyle, are the only people shown relatively thin? Or, does it show a diversity of body sizes and/or actively promote fat acceptance?
- If you knew this lifestyle would lead to improved health and wellbeing, but you would gain weight as a result, would you no longer be interested?
- Do you feel shame or pride for eating certain foods? Are certain foods glorified while other foods are demonized? Are some foods surrounded by a wellness halo (i.e. superfoods), while others are looked down upon (i.e. ultra-processed foods)
- When you imagine yourself after living this lifestyle for an extended period of time, do you imagine yourself in a smaller body?
If you answered yes to any of those, you likely have a lowkey diet on your hands.
Now, if you've just realized your healthy lifestyle is really a diet, that doesn't mean the behavior you're doing is wrong or bad. For example, if your plan to "eat more meatless meals" turns out to be driven for a desire for weight loss, that doesn't mean the solution is to go out and pound down burgers. But, you do have to give yourself the option.
At the end of the day, what makes a behavior a diet vs. self care or a health-promoting habit is the motivation behind it. I could drink a green smoothie everyday for breakfast (I don't) because I like green smoothies and they're quick and easy to make, or because I'm afraid that other breakfast foods are unhealthy and I know green smoothies are "clean" and relatively low calorie. It's the same behavior, but one is rooted in diet mentality.
It's important that we're honest with ourselves about what we're doing and our motivation for it. The wellness industry (err, diet industry, really) has been gaslighting us by selling diets disguised in a cloak of body positivity and wellbeing. Dieting isn't out of fashion, it's just become more insidious.
Rediscover the Joy of Eating
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