Unlearning the toxic lessons of diet culture


Sinead Brophy, a personal trainer and nutrition and health coach, writes about the narrative shift in diet culture, as more people learn to listen to and trust their bodies. 

I’m celebrating that I haven’t “worked out” in two months. Given I’m a coach, that might come as a surprise. But as the pandemic rolls on, it’s the kind of narrative-switch many of us are experiencing when it comes to health and fitness. 

Diet culture is all around us. It’s in Instagram posts, TikTok calorie-counting videos and in the 30-day “Booty Blaster” challenges that we sign up to and give up after day three. It is the voice in our head that still tells us “bread is bad”.

Photo: Sinead Brophy

There is a societal, collective narrative that tells us that “smaller is better”, “leaner is better”, “training more is better”. And as a coach, it is exhausting to see the amount of time and energy people – especially women – put into what foods they eat, how much they eat, and how many sessions a week they train. 

This has continued in a way even into the pandemic, with many feeling pressured to account for the weight they may have put on, or “use” any freed up time to chase the look they’ve always wanted. 

Mindset shift
But just as the pandemic worsened the pressure to look a certain way for some, it liberated others from the choke hold of diet culture. 

More people are declaring themselves body-positive, anti-diet-culture and inclusive. There seems to be a shift: that, perhaps focusing on sustainable, long-term changes that prioritise our mental and physical wellbeing is the way to go. 

Across Instagram and TikTok, more and more content is shifting away from promoting a certain body ideal. Where once we saw a slew of Before and After photos, we now see people sharing and celebrating their stretch marks, their blemishes and their fat rolls. In place of calorie-counting, we see messages of intuitive eating and moving to feel good. 

This shift in narrative is helping people – especially women – release themselves from the shackles of food and exercise rules. The obsession with “good” and “bad” foods can lead to black and white thinking that sucks the joy out of eating. 

This polarised approach to food and exercise can result in cycles of overeating, overexercising and feelings of shame and guilt. Similarly the focus on obtaining “perfect health” and wellness can mean some women are consumed by the idea of only eating organic, “clean” foods.

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Trusting your body
In its place, we are now seeing women in Instagram Reels and TikTok videos eating foods that were previously “off-limits” and sharing the message that losing weight is not their sole purpose in life. 

Taking a week off from exercising or adjusting your training because you are worn out is the kind of self-care that many women wouldn’t have considered even a year ago and now we see the message shared more.

Trusting our bodies plays an essential role in this. Subtle hunger cues like a rumbling stomach are our bodies natural way of telling us that we need to eat. 

Many women have shut these signals down through years of dieting and hunger suppressing tricks like chewing gum or drinking coffee. Listening to these cravings for carbohydrates, fats and proteins is healthy because our bodies need a mix of these three macronutrients to thrive.

It is important to listen to our bodies when it comes to exercise too. How many times have you forced yourself through a workout when you are exhausted only to injure yourself, lose your period or come out feeling even more depleted? 

The female physiology and menstrual cycle is particularly susceptible to stress, either psychological or physical. If we can become more in-tune with how we are feeling, we can better adjust our training sessions to improve our overall health and wellbeing rather than hinder it.

Unlearning
These can be hard lessons to unlearn, and for me, I had to battle through diet-culture, eating disorders* and body dysmorphia to reach this point. 

From the age of just 12 I was fixated with losing weight and looking a certain way. I would steal my Mum’s weight-watcher books and memorise all of the 0-point foods to eat. I ripped out all of the emaciated images of Nicole Richie and Amy Winehouse, idolising their so called “heroin-chic” look. 

By age 15, I had spiralled into bulimia which, despite first getting help for at the age of 16, I continued to struggle with up until two years ago. 

Although I stopped making myself sick at the age of 21, I purged in other ways, namely through exercise. I would pick the hardest HIIT class and destroy myself no matter how exhausted I was that day. I tried every diet there was: Keto, the Clean Eating Diet, the Cayenne & Lemon Juice Diet, the Fruitarian Diet, I did them all and often under the pretense of ‘health’.

It consumed me and it consumed my relationships. Movie nights with friends would descend into binging sessions. Meals out with family were to be feared. I refused to wear shorts during the summer and I would cry with envy at the size of my friends legs in comparison to my own.

I am not suggesting that everyone with disordered eating patterns will go on to develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex, psychological disorders that are often a coping mechanism for something else. Nor am I demonising anyone’s goal of losing weight or changing their body-composition. I am however, trying to highlight the insidious nature of diet-culture and how it can trick us into not trusting our own bodies. 

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This can be a revolutionary and sometimes uncomfortable concept for many of us. So, here are my tips to embrace food and exercise as a way to nourish your body. 

1. Ask why?
If you feel the pressure to lose weight or look a certain way, ask yourself “why?” Is it because you feel you should or is it for another reason? Then ask, will this ‘why’ add something to your life? For example, are you trying to get fitter and move better so that you can play with your kids? If you can’t figure out your ‘why’ or it is causing you a lot of distress, it may be worth speaking to a coach or a therapist. 

2. Focus on slow, steady, sustainable change 
As a habit-based coach, I truly believe that long-term sustainable change is much more effective and a more balanced approach than quick-fixes. I help shift my client’s focus away from weight-based or appearance-based metrics, and focus more on how they are feeling, their energy, their mood, their menstrual cycle symptoms, and/or their sleep. Often when we focus on these health and wellbeing metrics, our body composition (not ‘weight’) can change as a secondary result. 

3. Step away from calorie-counting
Unless you are a physique competitor or an elite athlete you do not need to be religiously counting calories. I believe that food is so much more than a number; it is something that fuels you, nourishes you, and brings people together. 

Getting an idea of how many calories you are eating weekly can be useful every now and again. This is only if it doesn’t trigger you, however, as many women are drastically undereating: 1,200 calories is what a 4-8 year-old girl needs – not what an active woman needs, which is to 2,000 – 2,500 calories or more depending on their activity level. 

Focusing on three to four balanced meals a day centred around mostly whole-foods, with snacks when needed is a much more enjoyable way to approach eating. Or what about learning to eat when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, and eating all foods without guilt? 

4. Reframe food and exercise as a way to nourish yourself 
As someone who spent years of her life seeing food as the enemy and exercise purely as a means to punish myself for my failures of sticking to my weight-loss plan, I can tell you that it doesn’t work. And if it does, it is short-lived, white-knuckle, every-day-is-battle sort of ‘success’, which isn’t really a success at all. 

Similarly with exercise, are you dragging yourself out of bed to do that gruelling workout you found online that doesn’t take into account your training level, work-life balance, or cycle health? Move to feel good, get stronger, and improve your heart health, bone density and mood. There are so many different ways of being active. Bring it back to what you enjoy and your why. 

5. Work with a professional 
This whole concept can be scary and unnerving for many of us. We have subtly or not-so-subtly been brainwashed with the idea that we can’t be trusted around food and that we need to be in a boot-camp to get results. Yes, accountability helps and that is a large part of what coaches do to support their clients, but is that accountability empowering you with the tools to continue to make long-term, sustainable change to your life after that coach is gone? 

Find a coach that aligns with your values and can help you navigate the quagmire of Diet Culture and body-image. And remember, if the thought of loosening the reins – even just a little – brings an extreme level of distress, or if you or a loved one feel that your focus on exercise and food is impacting your overall quality of life, then it could be worthwhile reaching out to a psychologist or therapist who can help you.

– Written by Sinead Brophy

For more information visit Bodywhys.ie, phone their helpline on 1890 200 444 or email alex@bodywhys.ie.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.





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