“I was my sickest and loneliest when I appeared my healthiest.”

How’s that for an admission? Yet it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jessica Knoll’s recent op-ed for The NY Times, the provocatively titled “Smash the Wellness Industry.” She describes a somewhat harrowing relationship with food and body that sounds more than a little like a cycle of obedience and transgression, sin and repentance, albeit with perilously little in the way of absolution. She also surfaces the undeniable–and crushing–moralism that surrounds diet and dieting today, especially (but not exclusively) for women and usually under the heading of “wellness.” In other words, the stakes when it comes to what we consider Wellness are more than physiological–they are existential–and how I wish I’d had this article in my quiver when writing about the seculosity of food:

In preparation for my wedding, I worked out twice a day on 800 calories. From there I moved on to counting macros, replacing rice with cauliflower pellets, 13-day cleanses, intermittent fasting and an elimination diet that barred sugar, dairy and nightshades like potatoes. Every new regimen ended in the same violent binge. I’d wait for my husband to go to bed so that I could obliterate the pantry without him asking, “Are you O.K.?” For the next few days, I would throw myself on the altar of “clean eating,” only to start the cycle all over again.

I called this poisonous relationship between a body I was indoctrinated to hate and food I had been taught to fear “wellness.” This was before I could recognize wellness culture for what it was — a dangerous con that seduces smart women with pseudoscientific claims of increasing energy, reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of cancer and healing skin, gut and fertility problems. But at its core, “wellness” is about weight loss. It demonizes calorically dense and delicious foods, preserving a vicious fallacy: Thin is healthy and healthy is thin.

I remember speaking with a self-described ‘fitness fanatic’ a couple of years ago who also happens to be an outspoken Christian of the Law-Grace variety. I asked him how he reconciled his theology with his hardcore devotion to all things Body. He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “I don’t. Out there, it’s grace all the way. But when it comes to the gym and what I eat, I’m Law-Law-Law all the way.” To translate for those unfamiliar with the jargon, my friend understood the counterproductive nature of demand/pressure when it came to his relationship with other people and God. But in terms of his own heart-rate and waistline, he wasn’t about to get ‘soft.’ It was army-style discipline and control: no excuses, no surrender.

To be honest, I didn’t fault him for it. Not just ’cause I’m the same way when it comes to this stuff–though a lot less successfully–but because none of us live consistently. If anything, his openness about his hypocrisy in this area was an indication of the freedom people sometimes experience when they actually believe the Gospel, i.e. that our righteousness/enoughness is a gift of God rather than the result of our personal integrity or track record.

And yet, that doesn’t mean that the dynamics of grace and law somehow don’t apply to the area of ‘wellness.’ As if! Exhibit A right now would be what’s come to be known as “Intuitive Eating.” We spoke about this phenomenon on the podcast recently–and Ethan put it in the weekender in March–but in case you need a refresher, The Atlantic article on the subject is the go-to:

…traditional ideas of dieting and health, encourage[s people to] weigh their food, watch their nutritional macros, and fret over their weight as a primary indicator of their health. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a theory that posits the opposite: Calorie counting, carb avoiding, and waistline measuring are not only making people emotionally miserable, but contributing to many of the health problems previously attributed to simple overeating…

The theory is that if you can have pizza whenever you want, it feels less essential to eat it until you’re uncomfortable when the opportunity presents itself, or to seek out the opportunity at all. Telling yourself you can’t have something, meanwhile, gives it undue power and allure. “I didn’t understand that the binges were created from the restriction,” [wellness therapist-turned-intuitive-eating-devotee Molly] Bahr says. “I thought I was an animal.” In the past, research has indicated that American women internalize the importance of restricting food intake as young as age 5, making it almost impossible to test how people would act toward food if they weren’t shackled by a culture of dieting. [Intuitive Eating pioneer and dietitian Evelyn] Tribole calls the unnatural urge to eat a particular food that arises because of anticipated restriction the “last-supper effect.” “It’s the permission paradox,” she says. “When you have permission to eat, the food still tastes good, but you remove the urgency.

Woah Dr Tribole, slow down–aren’t you giving people license to snack?!?! God forbid… Yet that’s where we return to Jessica Knoll’s story. After years of the tortuous diet-splurge-repeat, Jessica finally hears about Intuitive Eating and seeks out an expert:

I had paid a lot of money to see a dietitian once before, in New York. When I told her that I loved food, that I’d always had a big appetite, she had nodded sympathetically, as if I had a tough road ahead of me. “The thing is,” she said with a grimace, “you’re a small person and you don’t need a lot of food.”

The new [Intuitive Eating] dietitian had a different take. “What a gift,” she said, appreciatively, “to love food. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in life. Can you think of your appetite as a gift?” It took me a moment to wrap my head around such a radical suggestion. Then I began to cry.

Two years into my work with her, I feel lighter than I ever have. Food is a part of my life — a fun part — but it no longer tastes irresistible, the way it did when I told myself I couldn’t have it. My body looks as it always has when I’m not restricting or bingeing. I’m not “good” one day so that I can be “bad” another, which I once foolishly celebrated as balance… I no longer define food as whole or clean or sinful or a cheat. It has no moral value…

There’s a lot more in the article, which I commend to you. I was particularly grateful for how she surfaces the taboos around “emotional eating” (as if there isn’t just as much of an emotionally unhealthy component to not-eating, etc). But even more germane to us, there’s the way she unmasks that the Ultimate Commandment underlying all the lesser ones in the Wellness world, namely the command to Love Thy Body. Doesn’t matter if it’s phrased an invitation, an opportunity, or a mandate: the command to Love, laudable and true and wise as it is, constitutes the absolute height of the Law and as such, cannot produce what it demands. It never has and never will–not when it comes to Neighbors, not when it comes to God, and certainly not when it comes to Ourselves. In fact, as the first part of Jessica’s story makes clear, the opposite is a much more likely outcome.

And yet, with the help of her grace-based dietitian Intuitive Eating expert, she articulates what to these ears sounds like a sanctified self-image:

“Most days, I feel good in my skin. That said, I am probably never going to love my body, and that’s O.K. I think loving our bodies is not only an unrealistic goal in our appearance-obsessed society but also a limiting one… We don’t need to love our bodies to respect them.”

This doesn’t mean that our intuitions aren’t in need of healing, too, or that Intuitive Eating doesn’t run the risk of turning a person inward so much that it becomes a law unto itself (“Am I hungry now? How about now? How hungry? And hungry for what?” etc). Nonetheless, Jessica paints a beautiful picture of grace in practice–one that leaves this emotional eater deeply encouraged that there exists no such thing as the One True Diet.

The One True Vine on the other hand…