In diet culture, the more we fight against our bodies the less in control we actually are.

This essay was originally published in the Sickness and Health Issue of The Mockingbird.

Diet culture is defined by nutritionist Christy Harrison, in her book Anti-Diet, as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness with health and even moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.” A shape-shifting industry, diet culture is the very water we swim in, found in grocery stores, everyday conversations, bestseller lists, health advice and politics — from food accessibility to school lunch debates.

According to CNBC, 45 million Americans will be on a diet this year, and worldwide we will spend 71 billion dollars on weight-loss products. If we include the broader wellness industry, we will spend 1.5 trillion dollars on products designed to improve our health, fitness, sleep, weight, and appearance.

Despite our investment, diets do not work. More than 65 percent of dieters will regain the weight they have lost within three years. As Michael, the eternal being on the television sitcom The Good Place says, “I have always wanted to feel like a human. And now we’re going to do the most human thing of all: attempt something futile with a ton of unearned confidence and fail spectacularly.” We are so good at believing we just need to try harder, even when science and statistics show us we are never going to succeed.


Bernard Hermant, Big market in Ubud, Indonesia. Courtesy of Unsplash.

I first noticed my body was not perfect when I was barely thirteen. In a discarded issue of Good Housekeeping at an aunt’s house, I read about Swimsuit Season Anxiety. As I donned my red Speedo one-piece, the kind with the thick straps crossing in an X between my shoulder blades, I thought, “Why do women worry about their bodies in swimsuits?” Then, looking in the mirror, I thought, “Oh, that’s why.” I noticed that my pre-puberty stomach stuck out more than the stomachs of other girls. And from that day on my self-esteem lived and died by the curvature (or lack of curvature) of my belly.

During my early adolescence, low-fat and low-calorie diets were all the rage. So I skipped meals and drank a lot of water, because if you grew up in the late 90s you’ll also remember experts telling us, “Most times when you’re hungry, you are just dehydrated. So drink water and skip the snacks.” At other points, I overate, whole pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, probably because I was really hungry. I wasn’t hungry after those snacks. I always felt full — of ice cream, and guilt.


Deprivation diets did not work. Like many, I figured I needed to try harder. But even when we actively hurt our bodies, our bodies can protect us, despite our wishes and desires. When we restrict our caloric intake, our bodies react by shutting down our metabolic systems, slowing them to maintain the energy needed to live. This is part of why the common adage “calories in/calories out” fails. We are built to survive, not only natural disasters like famine, but our own misguided attempts to deprive our bodies. Even when we so desperately want our bodies to act according to our wishes and plans, they act in their own best interest, namely survival. I find this an annoying grace, the way God’s provision for my life so stubbornly wins out.


Sometime in the spring of my senior year, my high school held a blood drive. As a classic overachiever, I had a role in helping with it. I remember someone asked me why I wasn’t donating myself, since I kept telling everyone the value of their donation. I quickly and, if I am being honest, proudly told them I did not meet the minimum weight requirements.

Due to a major depressive episode and some related health problems, I had lost twenty percent of my body weight in about two months, going from an average body size to a very thin frame. I received compliments; I loved shopping for smaller-sized clothes. I felt like I had succeeded when my pants were too big.

The irony is that when my body was most celebrated, my body was most noticed, I was most deeply depressed, suicidal, and unwell. My body was broken in myriad ways but fit the narrow definition of success: a certain pants size and silhouette. I was at my sickest when I felt I had finally gained the body that I so longed for.

I can only imagine how obnoxious it was for me to announce I was too small to donate blood. I wish I had been more thoughtful about the effect my comments might have had on others. I wish my peers might have known that even though I was below minimum requirements, I still found my belly too round, my face too fleshy. I wish I had known I was not actually better because I was smaller. When we are convinced that our value and lovability come from our ability to shrink our bodies, we not only hurt ourselves, we hurt others too.


In the past decade, most likely related to the rise of the technology industry, our language about our bodies has shifted. Optimize Your Diet. Hack Your Cravings. Program Your Fitness. Rewire Your Appetite. Recharge Your Soul. All of these are titles or subtitles of wellness and diet books in my local bookstore. A quick jaunt through this busy and growing set of shelves illuminates a strange trend: Our bodies, diet, nutrition, exercise, wellness, and health have become less about our creatureliness and more about control. We seem to believe that the brain and consciousness are machines, able to be programmed and managed with simple commands. Words create worlds, and our language indicates a deep division between what we think we can control and what capabilities we actually possess.

I notice it on social media, in various methods, to self-diagnose food intolerances, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Brain fog? Bloating? Weight gain? Skin problems? Maybe it’s because you need to cut out gluten, or dairy, or add in magnesium or Omega-3s. Amateur wellness experts pitch all sorts of diet hacks and protocols. I am embarrassed to say I have fallen for most of them. My vitamin shelf is full of products I believed would cure my ailments, when in reality they have not. I still click on links to energy enhancing meals, or quizzes to find the cause of my fatigue. I find myself holding out hope that I am just one diet or vitamin away from hacking the perfect life.


As wellness programs overtake diet culture, we moralize our nutrition and diet by sorting foods into “good” foods and “bad” foods. When we restrict our choices to what is clean and pure, what will make us better, then guilt and shame inevitably result the moment we make a bad choice. The remedy for eating something from the unclean list? A detox to get rid of the wrong. Wellness diets, whether they focus on “clean” or “whole” or “real” foods, become moral frameworks for us.

If this is sounding weirdly Levitical, it’s because it is. Religious Studies professor Alan Levinovitz writes: “In the same way that your religion becomes your identity, your dietary practices and rituals and your beliefs about which foods are clean and unclean become who you are … there’s a poisonous kind of religious belief in which whenever you’re failing or whenever you’re unhappy it’s because you’re not being holy enough. And so you pray more, you sacrifice more, you self-flagellate more, and that can be an endless cycle where you feel worse and worse.”

In Anti-Diet, Harrison writes: “In the case of clean eating and other modern dietary practices, people start cutting out foods and pursuing dietary “purity” only to feel worse … Instead of realizing that the problem lies with the diet, however, they believe that the solution is to diet harder and eliminate more foods, because they blame themselves for ‘doing it wrong’ rather than blaming the diet for not working.” She also argues that the Wellness Diet conceives of health as bound up in “healthism”: “the belief that health is a moral obligation, and that people who are ‘healthy’ deserve more respect and resources than people who are ‘unhealthy.’”


The irony of diet culture is that the more we fight against our bodies and our natural urges, the less in control we actually are. Telling ourselves that certain foods or amounts of food are bad or wrong leads us to crave them more. In a study at the University of Toronto, researchers observed women and their attitudes toward chocolate. “Chocolate-deprived restrained eaters consumed more chocolate food than did any other group. Restrained eaters experienced more food cravings than did unrestrained eaters and were more likely to eat the craved food.”

Another famous study about sugar indicates that freedom actually leads us to healthier relationships with food and our bodies. Scientists gave one group of mice access to all the food they could want and all different kinds of food. The other group of mice was given food, especially sugar, on a schedule and in limited quantities. The mice that had open access to sugar had no problems with moderation, while the mice with restricted access, who had been deprived, overindulged when finally permitted. Articles at the time reported the study showed that sugar is highly addictive. To me, what the study shows is that with food, freedom and peace need not exist in tension.


In 1995, dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch wrote the book about freedom from diet culture, entitled Intuitive Eating. In a profile in the Atlantic, Amanda Mull reflected on the book’s legacy. Tribole and Resch, she says, “developed intuitive eating to address both problematic layers in dieting. They encourage people to do something that might sound chaotic or dangerous: Eat what you want, with no rules about what to eat, how much of it, or when. Intuitive eating has ten tenets, but the most well-known one is that no foods are off limits, and that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food.”

Intuitive eating, eating when your body is hungry, and paying attention to how foods make your body feel, can actually reverse damage done by restrictive dieting. Tribole and Resch write: “Preliminary studies have found intuitive eating less effective for very short-term weight loss than traditionally restrictive diets. But research has also found that it can improve body image in young women.”

It was not until I started attempting to eat intuitively that I discovered how much diet culture had become my culture. I was astonished at the sheer amount of brain space dedicated to my attempts to look and feel healthier, to my guilty conscience about not following the food morality laws of clean eating, to my constant searching for the hack for perfection. I also found myself still hoping that intuitive eating would be the key to losing weight. In my core, it is hard to give up the search for perfection, even as I recognize the harm that search has done.

I also still worry that these intuitive eating experts are wrong. With the lingering moralism of food choice in the back of my mind, choosing to eat a previously forbidden food still scares me. What if I cannot stop eating? What if intuitive eating leads to letting myself go? To not being the most controlled person in the room? To being a bigger size?

It is taking me time to find the freedom to eat all foods without needing to pay penance in the form of a longer workout or a sugar detox. But if it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, then perhaps the way out of diet culture is through food itself. Eating that forbidden snack may in fact improve your relationship with your body and food in general. It requires us to give up our illusion of control, of easy shortcuts, and especially of the illusion that we are programmable machines. I am still learning that my body is healthier when I live in freedom.

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4 responses to “Freedom”

  1. Isaac Kimball says:

    Thank you for this honest and thoughtful post.

  2. Paige W says:

    Thank you for your words on this. A notoriously tricky subject I often find myself baffled within. I appreciate your notes and commentary, as you fight your own way out of the dietary mess.

  3. Maureen Hohulin says:

    Thank you for this. I very much needed this reminder of the grace of our all-sufficient, merciful Savior.

  4. Sharon G Mathews says:

    I loved this! As a wizened gray hair now, I look back on my teenaged anorexic self and the neurotic years that followed and have nothing but gratitude for finding freedom from that prison.

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