Opinion | Cutting down on diet talk

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

There are a lot of things I want to talk about in 2020 — books, writing and cumin, to name a few. There are also a few things I don’t want to talk about this year. Mainly, weight loss and dieting.

If your New Year’s resolution is to fit into a smaller pair of jeans or to cut carbohydrates, then that’s your personal choice. Talking about it over a cup of coffee with a friend, or mentioning it to the grocery store cashier may seem like casual conversation, but diet talk is not only unnecessary, but often harmful to the people around us. Dieting isn’t effective or emotionally healthy for many people, and since everyone’s body is different, what is healthy for one person often isn’t healthy for everyone else. We would all benefit from cutting discussion surrounding diet and weight from conversation.

While it’s always present, every New Year, diet culture infiltrates the media with Twitter ads for intermittent fasting and celebrities pledging to lose a certain amount of weight by December. Diet culture, according to dietician Christy Harrison, is “a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue” and “promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy and money trying to shrink your body.” 

People choose to pursue weight loss for various reasons. It’s not up to me, or to anyone else, to decide whether or not that reason is valid. But what is healthy mentally, physically and emotionally for one person isn’t always healthy for everyone else.

Take for example, the Whole30 — a detox diet which prohibits consumption of all added sugars, grains, alcohol, legumes, MSG and baked goods for 30 days. It has become a popular diet for the month of January, though a strict detox and food rules can be quite harmful for some people, as Colleen Reichman, a doctor of psychology and nutrition explains. 

“I know [the founder of the Whole30] markets [the Whole30] as a way to find ‘food freedom,’” Reichman wrote on Instagram. “Yes, I know some people have discovered food sensitivities through doing it. I am speaking to the risk factor that comes with this diet — if that hasn’t been your experience, that is totally ok too! Just know that there are many people who have developed disordered eating through doing this — I am speaking to that population and attempting to provide a warning about the fact that this may happen.”

It’s true that diets with strict rules — like the Whole30 or keto, which eliminates carbohydrates and focuses heavily on increasing fat and protein intake — often catalyze disordered eating. Researchers estimate that about 35% of “normal dieters” eventually become disordered eaters — which means they experience heightened anxiety around food, ingredients and weight. About 25% of these people will eventually meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.

Biologically speaking, some people are more prone to developing eating disorders than others. Which is to say, while some people can handle dieting without becoming obsessive and transitioning into disordered eating, other people can’t. People in active recovery from disordered eating are often acutely sensitive to conversation surrounding weight loss and dieting, and since eating disorders, like all mental illnesses, come in many different shapes and sizes, we can never be sure who these people are. 

And even if your audience doesn’t seem to be affected, talking about dieting and weight loss sets a harmful example for those around you regardless of age. This is particularly dangerous for children and young adults who are navigating major life changes like puberty or moving away from home. 

“It’s worth bearing in mind that kids are like sponges when it comes to taking in things, plus they look up to adults, so you might be teaching your kids to grow up self conscious about their bodies,” Gillian McConnell, a registered dietician, writes. “When kids hear us complaining about lumpy legs or cellulite-y thighs, legs transform from being what they’re actually needed for which is walking, running, jumping and dancing to being a body part that needs [to be scrutinized for appearance]. When kids hear a certain food being criticised as being bad or that it will make us fat, this may instigate food restriction or guilt over eating that food.”

Nobody’s body is exactly the same, either. A 2019 study done by King’s College in London tracked over a thousand U.S. and U.K. adults eating the same common foods. Researchers measured and tracked participants’ glucose levels frequently and found that every single individual in the study had a different bodily reaction to the food. This suggests that there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all diet.

“Just because some diet or recommendation is out there doesn’t mean that you fit it,” Tim Spector, the epidemiologist and professor who led the study, said. 

Not everyone can diet healthfully, and not everyone should. It’s a personal choice, and one that benefits nobody when brought up in conversation. Talking about dieting and weight loss in casual conversation is not only harmful and unnecessary, but it’s also just not interesting. I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. So please, along with the old texts from your ex, procrastination and vaping, let’s leave diet talk in 2019. 

Leah writes primarily about mental health, books, essays and the spices of the world. Write to Leah at [email protected]