Christy Harrison is part of the intuitive eating movement and has written a powerful book on one aspect of it—a pushback from the diet culture we live in today. She became obsessed with food and started a career as a food journalist. She delved into the topic at a deeper level by enrolling in graduate school to become a Registered Dietitian. After receiving her degree that she became inspired by the book Intuitive Eating which altered her entire perspective on food and dieting. As noted on this site previously Harrison emphasizes that we eat foods not nutrients, but nutrients matter.
The book introduces the reader to the concept of diet culture and how it steals our time, money, well-being and happiness. Diet culture tells us that we need to be thin, eat only “healthy” foods, avoid “unhealthy” ones, and, by implication, shame anyone who does not buy into the dogma. Harrison shows herself as a gifted writer in Anti-Diet, particularly early on in the book. Unfortunately, too many of the later chapters are repetitious and devolve into some harangues and foul language that detract from rather than enhance her main message. Despite those reservations, the ideas and concepts that she presents are well worth reading and heeding. Her understanding of what is wrong with the way we eat in America is much closer to reality than most books on the American diet.
“Dieting—the act of changing your eating and exercise habits in order to lose weight and ostensibly improve your health—is a lot more likely to end in a host of problems (including rebound bingeing, food obsession and weight regain, as it did for me) than it is to result in a slimmer, ‘better’ you.” (p. 6) The author describes the term “diet’ as what we go on to lose weight rather than “someone’s overall eating plan.” As ‘diet’ becomes recognized as a four-letter word, authors emphasize that their books are really anti-diet plans such as in Ever Seen a Fat Fox and The Diet Fix. Anti-Diet, however, truly delivers on that claim as it attacks the foundations of the American obsession with dreaming about being thin and restricting many foods and thus restricting calories to lose many pounds.
The external pressure from friends, relatives, the media, and society in general cultivates an internal pressure to improve one’s body image. External pressure ranges from gentle nudges for a healthier lifestyle to outright fat-shaming. The true damage to one’s psyche, however, is likely self-generated. Such efforts frequently lead to a vicious cycle of temporary weight loss followed by frequent regaining of the weight to an all-too-often gaining additional weight than when the ‘diet’ started. The consequence of such a cycle is a pattern of disordered eating.
“Today the prevailing view is that ‘obesity’ is one of the biggest, baddest killers around, and that the problem with fatness is not about looks but about health. By 2013 the AMA had classified ‘obesity’ as a disease, ignoring the recommendations of its own committee devoted to studying the issue.” (p. 49) Anti-Diet outlines in detail the history of weight consciousness from 18th to 20th centuries with a primary emphasis on how it has shaped women’s consciousness. It is here that we learn how healthy concerns about diet and weight morph into an unhealthy fixation on body image and into our current diet culture. The author contends that our emphasis on dieting actually spreads the ‘obesity epidemic’ through the weight-lost-weight-regained carousel that is likely the real cause of our diet-related health problems. Then enter the doctors who seek to prescribe our way out of the diseased state and into a life of health and wellness. Are drugs really the answer?
“In fact, putting too much emphasis on our day-to-day food choices leads not to improved health but to a preoccupation with food and a panic about health.” (p. 80) Harrison points out that so much emphasis on slimming down has not worked well as the more we talk about it the fatter we get. Rather than helping us out, food advocates increase our worries beyond too many calories and too much fat. The modern food movement places choices in moralistic terms that generally favors white, European foods demanding home cooking and purchase of more expensive ingredients not necessarily within the reach of many poor, disadvantaged populations. Contrast the solutions posed in Food Fights and Food Justice with the realities described in Pressure Cooker and Black Food Geographies. Despite the moral high ground claimed by such advocates the author asks “What is the difference between advising eating whole, minimally processed foods and eating low-fat, low-carb or low-calorie?”
Modern diets claim that they are not really diets but are marketed as ‘health and wellness’ programs. BUT they are really dieting under a new name. She emphasizes that too many fresh fruits and vegetables can be unhealthy, advocating for a more balanced approach. The cultural belief system built around “food is medicine” turns specific choices into right and wrong moralistic ones. Is this helping solve our problems or just creating new ones?
“Your diet often becomes your culture, replacing other forms of culture in your life. Instead of spending time with friends and family, you’re spending time on meal prep and complex dietary restrictions.” (p. 111) In America today food becomes an all-consuming activity crowding out other aspects of our lives. It starts out by promoting the ideal of being thin in a population that is growing ever larger bodies. It is pushed by media stories and amplified by peer pressure. Home cooking is required and processed foods are to be avoided. Foods are either healthy or unhealthy, good-for-you or bad-for you, clean or not clean, real or foodlike substances. The list of foods to be shunned expanded to the point that we become limited to a few superfoods. Anti-Diet rejects the concept of classifying foods in terms of good and bad and doctrines of superfoods or food addiction. Food is food and should be treated as such.
“By now I hope the you understand that most chronic diseases blamed on weight can most likely be explained by other phenomena, such as weight stigma and weight cycling. (And that correlation does not equal causation.)” (p. 158) Weight stigma places psychological strains on individuals dissatisfied with their body image. It can also lead to discrimination, not only in job applications but also in misdiagnoses of chronic diseases. Are these diagnoses based on observable symptoms or on weight alone? Throughout the book Harrison warns us that correlation is not causation.
The bogey man connecting food and health is inflammation, but its dangers may not be all that it they are cracked up to be. Instead of weight leading to inflammation, it could be due to weight cycling and the strain of frequent changes in weight put on our bodies. And how real is the role of inflammation in the development of chronic disease anyway? She points out that cleanses and detoxing, rather than promoting wellness, can be hazardous to our health. The irony is that when a diet doesn’t work the dieters tend to blame themselves rather than the diet. Anti-Diet squarely places the blame on the diet itself. She believes that fat shaming is a repugnant act and that any person who becomes a victim of disordered eating is not deserving of blame.
“no longer labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is essential to the project of social justice, of creating a society of where people have equal access to truly holistic well-being. Sure you can still fight to make fruits and vegetables more available in low-income communities, not because ‘processed foods’ are ‘bad’ or because there’s a supposed ‘obesity epidemic,’ but because all people deserve access to all kinds of food. (pp. 241-242) Foods should not be judged on a morality scale. I mean are there really 100 grocery products that are evil? Demonizing processed foods just makes some people crave them more. The author describes a symbiotic relationship that has developed between nutritional scientists who publish scholarly articles and food journalists who write a “watered-down” version of the article based on the abstract or a press release.
While both the scientist and the journalist benefit from greater publicity, the effects such a practice has on the public does not help develop healthy relationships with food. I have noted previously a similar benefits to both sides in the adversarial stances taken by Big Food and its critics. I do like Harrison’s defense of processed foods which are frequently blamed for all the non-communicable health problems in the country. I am not yet willing to let all processed foods off the hook, however. I believe that there are many foods, both processed and home cooked, that are filled with too much sugar, fat, or salt and should be eaten only occasionally. Maybe I am just not yet completely on board with the concept.
Bottom line for Anti-Diet is that it presents a new perspective on diets and obesity. I confess that many of the ideas in the book are foreign to my understanding of food and nutrition. With brilliant writing and a logical approach, the author slowly drew me into her web. She rejects the terminology of the “obesity epidemic” to the point that she doesn’t blame the person and doesn’t blame the food for America’s growing waistlines. Rather she blames a “diet culture” that forces us to think constantly about food by shaming us to be thin. Any book that comes out that tells us what we should and shouldn’t eat is part of that diet culture. Any article that tells us to avoid processed food to keep us from being victims of the obesity epidemic is part of that diet culture. Any ad that glorifies thinness or shames fatness is part of that diet culture. The concept does seem to be making an impact as the new guidelines on obesity from Canada’s Clinical Practice Guideline for Obesity in Adults “explicitly steers away from diet culture.”
At times Harrison is overly repetitive, and she seems, to me at least, to drive her points too strongly. I suspect however, that people like me are not in the audience she is trying to reach. Maybe her cry is somewhat of an exaggeration at certain points, but she delivers a telling critique of dietary advice in the 21st Century. I am reluctant to admit it, but I find myself dragged down by diet culture at times, particularly as I look back at past blogs on the diets I have taken on over the years, including my latest one. A topic that does not seem to be addressed is the need to modify our eating habits based on a specific dietary-associated illness. I will be looking for an answer as I delve more deeply into the broader movement that has spawned this book.
Next Week: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach