Diet and wellness culture
Like many people worldwide, I look for ways to support myself to have optimal health, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, wellness culture has brainwashed us to think that this needs to be a nonstop, obsessive striving for wellness. The wellness industry itself is a trillion dollar industry, often dominated by influencers and celebrities unqualified to give any kind of health advice. There’s so many ridiculous claims that XYZ will make us “healthy” – when it really will do nothing more than line the pockets of the person selling it!
Wellness culture is predatory and seeped in privilege, healthism, and ableism. Health “hacks” and “quick fixes” abound, ranging from utter quackery, to selling $400 consults for 50 minutes of general health advice that one can find for free online, to cultural appropriation/white washing of indigenous healing practices for profit.
Wellness culture makes the idea of health much more complex than it needs to be.
Many of us are aware of common health-promoting behaviors, such as:
- Eating a balanced and nutrient dense diet
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting enough daily movement
- Having social support
- Finding sources of joy and meaning in our lives
- Figuring out how to reduce and manage stress
While not all of these are always easy to do or accessible to us, they are simple, common sense ideas that most people agree promote overall physical and mental health. Unfortunately, instead of concentrating on putting in sustainable habits as a foundation for health, wellness culture claims that to be “healthy” we need to do much more expensive and complicated actions.
Note: Of course, all the health-promoting behaviors in the world will not cure an incurable disease, or prevent all illness, although wellness culture would like us to think that because then we will consume/spend more (ie, line their pockets!) in an effort to cure/prevent disease.
Wellness culture tricks us into thinking that health is expensive.
It (wrongly) says that we need celery juice, organic food, superfoods, expensive blenders, pricey teas, detoxes, green powders, yoga retreats, fitness tracking devices, coaches, fancy grocery stores, and more.
Wellness culture tricks us into thinking that health is a cookie cutter approach.
This approach is typically privileged, based on white culture. It sets rigid (made up) rules around what we should and shouldn’t eat and do. There are foods lists of “good” and “bad” foods which have a moral component: you are good or bad if you eat those foods. For example, if you eat “clean” (this term actually doesn’t mean anything), then you are seen as superior to people who mainly eat ultra-processed food.
Wellness culture often forces specific diet and lifestyle habits on us that we can’t sustain, that we dislike, or that are incompatible with our needs. We may find ourselves doing yoga at 6 a.m. even though getting up early makes us nauseous. We might be gluten free even though gluten doesn’t make us feel sick at all! Maybe we’re choking down “superfoods” smoothies we find disgusting and have stopped eating foods that have cultural meaning to us – all because wellness culture says this is the “right” way to be healthy. So we think we have to do these things.
When in reality, health-promoting habits can look many different ways – there is no one “right” way to follow. Contrary to statements we might see on social media, it’s individual to each of us, and important to figure what works specifically for us, which often involves trial and error. Some people feel their best doing cardio while others feel their best doing slow movements like Qigong. Some people feel their best on 7 hours of sleep while others need 9. Some people find gluten makes them feel sick while others can eat huge amounts of it with no problems.
Wellness culture tricks us into thinking that we can’t trust our bodies.
It (wrongly) tells us that we need to hack our systems, detox our bodies, monitor our blood sugar (as non-diabetics), eat to regulate our body’s pH, and more. When in reality, unless we have an actual health problem, our bodies know how to digest our food, clean our blood, and do all the things they need to keep us alive and body working.
Wellness culture tricks us into thinking that non-experts are experts.
It can be helpful to get individualized guidance from an actual expert, such as turning to a qualified registered dietitian to figure out what a nutritious diet looks like for you. But this is drastically different than having self-proclaimed, non-qualified “experts” giving non-evidenced based tips and “solutions” to problems invented by wellness culture.
It can be helpful for a person to work with their doctor to do blood tests to figure out key micronutrients they are low in (for example, iron or vitamin D) and then supplement it. But this is drastically different than being sold an unregulated supplement formulation from a functional medicine doctor’s personal brand to treat a vague diagnosis like “leaky gut” or “adrenal fatigue”.
Wellness culture ignores the complexities of taking care of oneself.
It prioritizes physical “health” at an expense to our mental health and
steals the joy from our food choices and lifestyle practices.
It doesn’t account for how complicated it can be to exercise if you are disabled with mobility issues. It doesn’t realize how complicated it can be to eat when you have chronic illness and/or digestive issues. It’s wellness “approach” is ableist and one-size-fits-all designed for a specific type of body and lifestyle.
Healthism and nutritionism
It doesn’t help either that our society is seeped in healthism, which is the idea that health is entirely a person’s responsibility, and therefore a reflection of their efforts or morals. This belief, and especially its offshoot “nutritionism”, puts a lot of emphasis on the “choices” people make, without accounting for the fact that options are shaped and limited by countless aspects that are out of the person’s sphere of control, such as: access, privilege, luck, poverty, systems of oppression, inequities, time, cultural traditions, etc.
For example, due to food insecurity, someone’s only option may be to eat what’s available to them. While someone with more privilege – who actually has money and access – may have multiple supermarkets and options to truly choose from. Someone who works two full time jobs or has young kids may not have the time to exercise daily or get adequate sleep nightly.
Wellness culture is often ignorant of, or has a blatant disregard for, how much of a role Social Determinants of Health play. Yet the WHO says research shows that the social determinants can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health.
“The social determinants of health (SDH) are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes. They are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems. The SDH have an important influence on health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries. In countries at all levels of income, health and illness follow a social gradient: the lower the socioeconomic position, the worse the health.” [Source: The WHO website.]
Healthism and nutritionism can lead to a lot of judgement and blaming, looking down on people, fatphobia and discrimination, disordered eating or obsessive health behaviors, and more. Instead of addressing inequities worldwide which can play a huge role in health, wellness culture conveniently ignores those. It says that if we just all made the “right” choices, we’d be healthy! If we just lived “better”, lived perfectly, then we’d have no health problems ever. But that’s just utter bs! Instead of supporting the chronically ill, wellness culture wrongly says that we should blame them because health is seen as an accumulation of our individual choices.
Wellness culture and self-blame
I do think diet and lifestyle is a powerful tool that can give us back some (not all)
agency and control over our health. For many, finding the
individualized habits that work for us can improve our quality of life
to some degree. But it’s easy to internalize the toxic, ableist messages of wellness culture and slip into unnecessary restrictions, orthorexia, self blame, obsession, eating disorders, feelings of shame, etc.
Wellness culture makes us feel like we have to be constantly striving, doing, dieting, spending, etc, in order to achieve wellness. That if we aren’t devoting every second to their rigid version of “healthy” living, then we are failing and deserve to be sick. Wellness culture brainwashed me to believe that my symptoms stemmed from me not trying hard enough, and that if I just lived the “right” way, it would heal me. For example, on days when I struggled to keep any food down due to nausea, or I couldn’t even get out of bed due to pain (let alone exercise), I felt ashamed and inadequate. I was convinced that I wasn’t doing enough to help myself – when in reality, filling my tummy with whatever I could keep down, as well as resting, was what I actually needed that day.
For years, I was really obsessive with my health and super rigid with my routines and choices, with self-blame and judgement at the forefront. The more I successfully managed my symptoms with diet and lifestyle, the more controlling I became around my food and habits. While at first it felt empowering, it changed into guilt and self-blame: that I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I shouldn’t have eaten X, etc. It took me a long time to let go of those beliefs.
Today, I’m still pretty strict about what I do as my symptoms are severe and very strongly linked to my way of eating and living, but my approach is now one of loving and understanding, without self-blame, fear, or guilt – which has done wonders for my mental health. I do my best, knowing that my best is different from another person’s best, and that my best will be different from day to day, because taking care of myself in the specific ways that work for me often involves time, energy, effort, money, access, etc, that sometimes I just don’t have. My best has also changed over the years, as I gain knowledge and experience with my individual body. I understand there is no “perfect”. In fact, there’s not even a “right” and “wrong” way for myself: sometimes I do everything “right” and I still flare. Why? Because I have endometriosis and several other health conditions.
Let’s not judge others for their diet or lifestyle – or ourselves. We are all doing our best and what our diet and lifestyle looks like can depend on access, privilege, personal preference, finances, feasibility, responsibilities and priorities, time, energy, and more.
We often see misleading messages from coaches that we can heal our endometriosis if we change our lifestyle and way of eating. But endometriosis has no cure. When confronted, some coaches get around these semantics by saying that their definition of “healing” doesn’t mean you no longer have endometriosis, but rather that endometriosis doesn’t bother you anymore. However, managing symptoms or even becoming asymptomatic is not the same is healing from a disease.
While some of us may be able to improve or manage our symptoms through diet and lifestyle, others won’t have such great results. This isn’t because we aren’t doing it right, or aren’t trying hard enough, or are failing, but because endometriosis is a complex, challenging, incurable disease that needs a multidisciplinary approach with excision surgery as the cornerstone for a person to see the most relief in their symptoms and best improvements to their quality of life.
There are all kinds of statements out there blaming us for our illnesses or state of health, and it’s easy to internalize those messages. So I just want to tell you right now that it’s not your fault that you have endometriosis. It has never been your fault, and it will never be your fault. There is nothing that you could or could not do to have or not have this disease. You’re not sick because you eat X or don’t do enough Y. You’re sick because you have an incurable disease called endometriosis.
It’s important to know that:
- Endometriosis can still progress even if we are pain free. Progression can mean endometriosis is invading deeper into the tissue, causing more adhesions, causing organs to fuse together, etc.
- Pain going away doesn’t make our endometriosis lesions go away. This distinction is crucial.
- The only proven way to remove endometriosis from the body tip to root is excision surgery.
- Diet and lifestyle changes may help some people manage their pain, digestive disturbances, fatigue, or other symptoms. Some people can find full symptom relief. Others find none.
- There is no specific endometriosis diet or way to eat or live to heal your disease or manage your symptoms. It’s individual to each person.
For More Info
- We need to stop saying that food is medicine. It isn’t. – Blog post by Abby Langer
- Here Are Five Lies That Wellness Culture Tries To Sell Us. Don’t Believe Them. – Blog post by Abby Langer
- 10 Red Flags from an ‘Expert Food Coach’ – Blog post by Abby Langer
- Abby Langer Nutrition – Great blog posts from registered dietitian with sound no BS advice! Also check out her book Good Food, Bad Diet.
- Adrian Chavez – Science based nutrition from a registered dietitian. Also check out his podcast!