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Diet and Wellness Culture

Like many people worldwide, I look for ways to support myself to have optimal health, both mentally and physically. And with endometriosis, I’ve seen that my lifestyle, habits, and health behaviors play a huge role in how I feel. For a long time, I was unknowingly wrapped up in wellness culture, because I desperately wanted to feel as best I could with this disease and I was convinced by wellness culture to use all kinds of unnecessary products and to have habits that were actually hurting me, in the name of “health” and trying to feel better. Because wellness culture is so prevalent (and toxic!) and we often see signs of it on social media or with wellness influencers, I want to talk about it here so we can be aware of it and hopefully step out of its trap.

Unfortunately, wellness culture has brainwashed us to think that wellness needs to be a nonstop, obsessive striving. 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 privileged, racist, and colonialist. Diet and wellness culture is typically based on white culture, often (wrongly) rejecting BIPOC cultural foods/supermarkets as unhealthy. 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. For example: 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.

For example: 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’s wellness “approach” is ableist and one-size-fits-all designed for a specific type of body and lifestyle. 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 doesn’t allow for flexibility on the days you don’t feel good: our diet and lifestyle habits during our period or our flares are likely going to be different than when we feel our best.

Wellness culture causes us to blame ourselves for our health.

I talk about self blame, healthism, nutritionism, and social determinants of health here.

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