How To Unfuck Your Brain
Any of us who has at some point in their lives thought about, or embarked on some kind of ‘diet’ has been influenced by diet culture. Whether you’ve tracked macros, used myfitnesspal, cut carbs, or keto, you’ve had you’re brain hijacked by diet culture, because it sure as hell wasn’t science.
It’s not my place to say whether or not that is a legitimate pursuit or judge anyone for doing so, but what I am going to do is explore what diet culture is, does and the consequences of being part of it.
The problems I have with diet culture, are about language, misrepresentation, weight centric bias and bad science. Too much actually to cover in one post.
What Is ‘Diet Culture’?
Diet culture is the overarching assumption that having a young, lean body is of the highest value and the perpetuation of these values. It is a culture that places a higher value on women who’s bodies occupy less space than women living in a larger body, and on men who demonstrate muscular body composition.
It is a culture that makes billions by creating and then exploiting insecurities about body image, identity, health and fitness by selling the solution back to us at exorbitant costs. It perpetrates gender inequality by packaging ‘female; supplements in pink and doubling the cost and objectifies male and female bodies by dismembering images of them to sell products through sex: sex that happens only with thin, young bodies. Diet whey, fat burners, exogenous ketones, BCAA’s, CLA, Superfood Green powder, algae: its all high priced bullshit developed to rob us of our cash and fuel the industry that makes us feel bad enough to buy it.
It is a culture that tells you to get your ‘summer body ready’, cultivate visible abs, massage your cellulite, eat only fat to lose fat, detox your liver with a juice cleanse, run for fitness, get off the couch, eat less move more, don’t eat past 8pm, and other such bullshit so nefarious and rooted in utter pseudoscience that it makes me nauseated. This culture that says the only bodies of any value, are the ones that are lean, flawless, and clone-like.
It is a culture where the pursuit of a smaller body is of such importance Kim Kardashian can peddle her ‘appetite suppressant lollies’ on Instagram and may have unintentionally triggered a person to consider appetite suppression.
Appetite suppression? Appetite is a primal and evolutionary driver for survival. You might not want to suppress that. Appetite is also a non-conscious neurobiological signal, and the chance of suppressing it with a lolly would be pretty low.
The Kim’s of the world have influence over us where previously we only had our peers to look to for advice. Before social media existed we only had the telly box for spurious lifestyle advice, and actually, we didn’t watch it 18 hours a day. TV didn’t notify us of when someone in a different country passed judgement on our appearance or commented on our day. Social feedback was a pretty instant, in the flesh kind of affair and as such we found our place in the hierarchy of society by being in it. The play ground, college common room or freshers week was where we found out who was cool, edgy or just plain odd.
The days where we find our place in social hierarchy against only our peers has gone. Now we have the world of social media to pit ourselves against, and it’s a stream of show reels, goods days, and filters. The spots are covered, the bad hair day is hidden, the foul personality is concealed and with good lighting and a filter, everyday’s a modelling opportunity.
We know this, but let’s examine what that means on a deeper level.
The brain and social media
Recently I attended a conference (What’s The Evidence) hosted by Kimberley Wilson; clinical psychologist and registered nutritionist. She explained during her talk about social media, how our prefrontal cortex (PFC) remains undeveloped until around 25 years old: it’s plastic and still assimilating information. The PFC is the brain region implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. It’s like a barometer for how to navigate life and make sense of society.
The PFC has been evolving as long as humans have, making sense of our environment and allowing us to adapt to changes. Our identity is formed by a complex interaction between sociocultural, educational, cognitive, parenting and spiritual influences. Our friends, peers and family, inform our sense of self in our community and we get feedback about how to get what we need by how people respond to us. If this happens in person we can notice and adapt in ways that change how we might react in the future, a bit like conditioning. For example, if you find yourself in a stressful situation but you demonstrate kindness and a cool head, chances are you’ll reap rewards from those around you. You’ll get the reputation for having a ‘cool head’ even temper and people will speak well of you. You’ll internalise that feedback and your narrative about your own identity might become one of ‘I don’t lose my shit under pressure’. All this happens unconsciously and from birth.
Instagram has been around for 10 years. The images we see on our screens don’t necessarily reflect reality, but our prefrontal cortex doesn’t know the difference between what is real life and the images on our screen.
Even though we consciously tell ourselves ‘don’t buy in, it’s airbrushed’ our unconscious response to these images is as intense as if they were real, eliciting strong emotions of jealousy, envy, shame, joy etc. We see images, glorifying flesh, body, food, exercise, where personality and lived experience is of no value, and our brains literally can’t tell the difference between real life and a picture.
The feedback we get from social media is artificial and not the same as real time feedback in our everyday lives. Consider the ‘like’ button: how many people posting something wait eagerly to get a buzz from how many ‘likes’ their post stimulates. I think of teenagers, posting material innocently onto social media sites, conditioned to the dopamine dump that comes with the affirmation of being noticed by strangers ‘likes’. Teenagers, who are unaware of the complex neurochemistry driving the continuous need to interact with social media, or the covert strategies used by programmers who literally write addiction into algorithms.
Remember I said that the prefrontal cortex is still developing until around 25 years old? What is this virtual environment doing to the brains of young people, the first generation to be exposed? The truth is, we don’t know yet, and we wont know until the 25 year olds get to be 40.
Interpreting the message
In this diet culture, where social media has more power than actual evidence based science, it’s really difficult to interpret how much of what we think and feel comes from intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) formation. Whether you believe in evolution or learning as a framework for what attracts us to others, it’s a melting pot of influences from genes and culture.
In the western world, our measure of attractiveness is something heavily influenced by social media and the health and fitness industry. We see images of thin, young bodies and are either in a position to perpetuate that cycle by posting our own version of sexy, or feel we are excluded from it because our actual body is not that. What you see on your feed is going directly into your subconscious as a baseline value for what is valuable, acceptable and worth striving for. Do you want that to be about appearance? Is what the health and fitness industry tell is about ‘health’ even true?
The health and wellness industry, now worth 26 billion pounds (1) is not free from stigma, bad science and prejudice. Remember, it’s an industry built off the back of our own insecurities, and it’s survival depends on us all being desperate to be thinner, fitter and younger. How can we free ourselves of the all pervasive, insidious influence a 26 billion pound industry can afford, designed to shame our bodies and make money from it?
How much of our sense of identity comes from the bad science, that says being larger is bad for your health and that obesity is a disease worth waging war on? A war? As in to eradicate? On bodies?
If I saw in the news tomorrow that Public Health England had begun a war on my body type, I’d crap my pants and and eat cake till I disappeared.
There is so much wrong with BMI as a scale and the term ‘obesity’ that I’ll have to cover it in another article, but for now let’s go with the knowledge that preventing and ‘treating’ obesity by dieting, is like opening a drying out clinic in a pub. Diets don’t ‘cure’ fatness; they create disordered eating and weight gain (5). Besides, it’s a persons human right to be fat and the don’t owe anyone an explanation or apology for it.
The Warped Focus
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t health issues associated with fatness. Being heavy can cause some joint pain and skin rubbing together is not comfortable. What I am saying is that dieting is not evidenced as a solution to medical problems associated with fatness, and that skoem of the research that correlates fatness to increased health risks are entrenched in weight-centric bias. Going to the doctor as a fat person is a minefield of stigma, and often legitimate, serious health problems are missed due to a clinicians preoccupation with weight being the primary concern, leading to delayed diagnosis and worse prognosis .
Concentrating on reducing size, rather than exploring the broad scope of health determinants is short sighted and contributes to stigma.
If it were as simple as giving information based instructions like ‘eat less sugar’, doctors the world over would see their type II diabetic patients into remission. ‘Stop eating cake!’ It’s so simple for people in a thin body to say this, but the determinants of body fat run deeper than what we put into our mouths.
It’s like the message ‘eat less, move more’. Really? We know from research that in some cases, moving increases appetite and that exercise induced deficits can create a compensatory effect in the longer term (4). The idea that exercise is the answer, has people thinking that in order to be healthy, they must run or cycle, swim or do yoga. Most of this is bollocks. Moving for joy, walking to the shops, remain uncelebrated as being vital to health, but if you were suddenly unable to walk, your concept of health might change drastically.
Dieting concentrates its modus operandi on the end goal of a smaller body, without examining whether or not this is a valid goal worth chasing. Will having a smaller body really be the answer to all our problems?
Research shows that healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index (2). Thats regardless of baseline body index. So if you’re a thin smoker or drinker you might ‘look’ more healthy than a bigger person, but you’re at a much greater risk from ill health despite being smaller.
Perhaps our focus as health and fitness professionals, should be on supporting positive lifestyle change, rather than promoting food restricting practices.
How To Unplug?
I am not denying that it is almost impossible to disengage from the culture, but I think what is possible is to unpack how we speak to our friends, our young people and more importantly ourselves about the body.
Examine how you really feel not think about your body: the stories it tells of your existence on earth. The scars from play, accidents, events; rough patches where skin has adapted to friction, lines that evidence your experience, rolls that are normal, realistic accumulations of fat, fat that is its own organ, and vitally hormonally protective in older years (more about exciting fat later).
Explore the sensations of feeling what it is to inhabit your body, rather than thinking about how it looks. Search inside for a sense of self worth and not outside, where the world has taken on a filter.
We are so much more than an accumulation of cells, and to reduce our worth down to a scale weight or clothing size devalues the full human experience. We have so much we can experience, regardless of scale or size, and exploring our feelings, creativity and capacity for love is probably a more fulfilling pathway to self worth than skipping breakfast. I really love the moment in ‘Eat, Pray Love’ where Elizabeth realises during her stay in Italy, that she’s gained weight through all the delicious cuisine. She decides rather than restrict her experience, she’ll buy bigger jeans (3).
Is It Even Possible To Manipulate Our Weight?
Yes and no. It’s worth at this point saying that there is so much we don’t know about genetic drivers for fatness, set point, cultural and environmental factors that we don’t really know how and if we can manipulate our weight long term. I’ll cover homeostatic set point in another post, but for the moment it’s enough to say that evidence suggests, no we (general population and not professional bodybuilders) cant. If we get fatter, its likely that we’ll stay fatter forever. It seems that in order to be lighter than we are for longer term, would require the kind of herculean vigilance and denial of intuitive hunger signals, only the truly type A among us can tolerate. How joyful that existence would be is anyone’s guess.
Weight is supposed to be a dynamic state. We are not supposed to be the same weight for our entire lifespan, and expecting to retain an adolescent body into our middle years is unrealistic. Look at the gorgeous soft body of a toddler and the sinewy body of a 14 year old boy, next to the pregnant body of a woman, next to the body of an older man. Flux, adaptation and all perfectly natural and comparable to other mammalian species.
I don’t really know, because I realise there’s a lot I don’t know. Being prescriptive in an article written for the general population would be impossible. It depends on the individual, and where they are.
Looking to evidence based exercise and nutrition where there is a conscious awareness of bias is a start, as is finding a HAES (health at every size) professional who can help guide you to a way if moving and eating more intuitively. (Where this guidance falls short is for athletes who depend on weight classes to compete. This individuals require a more nuanced approach.)
A hard look at where you might sit on the spectrum of diet culture is also interesting.
- Are you eating intuitively, happy with your identity and experience as a human?
- Are you food focused, thing about eating and/or physical activity more than actually experiencing living?
- Do you exercise out of a sense of earning your supper, or deserving a treat?
- Are you trapped in the diet/restrict cycle bouncing between the same 5-8lb weight loss/gain?
- Do you buy supplements thinking they’ll help with weight loss, or do you find yourself saying you’ll be happy once you lose a few lbs?
- Do you look to the latest exercise or fad diet as solution to your body image issues?
- Do you compare yourself to your smaller friends, wishing you had their body?
- Do you believe you’d have a happier life occupying less space?
If you answered yes to any of these, you’re not alone. I have done all of those things at some point of my life, and subconsciously I still feel the seductive pull of social imagery. I can feel it, because it takes a conscious effort on my part to be mindful of my thoughts, words and behaviours around diet, body image and exercise. My own body image has at times prevented me from promoting myself as a PT because I thought I was too fat to be taken seriously.
I acknowledge that the unpacking of diet culture is a process and I am not above it. Parts of this article may even be entrenched in it still, and I invite constructive feedback.
As someone with a few qualifications and about 15 years of working with humans, I have accumulated some nuggets of wisdom. The main one is that it is not my place to tell people what they need, but to open lines of enquiry that support the client to answer their own calls to action. Nutrition and physical activity can and will be unpicked by science, but science alone cannot provide all the answers to health. Humans are more than inout output machines, and lab tests alone cannot answer the deep questions of the human condition.
The full spectrum of human existence is more than science. It is spiritual and existential, and the value we place on ourselves should encompass all of that, far above the simple mass of our cells.
- Healthy lifestyle habits and mortality in overweight and obsese individuals. Matheson EM, King DE, Everett CJ
- Prevalence and risk and protective factors related to disordered eating behaviors among adolescents: relationship to gender and ethnicity. Croll J, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Ireland M