The Pursuit of Health in the Face of Diet Culture

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Words: Claire Thomson (She/Her) 

‘Diet starts tomorrow!’ We’ve all heard it at some point and maybe even said it ourselves, but how many of us have actually followed it through? Diet culture can be dated back to the early 1900s, when the denotation of the term ‘diet’ came to mean a restricted food intake to lose weight to change the physical physique. However, despite this, the first ideas of what was deemed to be ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ can be traced back even further to the ancient Greeks, who believed that having a healthy body meant having a healthy mind. As the birthplace of the modern Olympics, fitness was a very large part of their culture. The ‘ideal’ body to the Greeks was not based on a person’s visual physique, but rather on their physical abilities. Unfortunately, this belief has not been adopted by the modern world, with so-called fad diets remaining an unhealthy craze and treatment for eating disorders still far down the list of priorities for the health board. As a society, though, it can be argued that we are on our way to coming full circle. The idea of strength and happiness, whether that is physical or mental, as well as having the autonomy to make decisions when it comes to dieting and food consumption, is starting to be perceived as more important than physical appearance and body image. 

Around a decade ago, the information and expectations around dieting and fitness plummeted to rock bottom. The toxic side effects of diet culture were exposed and the dangers that calorie tracking has to a person’s well-being were highlighted. My Fitness Pal, arguably a pioneer in accessible diet and exercise tracking, claims to help nearly one million members reach their nutrition and fitness goals every year. The app promotes the dieting technique of calorie deficit, where caloric intake is less than caloric expenditure, in theory resulting in weight loss. However, the question now is the success rate of this method, as well as the effects on users’ mental and physical health. 

A calorie-deficit diet, whilst appearing rather straightforward and not particularly limiting in comparison to other forms of dieting, can have toxic side effects. There are two main ways to approach this type of diet, both leading to health problems later down the line. The first is to straight up restrict calorie consumption to below what the average human being expends in a day, but there’s an obvious issue here straight away: because every day is different, it’s likely that calorie counting will become a damaging obsession. The second way is to eat ‘normally’ and attempt to exercise yourself into a calorie deficit. Whilst exercise is good for you, in order to exercise properly and look after your physical health, you need to consume enough calories and hydrate yourself correctly. The problem here lies in recovery. To build muscle or a strong cardiovascular system, it is important to fuel and recover properly through a combination of sleep, stretching, warm-ups and cool-downs, and, of course, nutrition. The impact on physical health, however, is not the only concern. When so much focus is placed on image and appearance, thanks to social media, it should be our mental health that we are worried about damaging.

The rise of TikTok and social media platforms, where people expose their daily routines and eating habits, can only be dangerous for our mental health as we are constantly open to comparison. What many people haven’t traditionally understood, but are slowly opening up about and coming to terms with, is that there is a massive difference between physical and mental health. For a long time, people assumed that ‘fit’, ‘pretty’, or ‘muscly’ equaled ‘happiness’ or ‘contentment’, but in reality, in a lot of cases it can be the polar opposite. The toll that it takes on the brain to maintain athleticism is enormous. For some, it can be constant guilt for eating something unhealthy, having a pint with friends, going to bed late, or missing a day of exercise – it is exhausting. It causes a need to feel like you have to make up for what you missed and the vicious circle of guilt continues. 

I remember being told as a child/early teen when I was swimming competitively six days a week that for every session I missed, it would take three to be at full fitness again. Just imagine being ill. Imagine being tired, or having homework, or wanting to go out with your friends for a change, only to have in the back of your mind that it’s going to take you three times as long to catch back up again. It’s quite frankly terrifying. This is the problem with prioritising body image and physical health over mental health. Whilst I’m no longer as dead-set and committed to my swimming as I used to be, I still experience the guilt. Often at half five in the morning, it’s that which drives me to training when I’m tired and would rather stay in my bed. 

There is no doubt that it is important to have a balanced diet and consume a good proportion of different foods for your health, regardless of physique, but it is time to start putting brains over body and concentrating on the thing that motivates us, inspires us and allows us to be ourselves above everything else. Yes, technology has begun to impede our day-to-day lives and routine, but it is possible to fight back and look after ourselves without an app telling us that we need to stop eating for today despite being hungry and needing nutrients. It should be about what is right for you so that you can live the best life that you can. 


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