For a long time now “health” has been defined by subtraction: removing weight from our bodies through rigorous exercise and removing foods from our plates. This method has proven to be ineffective as it has contributed to yo-yo dieting, increased weight gain, heightened body image distress, and eating disorders. Maintaining our health is an important part of caring for ourselves, so we are now put in the position of having to redefine health and what it means to pursue health on our own terms.
Let’s consider flipping the definition completely and taking an additive approach to health: adding in variety of foods, and adding enjoyable movement which will add strength, endurance, and flexibility to our bodies. This concept is in line with Intuitive Eating, a concept developed back in 1995 that focuses on reconnecting with yourself and allowing your intuition to guide food and movement choices. Here’s how to do it:
Acknowledge the role diet culture plays in your beliefs about health
Registered Dietitian Brenna O’Malley summarized this concept perfectly in her article “How to Embrace Gentle Nutrition” when she said, “We’re taught how to diet but not often taught how to eat for nourishment, satisfaction, or enjoyment. This is the root of our associations and assumptions that healthy eating = dieting.”
It is important to acknowledge that we have a polarized view of nutrition that has become deeply engrained in our culture. The two sides are:
Eating whatever I crave all the time __________________________Dieting / limiting
with no awareness of balance “unacceptable” foods
Generally speaking, we are not taught about the space in between; a space where all foods fit and nourishing our bodies is not something to be controlled by a diet, but rather something to be attuned to within ourselves. Take some time to reflect on how this dynamic has impacted your definition of health, as well as your habits in pursuit of health. If those habits aren’t working for you then it is time for change.
Define health for yourself
If you have concluded that diet culture’s definition of health is not serving you well, then it is time for a new definition all together. Allow yourself to mold this definition to your specific needs without judgment or comparison.
Some questions to consider might be:
What can I do to help myself feel good?
What types of movement feel enjoyable?
What way of eating serves my needs and is tasty?
Is my current pattern of alcohol consumption working for me, or could I decrease it?
How does my mental health factor into my overall health?
Learning to define health for yourself is an intuitive process that involves trust and compassion. It is important to trust yourself, especially if you identify that your needs are different than the gold standard of “health” that diet culture portrays. If that is the case, you are going to be inundated with messages about health, wellness, and the ideal body type, and it will be your job to trust in the definition of health you have established for yourself.
Consider what foods you would like to add in
This is where the additive perspective really shines. Rather than making a list of foods to eliminate from your diet, consider the alternative. Gentle Nutrition is the 10th principle of Intuitive Eating, and it involves honoring nutrition and taste when it comes to food choices. The creators of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch wrote “Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy.”
In practice, this may look like adding in more beans to your vegetarian diet to ensure you are getting adequate protein or adding in more nut butters or avocado if you are looking to add in more sources of fat. This approach focuses on what foods you enjoy and are wanting to add from a nutrition standpoint, rather than eliminating foods that diet culture has deemed as “bad” or “unhealthy”.
Consider what forms of movement feel good for your body
There is a common cultural message that exercise should be rigorous, and that a workout doesn’t count unless you are sore the next day. Rather than focusing on burning calories and losing weight, this additive perspective on health highlights the importance of engaging in enjoyable forms of movement that add joy, strength, flexibility, or endurance.
HIIT classes, spin classes and long runs are all intensive ways to move your body, and if they feel aligned with what your body and mind need then they are great options. Other great options for movement include dancing, walking, biking, stretching, yoga, cleaning, swimming, and playing with children. When we allow movement to be about more than losing weight or burning calories we open up to a world of possibilities. Suddenly movement isn’t just about going to the gym a few times per week, but it becomes woven into daily life as an integral part of health and well-being.
Gently incorporate those foods and types of movement
Rather than committing to “getting back on track on Monday” which aligns with an “all or nothing” approach, consider a slower and more gentle approach. Once you have identified some foods and types of movement you would like to incorporate, choose one and experiment with how it fits into your daily routine. For example, if you would like to eat more vegetables, start with trying to incorporate veggies into different parts of your day to assess what time works best for you, is most realistic, and most enjoyable. Taking a non-judgmental stance to this change is incredibly important as it will validate that food and movement are not “good” or “bad” and will reinforce the message that you are making mindful choices that serve your unique definition of health.
Going against the societal norm is never easy, but hopefully we can all find motivation in the fact that society’s definition of “health” has not served us well. Whether it has made us question our body’s hunger, propelled us to try a fad diet, or made us feel unworthy, diet culture has shown itself to be a friend to self-hatred, and an enemy of self-compassion. This should be enough evidence for us to move away from diet culture and lean toward trusting ourselves to define health on our own terms.