With the appearance of health taking focus in today’s culture, many are persuaded to try extreme trends to achieve quick weight and health results. Conventional healthcare may not always have the answers we’re looking for but it’s important to not let our fears and concerns be exploited for someone else’s profit.
Today’s guest is Christy Harrison. Christy and a Registered Dietician Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and a journalist who has been covering food, nutrition, and health for more than 20 years. She is the author of two books, The Wellness Trap and Anti-Diet and the producer and host of the podcasts Rethinking Wellness and Food Psych which has helped tens of thousands of people around the world think critically about diet and wellness and culture and develop a more peaceful relationship with food.“What sells on social media? It’s going to be the most extreme.” - Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
- [1:05] – Christy shares her background and what she specializes in as a Dietician Nutritionist.
- [2:19] – Christy describes her past experiences with disordered eating and combined her perspective with her journalism career.
- [5:15] – Through her own recovery, she discovered her passion for helping others at a large scale.
- [6:21] – This is not a substitute for physical or mental health advice.
- [7:20] – There is a long history of how our current societal focus on weight and body shape has evolved.
- [11:18] – As society developed an anti-fat approach, diets became trendy and scammy weight loss products became prevalent.
- [13:07] – There’s a lot of motivation for scammers to make money in the health and wellness space as it is a huge industry.
- [14:22] – Christy shares some history on the first diet book and how we are currently seeing similar trends again.
- [17:03] – Watch out for anything that purports a product to be a cure-all.
- [19:16] – While there are problems with mainstream healthcare, anyone who turns fear into a sales pitch is a red flag.
- [22:02] – A lot of people in ads, especially on social media, are paid to promote a product that they probably have never tried.
- [23:14] – Be aware of the differences between real studies and anecdotal science-sounding claims.
- [26:32] – A problem with nutritional research is that it is mostly observational.
- [28:15] – It’s not all down to the individual. We can certainly do things to make ourselves less susceptible, but the system needs to change.
- [29:35] – Unless it is coming from your own medical provider who knows you and your needs, be skeptical of medical information.
- [32:17] – Before adopting a health and wellness practice, you should do research.
- [33:39] – Check in with yourself on any emotional pull you have.
- [35:34] – There are also claims from scammers who will say that you have to feel worse to feel better, which isn’t generally the case.
- [38:37] – Diet culture creates a yo-yo effect for a lot of people.
- [40:28] – Self efficacy is critical to mental health and dieting takes it away. They have a hugely negative psychological effect.
- [44:40] – Christy shares some things to consider before making changes to your diet.
- [46:42] – What are the things you have control over in your life? Don’t demonize yourself for the choices you make when there isn’t anything else you can choose.
- [47:56] – There isn’t one solution for every single person.
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- Rethinking Wellness Podcast
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Christy, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Can you give myself and the audience a little bit of background about who you are and what you do?
Sure. I'm a registered dietician, certified intuitive eating counselor, and journalist covering food, nutrition, and health. I specialize in covering disordered eating and helping people recover from disordered eating, having had my own background with disordered eating and eating disorders over the years.
I have two podcasts. Rethinking Wellness is the newest one and Food Psych, which both are dedicated to dismantling diet and wellness culture, and helping people see through some of the scams and misinformation that's out there. I have a new book that's just out called The Wellness Trap that delves into these ideas further as well.
Awesome. We’ve got a lot to talk about today. How did you get into the field?
Like I said, I had my own history with disordered eating and eating disorders. I have been a journalist for more than 20 years. When I got out of school and started my career as a journalist, I was struggling with my own eating disorder. I was really obsessed with food, nutrition, and health, because I was struggling with that stuff myself.
I wasn't eating enough. I was restricting my food, so I became obsessed with food, wanting to know everything that's in it, and also wanting to report on delicious food, how food is grown, and just know everything there is to know about food. That's what led me into my career focusing on food, nutrition, and health in the first place, but was nowhere on my radar to focus on disordered eating. I wasn't a dietician trained in that.
My undergraduate degrees were geared towards journalism, rhetoric, and French literature. It's nothing to do with science really. I, over the years, was reporting on food, nutrition, and health, and quoting a lot of sources who were dietitians, who were professionals working in the nutrition space. I really became curious and interested in doing what they did.
At the time, my perspective was wanting to help in the “obesity epidemic.” Now I've come to see that as a really stigmatizing term and a problematic objective. But at the time, that was really where my head was. I was really into Michael Pollan and the food movements, sustainability. I applied to go back to school to study public health nutrition at NYU to be able to study with Marion Nestle, who's the godmother of that movement. I went into it from that space.
In my studies in school, I started to learn about research methods, and started to see some of the holes and really wide gaps in nutrition research between what the research actually said, what people were recommending, and what we're even learning in our dietetics classes. I started to see the problems with that.
I also started working at the City Department of Health in nutrition education programs. I was working with participants in my programs who were starting—personally, I was in recovery at the time. I was in an early stage of eating disorder recovery. But professionally, I was working with these participants who were—my star participants were doing the things that I was doing in my most disordered days of my relationship with food.
They were getting really obsessive. They were walking miles and miles to get to the program. They were cutting out more food, avoiding things, and going down these rabbit holes. I was like, “Oh, wow.” It was a cognitive dissonance moment of seeing what people were doing that seemed harmful that reminded me of stuff that I had done in my most disordered days.It was a cognitive dissonance moment of seeing what people were doing that seemed harmful that reminded me of stuff that I had done in my most disordered days. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
When I was in the process of recovery, I had discovered intuitive eating. I was starting to really reconnect with my body, allow all foods, and not be so obsessive and hung up on what was in my food. It really was this grappling that I had to do with like, “Wow. If I'm doing this to heal myself, and then I'm transmitting this information to people that's leading them into a disordered space like I was, do I really want to be doing that? Is this really the right fit for me?”
I started to get interested in disordered eating from that lens of looking into how to help other people recover and heal from disordered relationships with food. I discovered, in that process, that intuitive eating, an anti-diet approach, was really the gold standard for eating disorder, recovery, but also prevention.
Doing work in that space could be a way to help prevent eating disorders at a larger scale. That's what led me to start doing the work that I ended up ultimately making the focus of my career. It's been really interesting and fulfilling for the last 10 years or so to get into that work.
That's cool. That's really interesting. I know one of the things that we talked about before we started recording were medical food tangents—try to be aware of appropriate disclaimers and whatnot. I know that you have a standard disclaimer that you use when you're talking. Could you share that with us?
Perfect. Let's talk a little bit about how we got here, in a sense. I don't know if this is a US-centric thing. But since we're both in the US, we'll talk about it as if it were a US-centric issue. What is the cultural obsession with diet? Do you know where that originated?
Yeah, it has a lot of interesting roots in this tangled root system, I think, that I talked about in my first book, Anti-Diet. One of those roots goes back all the way to Greek antiquity of demonizing certain foods, elevating others, making certain foods out to be associated with groups that are seen as lesser, and other foods are associated with groups that are seen as better, and food is this way to differentiate yourself. But also the notion that what you eat is really tied up with health, that you are what you eat. All of that goes back to that Greek antiquity place.
Interestingly, at that time, there was a little bit of discussion around body size, but it wasn't the demonization of larger bodies that we came to see later. It was more of this idea of balance that was the thing to strive for and achieve. Bodies weren't considered to be better if they were thinner. In fact, being too thin was seen as a problem, but being too large was also seen as a problem. There was some anti-fat bias there, but it was never as intense as it is now, I think.
Really, where we started to see that intense anti-fat bias come in was in the 1700 and 1800s around the slave trade. There's a scholar named Sabrina Strings who wrote a book called Fearing the Black Body, who's done a lot of really interesting work around this, showing that anti-fat bias really came up around the same time as people were trying to figure out reasons to justify slavery.
Seeing larger bodies as bad and as being associated with black folks and people who are in marginalized groups was a way to differentiate between different races and to say people in thinner bodies are better, being larger-bodied was associated with blackness, and therefore was bad.
There was really a lot of explicit rhetoric around the time in women's magazines and stuff saying, “We want to look like an African, so lose weight and slim your body.” It was really just outrageously racist. That aspect of it, I think, has gone really underground. But as she describes in the book, it's still there in these subtler ways in contemporary culture.
I think it started to become that doctors got caught up in this notion that larger bodies were bad. Up until that point, really, doctors hadn't seen fatness as necessarily a health-related thing. It was more of a cosmetic issue that doctors didn't tend to address because they thought, “Well, people gain weight as they age. There’s nothing wrong with it. That's a cosmetic thing that's taking you away from the deeper health issues that you should be attending to.”
There's evidence that doctors were frustrated by people's desire to diet and lose weight that started to come up around the mid- to late-1800s. Towards the turn of the 20th century, it really started to become prevalent that doctors were getting into the game of weight loss, starting to recommend it, and starting to say that there are health problems from being higher weight.
Sabrina Strings' work and also the work of a scholar named Amy Erdman Farrell really points to the fact that doctors were giving people what they wanted, that people were starting to demand diets because it was starting to become this cultural trend, this cultural imperative to be smaller, especially for white, middle class people.
Doctors started to cave to that demand and give the people what they wanted, and then research started emerging. This early research, such as it was, started emerging that linked higher weight to poor health outcomes, but it was really based on this underlying anti-fat bias that was there.
From there, insurance companies seized on that. The diet industry really took off with the advent of industry in general in the US. The industrial revolution brought a lot more advertising in different companies and products into the mix.
That's where we started to see a lot of these really scammy products of supposed weight loss pills, tapeworms, and devices that really didn't work and caused harm. All of these things, this diet industry started to explode. By the 1920s, it was really rampant.
Ever since then, it increased year after year, decade after decade. Now, in the US, the diet industry is something like a $72 billion market. Around the world, it's far greater. It's in the hundreds of billions.
I think it kind of perpetuates itself. We've now had several generations come up with this really steeped in anti-fat bias, with the prevalence of the diet industry, with medical recommendations for weight loss, and the thin ideal tends to get thinner and thinner over time, or these days, it's thin and esoteric you're supposed to have.
Certain body parts are supposed to be big, and others are supposed to be small. It's a lot of surgeries involved. It's constantly shifting and changing. This supposes that the ideal of beauty is constantly out of reach for the vast majority of people. I think that helps perpetuate as well that there's always something that you're supposed to feel bad about and always someone there to sell you this supposed solution.
Yeah. I think, to me, with lots of industries, I like to tell people to follow the money. Who's benefiting from you acting or doing something specific? It's scary when you see the weight loss industry in the $70 billion, hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.
There's a lot of motivation for them to make money from people who don't know what's going on, or, “Well, let's just get our money and get out of this game as quickly as we can.” We're talking from the 1700s all the way up to the 2000s. What were some of the wackiest weight loss things that have happened over that 300-year period?
It's interesting to think about how there's nothing new under the sun. A lot of what we do today is iterating on past ideas. There was the first blockbuster diet book, actually. The first best-selling diet book was by this guy named William Banting who was an undertaker, who decided to try to lose weight. That was at a time when weight loss wasn't really prevalent when doctors weren't really in the weight loss game.
He went from doctor to doctor, found a doctor who gave him an austere weight loss diet, and then wrote a book about the process and about the diet. It was basically like an Atkins diet with a whole bunch of alcohol added. It was meat, fat, alcohol, and very little else.
It's interesting how that low-carb trend has cycled through over the years. It became popularized again by Atkins in the 70s and then in the 90s. Now, more recently, the keto trend is building on that or taking it in a slightly different direction, but still a low-carb based. There's paleo, there's caveman. All of that stuff is just an iteration on this early low-carb diet that was a trend.
You see calorie counting emerged in the early 1900s or 19-teens. That's cycled through too. So many diets over the years have been about reducing calories, counting calories, but it shape shifts as time goes on. It's points, it's macros, it's this, it's that. It's a traffic light, but it's all based on that same idea of calorie counting.
There's stuff that's truly wild and wacky, like tapeworms, like I mentioned, or the vibrating belts that were supposed to make fat melt off, or just ridiculous cleanses and detoxes. We see a lot of those still to this day, different iterations of detoxes and stuff. It's all a piece.
Some people think, “Well, it's reasonable to count calories, or it's reasonable to cut carbs in a way that maybe it's not reasonable to take a tapeworm or something like that.” It is all coming from this same place of demonizing larger bodies, seeing them as bad and shameful, telling people that they don't know what to eat, and that they need to do a certain thing and follow some guru or someone who supposedly has the answers to tell them what's really healthy. When the basic building blocks of nutrition, the stuff that’s, like, really boring and doesn't involve cutting out foods or food groups, it doesn't have that same kind of appeal.
I think today, especially with social media and the way that that amplifies the most controversial and the most extreme content, and to be able to keep people liking, clicking, and sharing, because that's what maximizes engagement and makes the industry money, makes the platforms money—like again, follow the money. When you think about what sells on social media, it's going to be those extreme things.
I think there's been this huge proliferation of just wild trends and things on TikTok that are super, obviously problematic. Not even necessarily just TikTok, other social media as well. There are bestselling books that claim drinking almost nothing but celery juice for a part of the day, at least, is going to cure all ills. All of these things that purport to be cure-alls, I think, are really things to watch out for, too.There are bestselling books that claim drinking almost nothing but celery juice for a part of the day, at least, is going to cure all ills. All of these things that purport to be cure-alls, I think, are really things to watch out… Click To Tweet
Let's talk about the things to watch out for. We've got claims that if I drink 14 pounds of celery juice a day, everything's going to be magical. What are the warning signs in how something is being communicated, or how we're being educated about something that we should trigger us to say, “Something's not right here”?
Yeah, totally. I think one pill to cure all ills, that notion that there's one thing. It doesn't have to be a pill, but if it's juice, if it's a diet, if it's a certain protocol, or whatever, that it's going to cure this disparate array of things that have nothing to do with each other on the surface.
I have multiple chronic health conditions in a variety of arenas. I have autoimmune conditions, digestive conditions, skin issues, and hormonal issues. There are so many wellness diets and programs that claim to address all of those disparate areas that can be so appealing for anyone who's struggling with those things, because in many cases, the conventional health care system doesn't have a lot of great answers for things that are more nebulous, or for a wide variety of different things, they're not going to have one thing that can address them all.
It might be a large array of different things you might have to do, and certain things don't have great treatments. It really preys on people's desire for help and the lack of support that they're getting from conventional health care. I think if you see something that is claiming to address these wildly disparate conditions with one intervention, that's one thing to really watch out for.I think if you see something that is claiming to address these wildly disparate conditions with one intervention, that's one thing to really watch out for. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
Also, if it's preying on your feelings of being dismissed or unheard by the conventional health care system, and using that truth that there are issues with mainstream medicine, but twisting that into a sales pitch and saying, “Doctors don't want you to know,” this conspiratorial tone of it too is another thing to watch out for. “Doctors don't want you to know this secret to longevity,” or, “Here's the thing that they're not teaching in medical schools but I've figured out in my research, and I'm going to tell you for $49.95” or whatever it is, or for $1200. Oftentimes, these are extremely high price tags that you're seeing too.
It's not necessarily true that anyone who's selling anything is out to get you or anything like that because we live in capitalism. People have to sell things. I think if their sales pitch is based on fear and is preying on ways that you're not getting the help you need in conventional healthcare, I think that's a real red flag.I think if their sales pitch is based on fear and is preying on ways that you're not getting the help you need in conventional healthcare, I think that's a real red flag. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
I think it's only natural for people to be attracted to those things. But if you see someone doing those kinds of pitches and they don't have good credentials, they don't have recognized medical credentials, I think that's another red flag to look out for. Granted, again, the healthcare system is not perfect by any means. There are real problems with it.
If the medical medium is like, “I have it on authority from a spirit that this celery juice is going to cure all ills. Science hasn't caught up with what I have to say,” that's a real red flag too. If it's like, “Well, there's no science there because we're just so cutting edge that we know what science doesn't know,” or something like that; this notion of cutting edge research, the latest research, the newest, coolest, interesting thing that nobody else knows, every so often, there is something that really is cutting edge and that really is going to be helpful, but those things are very few and far between, I would say, compared to how many interventions, practices, and diets are being positioned as like, this is the new great thing.
They're going to be peer-reviewed, and they're going to have studies to back it up, not just an anecdote. Maybe that is something to talk about: the difference between anecdotal evidence and peer-reviewed clinical trials, where people have done the research. Is that where we get into trouble? We see the really, really fit guy or girl who's in the gym eight hours a day, and they say, “Hey, you can look like me by doing what I do,” when the reality is, we're probably not going to be able to look like you.
Right. There's probably a lot of genetic destiny going on there. People are using their natural, conventional attractiveness or whatever it is to sell products, when in some cases, they don't necessarily even use the products. They're paid to promote the products. That's not what made them look the way they do. There's a lot of unattainable stuff that goes into that.People are using their natural, conventional attractiveness or whatever it is to sell products, when in some cases, they don't necessarily even use the products. They're paid to promote the products. That's not what made them look… Click To Tweet
Social media really amplifies anecdotal information and privileges because of that amplification of the extreme, the novel, the stuff that they don't want you to know. If it seems too good to be true, probably is, and it's probably going to go viral. It's probably going to be something that's really popular on social media. That's one place, I think, where the anecdotal information and supposed anecdotal evidence proliferates.Social media really amplifies anecdotal information and privileges because of that amplification of the extreme, the novel, the stuff that they don't want you to know. If it seems too good to be true, probably is, and it's probably… Click To Tweet
I think even in scientific evidence, there's a need to be a critical thinker and not just take anything with a veneer of science as truth. In fact, there's research showing that people who have a broad trust in science, they generally trust science as opposed to being critical consumers of science. Those people who have that broad trust in science are actually more likely to be duped by scientific-sounding misinformation.
I think it's important to really be aware of the differences between observational studies, animal studies, sell studies, studies in computer models, all of which can provide maybe some interesting jumping-off points for scientists who are looking to do research on clinical interventions in humans but can't really tell you anything about causation. In the case of animal and cell studies, what happens in those trials is going to be very different from what happens in the human body.
For observational data, which is looking at large groups of people and seeing there's higher risk for X disease, people who eat more of Y food, or whatever, those also can't tell you anything about causation. They're only correlation. They tell you, “OK, well, this behavior is correlated with this outcome, but there's a lot of other things that can explain both the behavior and the outcome like income level, education, access to certain things.”
Looking at that kind of evidence also with a skeptical eye and saying, “OK, well, correlation is not causation. Show me the randomized control trials. Show me the multiple, well-conducted studies in large groups of people by scientists who don't have financial interest in the outcomes too.” That's another important key.
Follow the money.
Exactly, follow the money. Again, just because something is funded by a company, doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. I think in general, scientific research that's funded by pharmaceutical companies, for example, supplement companies, or diet companies, tends to have outcomes that are more favorable to that product or practice. If there's early evidence that is funded by an interested party, it's important for other scientists who don't have those interests to replicate the study and see, “OK, do those results hold up?”
If they do, then yeah. Vaccine trials, for example, have a lot of robust evidence behind them from parties that are not interested, that haven't been paid by pharmaceutical companies or whatever. But also, other types of trials like supplements, vitamins, or things like that, I see a lot of, unfortunately, industry-funded trials that are then being used to tout the benefits of something and say, “This is the next be-all and end-all, the miracle pill, and everybody should take this.” It's important to be skeptical of that.
There also seems to be these series of not being in the industry. There seems to be a series of studies, at least two categories I hear an awful lot about. A glass of wine is good for you, a glass of wine is bad for you, it seems like every three or four years of flip flops. The same thing with a cup of coffee; it seems to flip flop.
I think there may be even correlation or causation issues. Even when you have studies that seem to be realistic, valuable, and not particularly funded by interested parties, then science and a bunch of stuff doesn't really seem to be completely established yet.
Yeah. That's the problem with a lot of nutrition research. It is observational in nature, so it's looking at large groups of people, populations, and saying, “OK, among people who drink a cup of coffee a day, what are the outcomes? There's a cohort that has a certain outcome that's good, and then a different cohort years later that has a different outcome that's not so good.” Journalists and health reporters will seize on that stuff.
Speaking as one myself, and especially as someone who, in my own disordered eating days, I was so desperate to find what was going to help, the perfect diet, and stuff, so I was chasing down that information with such zeal. I think a lot of health and nutrition reporters do.
Also, there are financial incentives too that are the articles that get clicked, shared, and go viral a lot, things that are fear mongering, unexpected, or make people think like, “OK, what I've been eating is all wrong.” Or, “Look, this is justification for what I've been doing. I'm going to hold it over my friends and family who don't like what I'm doing.” It's perfectly designed to go viral in today's media environment. Looking skeptically at those kinds of headlines too, and not taking any of that stuff with too much seriousness, taking it all with a grain of salt.
Got you. Are there situations or things that we do to ourselves that make us more susceptible to these types of marketing, fad diets, and commercials, for that matter?
Yeah. It's interesting because there's a lot of systematic and systemic issues with this. It's not all down to the individual. I think there are things that we can certainly do to be more skeptical or to be less vulnerable to that stuff. There are systemic changes that need to be made, like more regulation on what can be shared on social media, and holding tech companies perhaps accountable for things that go viral that are misinformation that harm people, or regulating supplement companies, regulating other branches of so-called alternative medicine, which is certainly a problematic thing because regulation could legitimize them in some way.
There are all these unproven, untested things out there and providers who are maybe trying to do good, but are leading people very far astray. That's part of the system that people can fall into. I think there's regulation and legislative changes that need to happen to protect people.
At the individual level, there are also things that we can do to protect ourselves. I think one is just being skeptical of health and wellness information. I think that's a helpful stance to take, unless it's coming from a doctor or a medical provider that you have a good relationship with, that you trust, who knows you and knows your history. Someone on the internet, even if they do have an MD, for example, even if they're a doctor influencer, but they're just saying something on TikTok, that's for informational and educational purposes only. That's not an individual consultation from someone who really knows you.
I think before we act on any of that information that we see out there, just taking a moment to pause. I really love the acronym SIFT, which was developed by Mike Caulfield, who is a researcher at the University of Washington who studies information literacy. That stands for stop, identify the source, find other coverage, and trace claims, quotes, and media back to their original context.I think before we act on any of that information that we see out there, just taking a moment to pause. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
Stopping is such a great first step because it's just like, “OK, don't click by, don't act, don't change your diet. Don't overhaul your life based on this piece of information. Take a step back and quarantine that information. Don't spread it around. Look into it and see what's really there.”
Investigate the source and find out, what are the credentials of this person? What is their financial interest? What do they stand to gain from spreading this information? Even if they stand to gain something, are they also a legitimate member of a scientific or medical community, who's doing things based on evidence?
Are they out there in the weeds basing their recommendations on animal studies, early-stage research, or correlational data and not causation? Investigating the source and what their reputation is, too. What do other reputable sources have to say about them?
Find other coverage or find better coverage, in some cases, means looking at what reputable sources say about this claim. Is this really out there on the fringes? Is this something that's a matter of serious debate scientifically, or is this established fact that is backed up by pretty much any health agency and authority that you could think of? That's important to know. If it's something that's way out there on the fringes, I say, oftentimes, it's best to just let it go, not pursue it any further.
Finally, tracing claims, quotes, and media back to their original context means if they are making scientific-sounding claims, does that hold water? We don't all have time to fact check everything we come across. I think if you're thinking about changing your diet, your lifestyle, or engaging in some wellness practice, it's probably a good idea to do a little bit more research and dig a little deeper before adopting it.
You wouldn't just buy a car sight unseen or without test driving it. You want to probably dig in a little bit to get some information about the health and wellness practice you're thinking of trying. When you trace those claims and quotes back to their original context, is it totally being taken out of context? Is there actually scientific backing there, or is it phantom science?You wouldn't just buy a car sight unseen or without test driving it. You want to probably dig in a little bit to get some information about the health and wellness practice you're thinking of trying. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
Sometimes I see influencers will put in a citation or a link, and then you click the link, and it goes to something that's a study that has nothing to do with what the claim is saying. Maybe it has a little bit to do with it, but it's totally not supporting the claim, or the influencer is way out ahead of their skis on making an interpretation of it. Just making sure that whatever supposed evidence is there is real, accurate, and valid.Sometimes I see influencers will put in a citation or a link, and then you click the link, and it goes to something that's a study that has nothing to do with what the claim is saying. -Christy Harrison Click To Tweet
If any of those things don't check out when you do your SIFT check, I think just letting it go and walking away is the best possible thing you could do. If you find that there's some emotional pull to it, even after you've done a little SIFT check, and I think that's common, especially for people who feel like they're not getting a lot of good answers from their health care providers, so they want to do their own research, and they want to figure out what's going to work for them.
I think just checking in with yourself about that emotional pull and thinking about, what is it that I really want here? What is the underlying goal of trying to follow this claim? Is it that I need, actually, empathy and support from my care providers? Is it that I am experiencing symptoms, and I want some relief from that? Can I pursue that in a way that's not as potentially scammy or harmful as this claim is making it out to be?
Is it preying on my fear? Is it trying to whip up fear, anxiety, and negative emotions in me in order to sell me something? If so, then that's a sign of manipulation. It's probably not a good idea to trust the person who's doing that.Is it preying on my fear? Is it trying to whip up fear, anxiety, and negative emotions in me in order to sell me something? If so, then that's a sign of manipulation. It's probably not a good idea to trust the person who's doing… Click To Tweet
If this is resonating with me because it's going to get results really fast, that should be a red flag?
Right, because what's the desire for speed really about? Of course, we want relief from symptoms, pain, and things like that. I think in many cases, the things that are promising like, “You'll drop X pounds in X days, or you'll experience a total shift overnight when you do this thing,” it's just preying on people's desire for relief and the lack of relief that they've found thus far.
Unfortunately, a lot of real evidence-based self-care practices and health-promoting practices tend to take longer, tend to be a little bit more incremental, and don't have this magic pill scenario that happens, where you start doing it, and overnight, you feel better or within a matter of months.
Also, conversely, there are wellness purveyors and practitioners who will say, “Well, if you feel worse, you know it's working because it has to get worse before it gets better.” There's a grain of truth to that for some things, like certain conditions. If you have a bacterial infection, and you're taking antibiotics for it, in some cases, there will be this flare up, and you'll feel worse for 24 hours before you feel better or something.
Outside of those unique scenarios, it's generally not the case that if something is helping you, it's going to make you feel a lot worse before you feel better. That's especially true if it's going on for weeks and months. They're just saying, “Well, you're still detoxing. You need to get this out of your system.”
“Look, your skin is purging. It's breaking out because you're shedding all these toxins.” It's like, “No, actually, something else is probably going on there to cause that kind of a reaction.” It's not actually true that people will have months and months of feeling terrible if something is working.
Yeah. I can understand if I've been eating a tremendous amount of sugar, and I go down to a very low amount of sugar, that is going to cause me to be irritated for a little while while my body adjusts to that, but I wouldn't expect to feel bad about that for months or years at a time.
Sugar is an interesting thing, actually, because I think a lot of the anti-sugar rhetoric is this very restrictive diet-y thing, actually. Of course, in general, eating nothing but sugar probably isn't great for your health. What are the reasons that people might be drawn to that kind of a pattern? Oftentimes, it's because they've been restricted of sugar, and they're in this restrict-binge cycle, where they're feeling deprived, and they can't get it ever, so they feel out of control when they eat it, and they eat really large amounts and stuff.
If you're doing something that's a sugar detox, giving up processed foods, or something like that, I would question the premise of it in the first place. Do you really need to give it up entirely? Do you really need to restrict yourself to that degree? Or is this something that's causing you a lot more restriction that's then exacerbating things, triggering a binge-restrict cycle, and making you feel out of control with those foods?
In general, my practice is intuitive eating. I think, in general, that approach really allows for all foods to fit, for people to have anything they want, to not be at war with themselves over food, and to not have foods that are off limits and that they feel guilty and ashamed about.
When you can really embrace that philosophy, which is hard, especially in this culture, it takes a lot of time, practice, and support. But if you can get to that place where you're not feeling like anything is off limits, often it's really easy to just feel like, “Oh, yeah. I only want a little bit of that, or I'm going to have some of that.” I can walk away and I'm not going to feel compelled to finish the whole bag, or whatever it is.
Is that where we get into trouble with diets, which results in the yo-yoing? It's like, “OK, well, the diet says I can't have sugar, but I really wanted it, so I ate a cookie. I've already eaten one cookie, I might as well now eat the whole bag, the whole box, or I'm just going to eat 40 of them” to exaggerate here. It's like all the negative emotions and everything just piles on from that.
Totally. Yeah, exactly. There's this, “Well, screw it all. I've already broken the diet anyway, so I might as well go to town,” and this sense of physical and psychological deprivation. There's evidence that when people are deprived of a particular food, they end up thinking about that food a lot more. They end up wanting that food more, and then they eat a lot more of that food when they finally have access to it.There's evidence that when people are deprived of a particular food, they end up thinking about that food a lot more. They end up wanting that food more, and then they eat a lot more of that food when they finally have access to… Click To Tweet
If something is off limits, it's like this siren song that you can't resist when you finally get around it. You just feel like you have to eat it all. That is really compounded by the fact that if you're still trying to be on the diet, you're like, “OK, well, tomorrow I'm going to buckle down. Tomorrow I'm really going to stop eating this.” It feels like, “Well, then tonight is my last hurrah. It's the last supper. I have to just get it all in now.”
I'm going to binge while I can still binge. What are some of the physiological lists of emotional, physiological, psychological negative places we can go as a result of fad diets? How can we hurt ourselves?
There's definitely the emotional stuff of feeling deprived, getting into that restricted binge cycle, beating ourselves up feeling like we're terrible people with no willpower, that we can't control ourselves. That feeling of lacking self-efficacy is really harmful psychologically. Self-efficacy and feeling like you're in control of your life is really a key component to well-being, to happiness, and to feeling fulfilled in life.
When you're made to feel like a failure, that you don't have that capacity to control what you eat, and that you don't have any willpower, it really takes away that sense of self-efficacy. It takes away the sense of autonomy too because we're giving over our autonomy to something like a diet that's telling us how we should be eating, then telling us we're failures, and that we don't measure up.
I think diets have a hugely negative psychological impact in that way. That's to say nothing of the impact of just the anti-fat bias that's there in the culture. The way that diet culture makes people feel like failures and feel terrible about themselves if they gain weight or if they're a certain size. The shame and stigma that people experience really just goes up as they go up the weight spectrum.
For higher weight people, sometimes the reality is they can't go anywhere without somebody making a negative comment about their weight, without their doctor telling them to lose weight when they came in for a broken arm that had nothing to do with it, a cold, or something. Finding ways to navigate the world, combat that stigma, feel like being able to be resilient in the face of that stigma, and have support in the face of that, I think, is really important too. It's another way that diet culture just really undermines people's well-being by stigmatizing them.
At the physiological level, weight stigma and weight cycling, chronic dieting can have really negative effects. Weight stigma and weight cycling both are independent risk factors for a lot of the things that get blamed on weight itself like heart disease, diabetes, early mortality, some forms of cancer.
It's really interesting to think that in terms of high weight is blamed for causing those conditions, but the stigma and the weight cycling that people experience in an effort to escape being higher weight might actually be more at the root of those conditions than the weight itself.
We do see in the evidence that people who are higher weight stay stable and don't have large fluctuations in their weight, are generally better off physiologically, health-wise, than people who have large fluctuations at whatever size.
I need to make changes to my diet. What should those changes be? What should my perception of them be about the desired outcome setting things that are obtainable and reasonable as opposed to, “Hey, this fad diet says I can lose 30 pounds in the next two weeks”? That's not the answer, but how do we decide, “Do I really need to do something concerning my diet?” If I decide I need to do something about it, what should realistic expectations be?
Yeah, it's a great question. First of all, like you said, asking yourself, do I really need to do this? Why am I thinking I need to do this too? What is it that's made me think I need to change my diet? Is it something I read, that I heard?
What is the messaging that is leading me to have this feeling? Is it looking in the mirror and seeing something I don't like about myself? Is it seeing a picture? Is it a doctor telling me something that maybe is something to listen to, or a doctor telling me something because they're stigmatizing me for my size?
Unfortunately, doctors, as much as they're experts in a lot of areas of physiology, don't really have expertise in nutrition and really don't study nutrition often at all in medical school. They might make assumptions or have ideas about how a person is eating based on their size.
I've heard clients say, “My doctor told me I need to lay off the donuts, but I haven't eaten a donut in years” or something. Just take that with a grain of salt and realize that you know your body, and you don't need to let these outside forces necessarily influence how you think about yourself and your relationship with food.
If you're wanting to change how you eat because of feeling like you're in the restrict-binge cycle, you have a disordered relationship with food, you know that something isn't right in your relationship with food, I remember myself having that inkling and feeling like it's really not normal that I can't control myself when I get around a plate of cookies at a party. I'm trying to be so good. I'm so “healthy” the rest of the time, but when I'm faced with those foods, I just can't stop. That seems to be a problem.
If that's the case for someone who's listening to this, I think thinking about your relationship with food in a more holistic sense, not just like, “Well, I'm so good all the time, and then I'm so bad when I eat all that food.” It's like, OK, looking at it from the sort of larger perspective of that's a cycle, that's the restrict-binge cycle at play, or that's disordered eating at play. The fact that you're trying to be so controlled with what you eat might actually be leading to these rebound outcomes that are not what you want.
What you're trying to solve is actually causing the problem.
Exactly. That's the case with so many people I see. They'll come to me and say, “I want you to help me eat better.” I'm like, “OK, what's at the root of that? Why do you think that you're not ‘eating well’ in the first place?”
For some people, there is a self-care issue at play. They are working a really stressful job, and all they have time for is fast food, or all they can afford is fast food or something like that. That's a logistical and economic issue.
Looking at what are the things that you actually have control over in your life. If it's an economic issue, there's probably not going to be that much control, actually, that you have. Not demonizing yourself and shaming yourself for the food choices you're making, I think, is a good start because you need to do whatever you can to take care of yourself in this situation you're in.
If it's a self-care issue, if you don't have time at your job, things are too stressful, you're constantly racing from one thing to another, you can't even leave your desk, that's a problem. That's something to think about managing in your workplace, think about the work-life balance that you want to have, and the self-care that you really need and deserve.
It's not so much a food issue. It's not so much an issue of, “Ah, I really am so bad because I'm eating all this fast food.” It's like, well, no, it's an issue of, how can I adjust my life and take care of myself in ways that make it so that I don't have to just depend on that all the time?
I think that's actually a good place to wrap up in terms of there isn't going to be a, this is the one solution or that it will work for everybody. This is the one plan because everyone's relationships with food are different, their diets are different, their lifestyles are different. That needs to be brought into the equation. It's not just what you're eating and how much of it you're eating.
Right. It's how you're relating to food, how you're relating to health and wellness in general, and what you've got going on in your life and your well-being that's leading into that. If you're trying to solve a self-care issue by beating yourself up over what you eat, maybe it's helpful to pull back and look at the bigger picture.
If you're trying to solve a binging issue by doubling down and being even more restrictive with food, it's helpful to pull back and say, “OK, actually, that's what's driving the binging in the first place. Maybe I need to ease up, actually, in the rest of my life and find more balance overall so that I'm not in this pendulum swinging back and forth situation.”
By no means, we can't cover your 20 years of reporting and talking about this subject in 48 minutes. This is your one answer to open up a wider discussion, I suppose. If people want to learn more about Rethinking Wellness and the traps, I know you've got your podcast. What are your podcasts again?
I have the podcast Rethinking Wellness. It's the one I'm doing now. It's looking at diet culture, disinformation, dubious diagnosis, scams, all the stuff that's going on in contemporary wellness culture that's so pervasive, and how we can recognize those things, not be duped by the scams, and find true well-being. People can find that at rethinkingwellness.substack.com or wherever you're listening to this.
I also have a podcast Food Psych that I did for 10 years. Still, all the archives are available. That looks at recovery from disordered eating and finding a more intuitive and peaceful relationship with food. That's also wherever you get your podcasts.
The book is called The Wellness Trap. You can get that wherever you get your books or on my website. I have a list of lots of places you can get it at christyharrison.com/thewellnesstrap.
We'll make sure to link to all those. I know that you have a great following over on Instagram. What's your Instagram channels?
It's @chr1styharrison. I'm not super active on Instagram anymore because of so much of what I've learned in my reporting about social media and the harms of it. Personally, I feel like it's really affected my mental health to be on social media, so I've taken a big step back and felt like that's been really healing and helpful for me. People can check it out if they want to—have lots of stuff there if you happen to be on Instagram, and I would encourage people to take a social media break as well.
There's definitely the science behind social media that is disturbingly alarming.
Yes. I'm sure you know as someone in this tech space probably far better than I.
We'll definitely put links to the podcast, the books, and the website, but maybe not the Instagram account, in the show notes. If people want to find those and not have to fumble for them online, we'll definitely include those. Christy, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Thank you so much, Chris. It's really lovely to talk with you.