As a personal trainer, educator, and health coach, my students will express what they hear or observe on social media related to the toxic and damaging nature of diet culture. The messages diet culture promotes are sometimes overt and loud. Other times, these messages are sneaky and subdued. The shape-shifting nature of diet culture messaging and marketing makes it a challenge to combat, reject, and heal from.
Fitness clients are particularly vulnerable to the messaging scheme of diet culture. We have a responsibility as trained health and exercise professionals to reframe the messaging in a way that accomplishes two objectives: rejects the underpinning toxicity of the message, and helps clients make health decisions based on evidence and not random rhetoric.
What Diet Culture Messages Clients Hear and What We Can Teach
Bread is bad and makes you gain weight.
- Truth: No one is living their best life without bread. Okay, seriously, there’s nothing wrong or bad about bread (remember, food has no moral value). Bread is tasty, it’s a part of many cultures, and offers nutritious value (depending on the fiber and vitamin content). Second, bread (or carbs) alone will not cause weight gain directly – overconsumption of calories will do that. Unless a client has an allergy or sensitivity to bread (or is on a carb-limiting diet for blood sugar/insulin purposes), help them see the value in integrating a high fiber choice into their food selection.
- What to teach: Teach clients to evaluate food labels and identify questionable and highly processed products that will provide energy in terms of calories, but few nutrients. That said, a lower fiber option here and there will not derail healthy eating habits. Pizza isn’t high in fiber, but it is fun to eat and high in the pleasure experience. Don’t cut out bread because some “guru” (who probably eats bread) spreads that message.
Cauliflower is a great substitute.
- Truth: Cauliflower can be a reasonable substitute for those with special dietary considerations. However, not everything needs to be made from cauliflower because it can be (and sometimes, it’s just nasty).
- What to teach: Encourage clients to try out a recipe or two if they are interested and curious. The only way to know is to try. Clients may enjoy options like riced cauliflower over calorie-laden mashed potatoes or cauliflower as a pizza crust for those sensitive to gluten or simply like the flavor better. But there’s absolutely no need to put cauliflower in brownies or ice cream. Let’s be real.
Sugar is evil.
- Truth: Sugar is tasty. In fact, I am drinking a cup of hot tea with a teaspoon of raw honey because I like it. And because diet culture tells me not to (I’m stubborn like that). Really, though, sugar can and does work against people when it is overconsumed (just like anything). The typical American diet includes far too much processed sugar and added sugar in products that don’t truly need it (think canned fruit in heavy syrup). This is a real issue and is a component of the dietary recommendations to reign in. Clients, unless directed by their dietitian and/or primary care provider, can safely consume small amounts of sugar. Come on – no one wants to skip their birthday cake, right?
- What to teach: Teach clients how to identify sources of added sugar and the many “secret” names for sugar. Talk to them about moderation and portion control. You can also offer ideas for natural sweeteners such as unsweetened applesauce in baked goods.
Always eat clean.
- Truth: First, it’s impossible to “always” do something – we are human. Extremism at either end of the spectrum (always and never) is a slippery slope. And then there’s the issue of “clean foods” – what does this mean exactly? What’s intended? Usually, when a client expresses the need to eat clean, it’s intended to communicate a desire to add healthier options to their diet. The issue is equating “clean” with “healthy”. It isn’t necessary to choose all organic or high-priced versions of foods to eat or be healthy. Really, what we have is a language problem. Food isn’t dirty, junk, or bad. Food is generally nutrient-rich or dense or energy-dense. Sometimes, food can be both (think almonds, walnuts, or natural peanut butter).
- What to teach: Help clients define what they mean by clean. Ask them questions intended to unravel their thought process around what clean eating means to them. Introduce them to language that does not categorize food as good or bad (i.e., nutrient-rich). Lastly, help clients come to a place of balance where their focus is on what foods they can add versus what foods they need to take away. They will be more successful if the narrative isn’t about restriction or deprivation.
Weight loss is healthy progress.
- Truth: When looked at in isolation and intention, weight really isn’t a measure of health. Unintentional weight loss might mean there’s an issue (disease-state, nutrient deficiency, disordered eating, or a mental health concern). To define health, we need to understand blood pressure, sleep, stress levels, body composition, mental health, etc. It isn’t about weight. A change in weight is one measurement and it isn’t even the most revealing.
- What to teach: Help clients set process goals versus outcome-based goals (adding fruit to two meals a day vs. losing 15 pounds by Christmas). The key to change is in the behaviors our clients engage in. Second, when you talk about progress with your clients, focus on energy levels, sleep quality, and response to stress (versus a number or figure). You can help change the narrative your clients are hearing and teach them why weight is never an accurate assessment of anything other than a relationship with gravity.
Diet culture won’t likely vanish – it’s too much of a moneymaker for those peddling it. However, as educated, and practiced professionals, we can help clients reframe their thought processes and definitions of progress and health by simply teaching evidence-based information and skill development.