Chavez: Stop Moralizing Food and Focus on Self-Acceptance

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Chavez: Stop Moralizing Food and Focus on Self-Acceptance

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By Paji Chavez

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The conversations about food, weight and health need to change. 

At the time of its release, the 2004 documentary Super Size Me” made a strong impact on American culture, but it’s been argued that little has changed in regards to the country’s perspective of fast food since then. The “obesity epidemic” is constantly talked about, with the fast food industry often blamed for Americans’ deteriorating health. 

The “fast casual” and “dirty soda” spots opening up all along the Wasatch Front have been criticized for contributing to a larger, national problem. To combat this trend, it has been proposed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints include fast food and sugar in their Word of Wisdom guidelines.

While these opinions come from a well-intentioned place of concern over the health of others, they have been misled by the myths of diet culture, which position thinness as an indicator of health. There are many valid critiques of the business practices and marketing tactics of the fast food industry, but a business selling burgers, fries, soda and milkshakes is not inherently evil. This moralization of food and weight leads to a complicated web of disordered thinking and eating behavior.

Throughout the decades, different foods and food groups have been demonized. Salt, fat and sugar have all had time in the spotlight, painted in the media as the poisonous, disease-causing culprit. More recently, micronutrients like gluten are blamed for any and all ailments. Kale, apple cider vinegar, goji berries and celery juice have each been marketed as miracle superfoods, only to be forgotten and replaced by the next. 

These mixed messages can be incredibly frustrating for anyone trying to improve their health. Diet culture encourages people to closely monitor and restrict what they eat. Attempting to burn more calories than you eat each day or trying to control weight fluctuations — also known as dieting — makes your body think that you are going through a famine. Because famine-like environments convince the body that you might die, it will do everything it can to protect you.

This protection might include holding onto body fat or shutting down certain systems to direct more energy to more vital organs. Intestinal damage, mood swings and problems with skin and hair are common. Whether you are consciously trying to lose weight or subtly restricting due to pressure from social norms, there can end up being more negative health outcomes than from before you started. 

It is a common belief to equate how much and what you eat to how much you weigh, and consequently to the status of your health. Despite the popularity of this belief, it is not true. Weight is not an indicator of health. There are several factors that contribute to a person’s overall health and well-being, and individual lifestyle choices have significantly less impact on our health than we’d like to think. Genetics and environmental factors, including air and water quality, housing, healthcare, financial security, discrimination, systemic oppression, stress and social stigma all influence our health more than diet and exercise behaviors.

Dr. Linda Bacon has been instrumental in bringing this research to the public. She wrote the book “Health At Every Size,” and there is now an entire social justice movement of the same name. In the introduction for her follow-up book “Body Respect,” Bacon said, “In the science of nutrition, weight, and disease, [“Health At Every Size”]-based studies find encouraging evidence that we need not fear food—or fat—as agents of illness and despair.”

In the conventional health model, when a person sees their healthcare provider and their weight falls in the category “overweight” or “obese” in the Body Mass Index, the provider will tell them to lose weight to solve their problem. “Health At Every Size”-based studies show that this is a damaging way to approach healthcare and is often discriminatory. The Body Mass Index was never meant to be used for individual treatment decisions. It was simply a way to track large-scale change in populations. It is lazy medicine for a doctor to treat patients in bigger bodies differently than they treat thin patients. 

Based on the discrimination from healthcare providers and the chronic stress that comes from being constantly told certain bodies are wrong because they have more fat, weight stigma is the true harmful public health issue we should be worried about. 

Using the words “overweight” and “obese” add stigma because they pathologize fatness. Body fat is not dangerous and having it is not comparable to having a disease. Most research studies looking to find connections between weight and life-threatening conditions like heart disease do NOT account for the participants experiencing weight stigma.

Basically, all of the information you’ve received from news and media claiming that “not eating right” and “being overweight” will lead to a heart attack, diabetes, etc. is from incomplete data that does not account for important factors. Eating a varied diet with lots of different food groups has been attributed to positive health outcomes. Hanging out with friends consistently, handling stress and emotions properly, getting enough sleep and drinking lots of water have all been linked to good health as well.

We can live in a world where people enjoy In-N-Out and fresh produce from the farmers’ markets. You can eat dessert every day and not have to announce that you’re “cheating” or “being bad.” No one should try to tell you what to do with your life and your body, and if you find yourself unhappy with the current message you’ve been taught, know there is healthier perspective.

There are many things you can do if you want to focus on your health, but attempting to lose weight is not the answer to these problems. Eating what you want without guilt is more difficult than ever, but reaching that point is liberating. Restriction and moralization of food is a slippery slope into shame-fueled thoughts and self-hatred. Seeking balance and pleasure in all areas of your life leads to more peaceful thoughts and self-acceptance. 

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@paijchavez