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Have you ever considered the impact of diet culture on your own personal health and well-being? I feel that it’s okay to go on a “diet” if you have a specific goal, but it’s helpful to know when and how “diets” and diet culture can become toxic. That being said, here are my thoughts both on what to look out for in toxic diet culture and how not to get lost in diet culture noise, as well as tips on how to eat for your goals, putting more of an emphasis on your nutrition when it comes to your diet.

I really care about my body. I care about what I put in my body, I care about how healthy I am, and I am always looking for ways to optimize my training. As a competitive CrossFit athlete, you kind of have to be obsessed with it. Your body is your tool and your vessel. But what happens when we become really, really obsessed? To the point where it affects your mental health. What do you do then?

The fitness, health, and wellness space is saturated with “trends” and “fads.” Keto diet, Paleo, macro counting, and an array of supplements that promise to make you a mean, lean (but not too lean), giant machie (but the “good” giant who’s ripped). Our Western society is flooded with images of these lean bodies. The marketing and messaging suggests that this jacked god-like image is what “real men” are supposed to look like. Our masculinity then becomes defined by our muscles in the fitness space. This image is something the fitness industry knows and consequently promotes and sells. These unrealistic expectations placed on men and their bodies can lead to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, over-exercising, consumption of unnecessary (and potentially dangerous) supplements, and the development of eating disorders. This pressure can drive people to go on diets without guidance, without research, or without really thinking about how it will affect their overall health and wellness. 

For so long, diets (in this case we’re using the term to refer to when people restrict their caloric intake) have been seen as something that women mostly do. Our society has crafted the idea that “masculine” food includes things like steak, burgers, fries, pizza, beer, pot roast, etc. and “feminine” food includes things like salads, fish, diet sodas, green juices, etc. For so long, there was a societal pressure placed on women, in terms of dieting, to eat to be small. For men, it was quite literally the opposite. While there has certainly been a positive shift for women over the past decade, we’ve also seen a shift for men in a positive direction. It has now become more socially acceptable for men to eat healthier and to take care of their bodies. 

But there’s a catch. 

At the same time that the focus for men has shifted into what I would consider a much healthier state, with a push for a well-balanced diet focused more on the nutritional value of foods, men are also feeling the effects of toxic diet culture. And unfortunately, there aren’t many spaces or resources for men to openly talk about this and how it might be affecting our physical and mental health. You don’t often see guys posting and openly talking about how they are learning to love and accept their bodies, but The National Institute of Mental Health reports that roughly 1 million men. And eating disorders are the deadliest disorders. 

The scariest part of this? More men are going on “diets,” but they aren’t talking about toxic diet culture. 

What is toxic diet culture? 

The Alliance for Eating Disorders defines toxic diet culture as, “Any programs that encourage extreme weight loss, require restricting yourself, and suggest cutting calories […] as well as programs that advertise weight loss pills and shakes.”  So what’s so bad about losing weight or cutting calories? It becomes a “problem” when you look into the intention behind these diets. It becomes a problem when these diets consume our lives, our worth becomes heavily placed on our weight, and we start to believe that our weight is an indicator of our health. Here’s an important note: our weight is not the only indicator of how healthy we are. Yes, weight can play a factor in competitive sports but it does not measure our level of health. Toxic diet culture skews our definition of what it means to be “healthy.” Unhealthy eating doesn’t just look like eating fast food, slamming beers and ice cream all the time. Unhealthy eating also looks like counting six almonds, 3 oz of blueberries and 6 oz of egg whites and calling that a full day’s worth of food.

Let’s talk about it: Diet Culture Questions. 

I count my macros because I have a performance goal. Is that a part of diet culture? 

Well, it depends. Personally, I count my macros because I have competitive sports goals. But I also don’t freak out if I miss my target numbers. The closer I get to competition season, the more “strict” I get. But my purpose of food becomes a tool for performance more so than a social or cultural thing. So, if you are counting your macros or are on a diet, you should ask yourself why you are doing this in the first place. Check-in with yourself and if it is causing any unnecessary stress, ask for help to evaluate and see if this truly supports you. 

I think I might be affected negatively by the diet culture… What should I do? 

I am no therapist. I am a performance coach. But part of my job as a coach (and an athlete) is to constantly be learning and talking to my clients about every aspect of their life that affects their performance goals. If you realize that you might have been affected by diet culture, the first step, I’ll say time and time again, is to talk about it. Even by reading this far, that is a first step in bringing awareness. Once we become more aware, we can reach out for help from a trusted friend or a family member, a therapist, coach, or nutritionist. When choosing a nutritionist, ask them about toxic diet culture. Ask them a ton of questions! A good nutritionist will always want to prioritize your health and wellbeing. 

So are all diets bad? 

I am by no means trying to bash on diets. Or tell you how to live your life. If your goal is to lose weight, compete in a sport, put on weight, whatever it may be, it is always good to be aware of the methods of achieving those goals. Do your own research if you can. Ask for help from professionals. Experiment. Do it all. But just be aware of when these diets start taking a toll on not only your physical health but, just as importantly, your mental health.

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