Having access to free information from registered dietitians, seeing the behind-the-scenes of their kitchens, and even getting a glimpse at their personal eating habits may impact your own eating habits. While this can be a great way to gain nutrition knowledge, it can also lead to some problematic eating behaviors when taken overboard.
For example, “What I eat in a day” videos are commonly shared on social media, demonstrating, as their name suggests, what the creator eats in a day. You may see these videos created by dietitians and then strive to emulate their eating patterns in hopes of improving your health. Yet, disregarding your own body’s cues to do so may not really be the healthiest thing for you.
4 reasons why eating like a dietitian isn’t necessarily ideal for everyone
1. We each have unique needs
What you need to eat could be very different from what I do. Despite diet culture convincing us we could all benefit from following the same meal plan and doing the same workout routine, that isn’t necessarily the case. Dietitians are a wealth of nutrition information, but that doesn’t mean eating like a dietitian will meet everyone’s nutritional needs universally.
Your hunger cues may be different from mine, your friend’s, or your coworker’s. You may do better with small, frequent meals, while I may do better with three big meals and a couple of snacks. You may be fine without any snacking, while I may not. Not to mention that any of these things can vary from day to day. Plus, you may have health conditions that warrant different dietary interventions than dietitians you’re following online.
When things are shared on a mass scale, like through social media, it’s often helpful to take what serves you and leave what doesn’t. Building a deep connection to yourself can help you to differentiate between the two.
For example, maybe you read an article where a dietitian recommends a certain meal for heart health. Maybe you’re eager to take care of your heart because heart disease runs in your family. Yet, the meal they shared is full of foods you don’t like or you don’t have access to. There are plenty of other foods with heart-healthy nutrients that you can incorporate rather than just that one meal. Rather than rigidly following the meal they recommended, consider the nutrients in the meal and other ways to get them in.
2. Context is important
We each have different day-to-day realities. Oftentimes, you see people trained in food photography posting beautiful meals on social media. They may spend hours preparing this content; however, most people don’t have that kind of time to spend putting together a fancy meal, and even if you prep the same meal, it may not look as beautiful as in the pictures.
For example, maybe you’re a parent constantly driving your kids from one activity to another. Your ability to prepare elaborate, time-intensive meals may be minimal, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you can’t nourish yourself well—it just means there’s a certain context you have to consider that the dietitian you’re following may not. Even if you’re following parent-oriented dietitians, comparing yourself to them won’t do you any good. Remember, it’s impossible for someone sharing content with thousands of people to cater to everyone’s different realities, and you don’t know what things look like for them behind the scenes.
By reading or watching something online, you can’t tell anything else about that dietitian’s day. You don’t know their activity level, what else they ate that they may not have shown, and if they got seconds or thirds. If you run a marathon that day and the dietitian doesn’t do any activity, for example, your needs will be way higher than theirs.
I’m definitely not saying that dietitians in the media need to show and share all this information about themselves. What I’m saying is that this context (or lack thereof) is important to consider before you idealize someone’s eating habits based on a small snapshot of their day. Even if they’re showing you everything they eat in a day, you still don’t have the full context of their day or week outside of what they ate.
3. Your preferences and culture may be different from mine
Your food preferences and your culture matter when deciding what to eat. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say, “A healthy dietary pattern is not a rigid prescription but rather a customizable framework of core elements tailored to personal, cultural, and traditional preferences.”
The dietetics profession is notoriously non-diverse—80 percent of nutrition professionals are white, per the Commission on Dietetic Registration. So, especially if you have a cultural background that doesn’t align with that of the dietitians you follow, you may not resonate with the types of foods or preparation methods they share. That doesn’t mean that your cultural eating practices are bad or wrong. Yet, many internalize that idea when their cultural foods aren’t uplifted by dietitians in the media.
For that reason, what constitutes a healthy eating pattern for you may be very different from that of the dietitians you follow. It doesn’t mean you have to give up your cultural foods or other favorite foods. Who knows? Maybe the dietitian has different favorite foods they prioritize in their own diet. It’s just an opportunity to validate and honor your own preferences.
4. Putting anyone’s eating on a pedestal may trigger or exacerbate disordered eating behaviors
For both dietitians and the people who follow them, the idea that dietitians’ diets are perfect and should be emulated can trigger or exacerbate disordered eating behaviors. As dietitians, we’re sometimes expected to eat “perfectly” (whatever that means). Some of us may have even chosen this career path because of disordered eating tendencies, or we may have developed some throughout our education.
Dietetics is still a very weight-centric field, and people may be quick to invalidate a dietitian’s expertise if they reside in a larger body, leading them to pursue intentional weight loss. Also, some people with predispositions to eating disorders may grasp onto dietary recommendations learned in school to the point of orthorexia—commonly defined as an unhealthy obsession with “clean” or “healthy” eating.
A few years ago, a study found that dietitians in the U.S. have a higher prevalence of orthorexia nervosa (ON) and eating disorders (EDs) than the general public. Almost 50 percent of dietitians’ self-reported symptoms suggested orthorexia nervosa. These high rates of ON and EDs amongst dietetic professionals also exist on a global scale, per a recent study.
It’s unclear whether this is because people with ON and EDs are more likely to choose to go into the dietetics field, or whether the education itself sparks these disordered behaviors. Either way, the ongoing assumption that dietitians’ eating habits should be upheld as the epitome of health can be irresponsible and harm both the dietitians and the people following them.
There is no such thing as a perfect way to eat
What’s “healthy” will vary from person to person, and comparing your food choices to a dietitian or to anyone, for that matter, can disconnect you from your own needs and preferences. That’s not to say that you can’t get useful insights and meal ideas from dietitians. In particular, working with a dietitian 1:1 is a great way to get individualized recommendations tailored to your preferences, needs, and culture, but always check in with yourself first. Trust that you know what works for you and that your preferences, needs, and culture are worth honoring.
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