Food and Nutrition

Why One RD Says the Diet Industry Is Gaslighting Us Into Thinking It’s About Health and Wellness

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: W+G Creative
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Even though there’s a growing backlash against restrictive diets like F-Factor, keto, and Paleo, the persistent cultural push toward dieting and weight loss is finding sneaky ways to influence wellness-conscious Americans. In the third episode of The Well+Good Podcast, Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, dubs this current iteration of diet culture the “wellness diet.” The “wellness diet” isn’t a set eating plan the way the aforementioned are; rather, it’s the way brands and influencers peddle us restrictive eating behaviors using language that evokes a wellness ethos. As this episode’s host, Well+Good general manager Kate Spies, puts it, “It’s a little bit of a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing.”

“Diet culture had to sort of shapeshift in order to continue capturing the market,” says Harrison. “If diet companies are going to capture the lucrative millennial market, they can’t be your grandmother’s diet…To survive into the future, diet companies are going to have to bring in wellness rhetoric. They’re going to have to bring in ‘clean eating.’ They’re going to have to change the ingredients in their food products. And so it’s really this calculated move to try to stay afloat and to continue growing and being this multi-billion dollar industry.”

Harrison then credits Virgie Tovar, author, activist, and one of the leading experts on weight-based discrimination, for talking about how “the diet industry is gaslighting us by making us believe it’s about health and wellness when it’s still really about thinness, still really about vanity.”

In the episode above, Spies dissects how diet culture is masquerading as wellness with the help of Harrison, Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, and Anna Sweeney, MS, RD.

“While it packages itself in these beautiful little Instagrammable packages, it is not so much about real enjoyment, it is not so much about real nutrition,” Sweeney tells Spies of the wellness diet. “It is about restriction and it is about elevating certain foods and making it so if you are not having those certain foods, you don’t get the pass into the wellness cool kids’ club.”

Photo: Anna Sweeney, MS, RD; Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN; Christy Harrison, MPH, RD

Carbs, for example, are often demonized and restricted (see: the ketogenic diet). But as Spence points out, to cut out carbs deprives the body of its preferred source of energy: glucose. “[Your] brain alone uses a very high percentage [of glucose]. That’s why people on keto, they often complain about brain fog,” adds Spence. “I’m all for getting nourishment, but you don’t have to restrict yourself.”

So much of the language used in the name of health really just boils down to weight loss, says Harrison. “‘Debloating’ or ‘reducing inflammation’ and things like that, these are code words for taking up less space,” she says. “Making your stomach flatter so that it doesn’t look fat, making your body less puffy, you know, all of that—what is that really? That is a desire to be less large. And I think we need to just call it what it is instead of this medicalization of concern about looks.”

The Well+Good Podcast offers a refreshing perspective on what it means to be healthy and well. Tune in to hear how we can tune out the noise and listen to what your body truly needs.

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