CW: Discussion of eating disorders and restrictive eating
Days after I was medically evacuated from my study abroad program due to a severe flare of a chronic illness, I messaged my doctor asking for tips on pain management while I waited to start a new medication. In response, I got a message from my gastroenterologist’s nurse practitioner: “Have you tried keeping a food diary?”
A number of responses came to mind. For example: I did keep a food diary, which led me to conclude that the list of safe substances to consume includes literally nothing. Not even water. What did she recommend for someone who cannot digest water?
Three days later, I received my first dose of Remicade, an immune modulator, and landed in the emergency room. As I waited for my intake to be completed, my dad jokingly prompted: “Have you tried keeping a food diary?” I started a course of IV steroids and was put on morphine, which allowed me to eat again.
Part of me was relieved to land in the hospital, because I had feared the nurse was right — which of course, she wasn’t. The solution was not a food diary. As John Mulaney said, “We’re well past that.”
Around the same time, I discovered Christy Harrison’s podcast, Food Psych. At a time in my life when I felt constant shame that I was sick because I simply couldn’t eat the right things, Harrison’s work was revelatory. She was able to say what various doctors and nutritionists I met with since the age of 16 couldn’t: It wasn’t my fault, and my attempts to discipline my body were doing more harm than good.
“Harrison’s work offered a way out. I realized that I wasn’t doomed to spend my entire life afraid of food, despising my body.” —Nina Potischman PO ’21
Christy Harrison’s book, “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating,” is the kind of book everyone should read. Drawing on personal experience, historical analysis, scientific research and her work as a dietician, Harrison critiques diet culture, which has taken on the face of the wellness industry. She illuminates how diet culture often harms, rather than helps, people’s health and facilitates disordered eating patterns.
Through her work, I realized how damaged my relationships with food and my body had become. The more I felt I could not control my health, the more I turned to dieting and compulsive exercise as a means to regain control. Harrison’s work offered a way out. I realized that I wasn’t doomed to spend my entire life afraid of food, despising my body.
The book begins with background on the historical origins of diet culture and fatphobia, drawing from Sabrina Strings’ ideas in “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia.”
“This prohibition on fatness was especially strong for white, middle-class Protestant women, who were instructed on ‘temperance’ by dietary reformers … told that ‘excessive’ eating was both immoral and detrimental to their beauty, as it would lead to having a body more like those of African or Irish women,” Harrison writes. “Fat bodies were deemed ‘uncivilized’ and therefore undesirable long before the medical and scientific communities began to label them a health risk.”
Therefore, fatphobia began as a mark of status for upper class white women to distinguish themselves from others.
While the wellness industry markets itself as being distinct from diet culture, it perpetuates many of the same problems. Harrison notes that “the food-activist movement upholds white culture’s preference for thinness by equating it with the picture of health, and defines ‘real food’ as the type preferred by white elites.” Clean eating, which “categoriz[es] food in terms of virtue and vice,” perpetuates the same puritanism evident in diet culture’s origins. When “health” becomes a gloss for thinness, wellness becomes diet culture’s new facade.
Obsession with health also takes a significant psychological toll. As Naomi Wolf writes in “The Beauty Myth,” “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Constant exercise and exclusive consumption of “pure” foods can take up an absurd amount of mental space. If health is a moral imperative, people who are ill are made to feel that illness is a moral failing.
The wellness industry, too, can be detrimental to health. Harrison cites the industry’s hand in orthorexia nervosa, a proposed eating disorder in which individuals become fixated on “supposed health and purity of food,” according to Harrison. This illness can have serious consequences, such as malnutrition and various vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Restriction and avoidance or anxiety around certain foods can also worsen functional gut disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. In this way, restrictive diets like the low-FODMAP diet or elimination diets can create a cycle, exacerbating the very problems they were designed to solve.
Throughout the past five years, I’ve tried a number of diets recommended by doctors. Rather than helping me manage symptoms, these diets forced me to exhaust an unimaginable amount of mental energy and anxiety on everything I put in my mouth. They also deterred me from reaching out to doctors whenever I ate in a way that was, according to the doctor’s rules, less than perfect.
While eliminating foods certainly works for some people, I wish I had realized how often restrictive diets lead to disordered eating. I am still rebuilding my relationship with food, but I have learned to trust my own sense of my body and my needs. I no longer am terrified to eat cake.
So no, I have no plans to keep a food diary.
Nina Potischman PO ’21.5 is one of TSL’s book columnists. She is an english major from Brooklyn, New York, who likes to make art and eat bagels.