Updated 1/18/22: This post was originally written in January 2020. See new content below under the “When you know better, you do better” subhead.

It’s hard enough to disentangle from diet culture* without people in positions of “authority” telling you that something that clearly qualifies as a diet** is, in fact, not a diet. They even co-opt words and phrasing used by those who truly advocate for an approach to health that does not involve food restriction and body shrinking.

*Diet culture is a system of beliefs that labels some bodies as “better,” promotes changing body size and shape, demonizes certain foods and oppresses people who don’t match a certain picture of health. (Thanks to Christy Harrison, author of the new book “Anti-Diet” and host of the “Food Psych” podcast for that definition.)

**By diet, I mean a prescribed way of eating that’s intended to lead to weight loss or that promises specific health results in people who are generally healthy (i.e., not a medically necessary diet, or simply eating more vegetables)

This sort of mental and verbal gymnastics amounts to gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which some one sows seeds of doubt, trying to make their target question their own reality. In this case, making us think that we’re not dieting when what we’re doing sure feels like a diet, and matches up with definitions of “diet.”

Allow me to highlight two of the numerous perpetrators of gaslighting that have popped up in the New Year — one totally expected, one perhaps less so.

Exhibit A: Writer Tara Parker Pope of the New York Times.

[Again…after reading this section, be sure to read the next section.]

In her December 30, 2019 column, Pope wrote, “Here’s the last New Year’s resolution you might ever need: resolve to stop eating added sugar.” She goes on to write, “Cutting added sugar isn’t about dieting and deprivation, and you don’t have to count calories or cut fat.” She then quotes dubious “experts” and fails to put into context some studies she cites about the health impact of excess sugar (I happen to know that the amount of sugar defined as “excess” in these studies is majorly excessive, and/or uses rats as study subjects, and rats are not humans.) All of this culminates in a “7-Day Sugar Challenge” that cuts out all added sugar.

[Let’s unpack this: Yes, excessive amounts of added sugar are not good for us, but one of the dangers of restricting all added sugar is that restriction can lead to reactionary binging. Also, speaking as someone who got a wild hair years ago (before I went back to school to become a dietitian) to cut out ALL added sugar, it is extremely time consuming unless you eat zero packaged foods (that means nothing in a box, can, jar or bag). Not feasible for most people.]

[When I think about how much time I spent obsessing about sleuthing out added sugar, it makes me mad. A better solution is to look at how much obvious sugar you’re consuming (candy, desserts, “regular” sodas, breakfast pastries, etc.) and look at why. What role do these foods serve in your life? Is some of it mindless (hello, office candy dish)? Is is a coping tool? It’s one thing to repair our relationship with added sugar, another to weed every trace of it out.]

Then, on January 15, 2020 after apparently receiving a lot of “I’m failing the challenge” emails, Pope sent out a “Dear Readers” email with the subject line “Avoiding Diet-Think.” I’ll unpack some more of what she wrote as I go:

  • “Are you trapped in diet-think? Diet-think is what happens when we adopt an all-or-nothing mind-set about healthful eating.” [Agreed, and “resolve to stop eating sugar” is pretty all-or-nothing.]
  • “The problem with diet-think is that we approach eating as if we are ‘on’ or ‘off’ a diet, and that even one deviation from the plan — a piece of cake, say, or an indulgent meal — signals failure.” [Agreed…and “resolve to stop eating added sugar” is pretty much “off” added sugar.]
  • “So whatever your ‘diet’ goals are this year — whether you’re trying to cut sugar, eat more vegetables or count calories or carbs — I encourage you to escape from diet-think.” [Counting calories or carbs is a hallmark of a diet, so suggesting that we can do those things and also “escape from diet think” is major gaslighting!!!!!] 

Update: When you know better, you do better

Last week, I had a brief email exchange with Pope about this blog post, which she had just come across (there were a few places where I really should have specified “added sugar” but had only said “sugar.” That’s now fixed.)

I told her that I stood by what I wrote, and elaborated on a few reasons why. She said that if she was writing those articles today, she would have a different approach. Indeed, as part of the NYTimes 2022 “Eat Well Challenge,” Pope wrote a wonderful article, “Try Intuitive Eating to Break the Diet Cycle.” If you hit a paywall, that’s a pity, but to give you a brief synopsis, Pope interviewed Janet Polivy, PhD, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto about her research in the 1970s (!) on the psychological effects of dieting. These studies were criticized back in the day (“You’re discouraging people from dieting!”) but today more scientists are owning up to the fact that dieting takes a psychological toll.

Pope then interviews Evelyn Tribole, who is of course co-author of the book “Intuitive Eating” with Elyse Resch (and they co-created the Intuitive Eating approach itself.) The article wraps up with an Intuitive Eating mini-challenge, with 10 bite-size challenges (one for each of the 10 Intuitive Eating principles), from Evelyn herself.

Something I didn’t mention to Pope in our email exchange (and I should have) was that every single one of us (myself included) only knows what we know until we learn more, and then hopefully once we know better, we do better.

When I started this blog, I was still in the process of applying to grad school to become a dietitian, and I was firmly entrenched in diet culture. (I reference that, above, when I mention my own experience with trying to cut out all added sugar.) There are some things I wrote at that time that make me cringe today (the most egregious posts have been deleted, while others that still had something to offer were updated, in some cases with notes pointing out how my thinking has changed over the years.)

Exhibit B: Dr. Oz (totally expected)

On the website for his new System 20 plan, Oz says “Dieting is dead, that’s my definitive verdict going into the new decade.” He wants you to “forget fad diets” and “take your health into your hands” with a “total lifestyle change that goes beyond weight loss.” This from the man who brought our attention to sketchy weight loss products like raspberry ketones and garcinia cambogia.

[Let’s unpack this: He piggybacks on the non-diet trend, then claims that his system is not a fad diet (more on this in a moment), pushes the “personal responsibility” narrative that ignores all the many contributors to health (many of which are not under our control), invokes the words “lifestyle change” (which is more often than not a code for “diet) and then casually acknowledges that, yes, weight loss is part of this (“goes beyond weight loss”)]

As for the plan itself, there are some positive points. I can totally get behind doing a little meditation and stretching in the morning, cutting off caffeine by 3 p.m. and putting the phone away an hour before bed. But then he loses me. I think I’ll unpack his “rules” one at a time:

  • Skip breakfast [this is a 100% diet move, and can be harmful to some]
  • Eat low-carb [another diet move]
  • Doing fasted exercise [intended as a diet move, because it’s prescribed…it’s true that some people feel better exercising in the morning before eating anything, but some people feel worse]
  • Adding an unspecified amount of MCT oil to your coffee [a total diet move, and not supported by nutrition science]
  • Add 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to lunch or dinner [again, not science-based AT ALL and very prescriptive]
  • Completely avoiding added sugars [another very restrictive diet move; total avoidance of added sugar is not necessary for health]
  • Eating only “beans, greens and protein” at lunch and dinner [prescribing a very limited variety of foods is a total diet move]
  • Eat blueberries for dessert [I’ve got nothing against blueberries, but this is highly restrictive and prescriptive…aka a DIET]
  • Take one day off per week [this is code for “cheat day,” which signals that the other days are highly restrictive and can actually be harmful as it may lead to binge eating]

The turning tide

More and more people are becoming wise to the fact that, despite the “conventional wisdom” that 1) weight = health, 2) weight loss is a surefire way to improve health, and 3) if you just work “hard enough” (personal responsibility), you too can become a “weight loss success story,” the actual evidence supports a very different narrative.

The facts are that:

  • People can be healthy or unhealthy across the weight spectrum.
  • There’s no evidence demonstrating that weight loss itself lead to improved health (it’s likely that improved nutrition and increased physical activity deserve the credit).
  • Research has failed to find any method of losing weight and keeping it off (there’s even some regain after weight loss surgery), other than a few rare outliers.
  • Research has been able to detail many of the mechanisms by which the body protects itself from what looks like starvation, whether from an actual famine or a restrictive diet.

But beyond these niggling details, more people are realizing what they’ve given up and sacrificed in their lives in the pursuit of trying to control their weight. They’ve lost time, they’ve lost money, they’ve lost opportunities (“I don’t want to go to Paris/take that dance class/start dating/wear a bathing suit on the beach until I’ve lost weight”), and it hasn’t made them healthier or happier.

The bait and switch

But giving up dieting doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be healthy and feel well. That’s where the gaslighting comes in. 

As the idea of caring for ourselves in better, truly non-diet ways — think intuitive eating, mindful eating, improving access to healthcare, and so on — spreads, those who have a vested interest in continuing to promote diet culture have two options: 

  1. Continue openly promoting diets and restriction, even though that’s becoming unpopular.
  2. “Rebrand” dieting as something like “wellness plan” or “lifestyle changes” and say “don’t diet” while offering up…a diet.

Some diet gaslighters may have financial skin in the diet game (Oz) while others may simply remain fully subscribed to the belief system that says restricting our food and trying to control our bodies is a good and effective thing to do.

Well, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. And these particular ducks, as described here, are dieting.

Clues that your “not a diet” is actually a diet

With all the talk of “wellness” and “holistic health” and “lifestyle changes,” how do you know if a plans that don’t directly promote weight loss are diets in disguise? Here are some clues:

  • It asks you to count or cut calories.
  • It asks you to count or cut macronutrients (such as grams of carbs or fat).
  • It asks you to skip meals.
  • It expects you to ignore hunger signals if they arise when it’s not meal time.
  • It expects you to stop eating because your prescribed meal portion is gone, even if you are still hungry.
  • It implies or even openly states that following the plan offers “perfect health.”
  • It uses fear-based language, implying that if you don’t follow this plan, you will develop a chronic disease.
  • It asks you to completely eliminate a food or food component when you don’t have an allergy or intolerance (i.e., if you have a peanut allergy you do need to avoid peanuts, and if you have celiac disease you do need to avoid gluten).
  • It invokes the idea of purity (i.e., most versions of “clean eating”).
  • It promises that following the plan will improve health biomarkers (blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar) but there’s no proof from randomized controlled trials that this is likely.
  • It asks you to combine foods in a specific way that goes beyond simply balancing your plate to include protein, carbs and fat.
  • It includes “cheat days” or “days off.”
  • It is strict about when you can and can’t eat.
  • It requires cooking every meal from scratch.
  • It makes it virtually impossible to dine out with friends.
  • It makes you unhappy or even bitter after a while.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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