Today marks International Women’s Day 2018, a global celebration of women’s achievements that aims to inspire change and push for women’s rights. One lesser spoken about struggle that many women cope with is the burden of perfectionism in our diets and our appearance. #cleaneating and #wellness are movements that more and more of us are buying into – but are these really healthy choices that will benefit us, or are they something we feel increasingly obliged to participate in, often in an unhealthy way?
Diets have been on the rise for decades, the nation has been through low fat, low calorie, low carb, low sugar, paleo, ketogenic and everything in between. Research estimates that 60% of women have tried to diet in the last year and 2/3rds of us diet most or all of the time, constantly counting calories and obsessing over what we eat in pursuit of perfection. Diet culture is everywhere, going on a diet is almost a right of passage for women, with many girls engaging in diets at younger and younger ages. While explicit diet programs such as Atkin’s may not be the rage anymore, the wellness and clean eating movements are most certainly founded in diet culture. Any plan that gives you rules, meal plans or restrictions of any sort is a diet – diet culture is getting sneaky.
The Danger of Dieting – Orthorexia, Nutritional Deficiencies & Metabolism
While many people embark on these journeys with a view of optimising their health, the truth is that they can very easily become an unhealthy way of life. Orthorexia nervosa is a fairly new condition that has risen alongside these eating trends, and most simply put, is an unhealthy obsession with being healthy. All it takes is one look at nutrition-related instagrams and blogs to see many women’s fixation with eating the most “clean” foods possible, and it often turns in to a competition. We all like to feel like we are being healthy, but when this activity affects your life to the point where you won’t go out to eat with friends at restaurants and your life revolves around planning your meals, things have gone too far.
One of the largest issues with these restrictive diets is that although they may be under the guise of health, they often are accompanied by an increased risk of many nutritional problems. Undereating, even if you are eating lots of fresh foods, increases the risk of nutritional deficiencies. This is simply because you aren’t eating enough volume and so aren’t consuming adequate amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Iron, calcium, zinc and our B vitamins are particularly at risk, even more so if this undereating involves cutting out many food groups such as dairy, fruit and meat. Another problem restrictive diets post is that chronically undereating actually lowers your metabolism. Our bodies are very smart and restriction signals to our bodies that we are starving so it lowers our metabolic rate to conserve energy. This essentially means that chronic dieting actually makes it even more difficult to maintain your weight as a lower metabolism makes it easier to gain weight.
The Truth – It’s About Nourishment & Enjoyment
The truth is that our bodies are perfectly designed to regulate what we eat, how much we eat and when we eat. Many of us are out of touch with these native hunger and fullness signals, and chronic dieting only suppresses them more. These signals are designed to keep our weight stable and our needs met, yet most of us do not listen to them. Navigating diet culture as a woman is hard, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and sadly this drive for perfectionism makes us want to trust diets and the solutions they pretend to offer. We really should be focusing on nourishing our bodies with plenty of nutritious food, including food groups instead of excluding them and getting joy out of eating. It is amazing what our bodies are capable of when we respect them, so it’s time to truly put our health first and say no to diets for good.
By contributor Emma Hanton