On Nutrition

Do you subscribe to the belief that verbally beating yourself up — whether in your head or in front of others — is the key to eating better, exercising more, losing weight and otherwise becoming a more “worthy” human? In our diet-obsessed culture, there’s a pervasive idea that shaming ourselves about our perceived food failings and body inadequacies is motivating.

Well, it’s not.

Several of my clients, once they’ve shed the mantle of diet culture and traded self-criticism for self-care, have been shocked by their findings. Book clubs, wedding receptions, group vacations, yoga retreats, restaurants, office break rooms and holiday gatherings will never be the same to them — because the diet talk and body-shaming is suddenly plain as day. Food, whether eaten or avoided, is picked apart, and bodies figuratively dissected. “I didn’t earn this dessert.” “I shouldn’t be eating this.” “I was so bad yesterday … I can only have a salad for lunch today.” “How many calories/carbs/fat do you think is in this?” “I better go to the gym to burn this off.” “I’m not eating any more X until I lose X pounds.”

“I had no idea how awful it is,” my clients say. “I can’t believe I used to talk like this, too.”

I nod. “Once you finally see diet culture for what it is, it’s impossible to un-see it.”

This kind of talk is toxic, whether it’s a loop playing inside your head or a means of bonding with other women over dinner — sadly, this does seem to be the domain of women. It makes people who treat themselves with kindness not want to eat with you, and worse, it harms your mental and physical health — negative body and food talk is associated with stress, depression and anxiety, as well as unhealthful eating behaviors, like highly restrictive diets.

According to research, women who prioritize appearance are most likely to engage in negative talk about their bodies, along with unhealthful eating behaviors. Women who care more about health than appearance, on the other hand, are more likely to show themselves self-compassion. Self-compassion helps us build and maintain habits that help us feel well and be well, such as getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals and making time for physical activity, because compassion soothes negative emotions that may emerge if our habits falter — say, we have a day without vegetables, eat to the point of over-fullness at a meal or don’t make it to the gym — making it easier to resume those habits instead of falling into a funk.

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People with high self-compassion are more likely to practice behaviors that support health for internal reasons, with self-care as their motivator. Think about it for a minute: If you are constantly critical of yourself, you might not like yourself very much, so why would you take care of yourself?

If you suspect your internal voice is far from kind, what can you do?

First, listen. To quiet that critical voice, you need to be fully aware of what it’s saying, and when and how often it’s saying it. This can feel icky, and it’s easy to become self-critical about just how self-critical we are, so try to stay judgment-free — you’re gathering important information about yourself.

Then, when you notice that voice popping up, gently shift to a more compassionate voice, like one you would use with a dear friend, or a family member who’s struggling.

Finally, be patient — this change may take time, but it’s worth it.