I am often nauseated by the messages sent out in the media to women through television shows and advertising. What they present as good and bad for us shapes not just our buying habits and self-image but also how we see each other.
This topic came up in a recent conversation I had with Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle and Leslie Schilling, MA, RD, a Memphis-based registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders.
The two clinicians broke into a frenzy about how the diet food industry makes women feel so guilty about wanting a cookie that they become obsessed with food, creating the deprivation-craving-overeating cycles so many live with on a daily basis.
Dr. May gave me an example of how the diet food industry perpetuates the "good food-bad food = good girl-bad girl" concept using a recent commercial for Fiber One Brownies. The ad depicts a bouncer guarding a velvet curtain while the voice-over makes a dramatic claim: They've been off limits to dieters since time began. A dieter shoves the bouncer aside and peeks through the curtain to find women dancing in the aisle under colored disco lights, grabbing packaged brownies from a silver tray. As the renegade dieter takes a bite of the forbidden brownie, two men, one holding a head of iceberg lettuce, look on baffled. The look of ecstasy on her face says it all: The deprivation is over.
For decades, the food and diet industries have bombarded us with various versions of these conflicting messages: The foods women love are bad (or fattening, sinful, unhealthy) and women are bad if they eat them (weak-willed, guilty, unhealthy). We will rescue women with our diet versions of the bad foods so they can be and feel good (attractive, happy, virtuous). One blogger wrote, "Fiber one's 90 calorie brownies are literally the BEST thing that has ever happened to me." Really? Doesn't life have a lot more to offer than a diet brownie?
The message that women should always be dieting has become so ubiquitous that it is accepted as conventional wisdom. The "dieting is normal" message reverberates on the morning news talk shows, in doctor's offices, during Pilates class, and even at the family dinner table. When I got out of college, I remember visiting a friend I had not seen in years. We spent all of our time talking about our diets and weight loss and gains. Wasn't there anything else important to discuss?
"Women have been made to feel unworthy of real food," Schilling told me. "Food manufacturers, touting health, deceive the public about nutrition and appropriate food consumption. They take a highly processed food, replace the fat and sugar with sweeteners or spike it with fiber, and label it as healthy and guilt-free."
Where does the guilt come from? Schilling says, "The diet-food industry has evolved and expanded right along with the American waistline. If the products actually helped, wouldn't waistlines -- and the diet-food market -- be shrinking?"
Dr. May passionately added, "The implication that food is the enemy, and that women in particular, lack the ability to manage it has serious unintended consequences."
According to Dr. May, "Dieting often leads to feelings of deprivation, cravings, eventual giving in, guilt, and overeating." Dr. May coined this the eat-repent-repeat cycle. "Most people blame themselves for their perceived lack of willpower, or more accurately, won't-power. However, it is a predictable chain of events caused by this unnatural love-hate relationship with food."
Dr. May feels people should eat what they love. I argued that a lot of packaged foods people crave are made with ingredients that I feel are toxic, like corn syrup. Dr. May says that if you are less focused on "good" and "bad" foods and defining yourself by how you make these choices, it is easier to be in tune with what your body wants and needs. You naturally make better choices.
I have to say that as I have aged and quit worrying about being skinny, I am healthier, happier and look just fine in my clothes. I am coming to understand we are making girls, and now even boys, crazy over the obsession with weight loss that they carry into adulthood.
You may argue that there is a problem with obesity. That may or may not be another story. You can ask Dr. May about that.
May and Schilling offer these 10 tips for breaking the eat-repent-repeat cycle:
- Eat what you love. All foods can fit into a healthy diet using the common sense principles of balance, variety, and moderation to guide your eating.
- Love what you eat. Slow down and eat mindfully, without distractions.
- Value quality over quantity.
- Small, sustainable improvements in your eating are more effective than a drastic, temporary overhaul.
- Use nutrition information as a tool, not a weapon.
- Choose the healthiest option that won't leave you feeling deprived.
- Don't expect yourself to eat perfectly -- it's not possible or even necessary.
- When guilt is no longer a factor, common sense will prevail.
- Accept that you'll sometimes regret the choices you make. Learn from your experiences.
- Exercise for healthy and energy, not to earn the right to eat or pay penance for eating a "bad food."
Marcia Reynolds writes for smart, strong goal-driven women. Her book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, is full of exercises and real stories designed to help you face your challenges and realize your potential in this crazy, busy world.