You don’t need to “deserve” the cookie

The other day I ate a cookie for breakfast.  Not for any specific reason, just because it was what I was craving that morning, and it looked delicious.  I sent a photo of my scrumptious cookie to a few friends.

Many friends replied “yum” or “delicious,” but one responded “Nice, you deserve it!”

I instantly had a reaction to the use of the word deserve especially when used in reference to food. I doubt if I sent a picture of a tasty looking salad to my friend she would have said, “nice, you deserve it!”  So, why is my cookie any different than a salad?

When we use the word “deserve” in reference to food it implies that we need justification for eating that food in the first place.  In our society, the foods we typically feel the need to defend eating are foods that people often label as “bad” or “unhealthy.”  Categorizing foods is common practice in today’s diet culture which tells us we must have some rationale for why we are eating “bad/unhealthy food.”

In diet culture, justification for eating “unhealthy food” might look like eating “well” the day before (aka, restricting food intake), allowing yourself to have a “cheat day,” compensating through exercise, or eating “bad food” as a result of having a hard or stressful day.

In the work that I do, I am constantly helping people break free of diet culture and adopt a food philosophy in which all food fits,  meaning there are no “good” or “bad” foods.  Labeling different foods not only perpetuates diet culture, but it can ultimately lead to having a challenging relationship with food and, in some cases, causing disordered eating.

Categorizing food can cause individuals to feel the need to compensate through restricting other food and/or exercise after eating something society has labeled “unhealthy.”  Individuals may also start to restrict food that society deems “bad,” which can later lead to binging behaviors on that food.

Diet culture can be challenging to break free from because it is so normalized that often people are unaware they are engaging in it.  Today, the diet industry is an almost 100 billion dollar industry! It’s a shocking number given that most people agree that diets do not work and, at best, produce only short-term results. However, what many do not recognize is the rebranding of dieting through terms like health and wellness.

While some health and wellness programs may be free from diet culture, most to place emphasis on exercising and eating “healthy.”  Unfortunately, many times this equates to the same thing I mentioned above – certain foods are “good,” and you need a reason to eat the foods that are “bad.”

We are bombarded with diet culture from the time we are young. Some forms of diet culture messaging are easier to spot than others such as various advertisements promising better health through altering diet and exercise. However, some are harder to recognize. For example, not having all body shapes and sizes represented in television shows or other media which subtly perpetuates the idea that thinner bodies are the ideal.  So, how do you begin to break free from something that is so prevalent in our everyday lives?

The first, the most important and often the hardest step for breaking free from diet culture is to recognize that you are in it!  This step is hard because diet culture is all around us and disguised and labeled as things that are not diets.

You may even see people say, “this is not a diet it is a way of life or … (fill in whatever other word which is meant to be a synonym for diet).” Programs or plans with an emphasis on monitoring food whether it is through weighing, measuring, categorizing and/or eliminating/limiting certain foods are rooted in diet culture.

Once you have recognized diet culture, you can begin to break free from it.  This can look like eating intuitively and listening to what your mind and body want to eat without labeling food as “good” or “bad,” without weighing or measuring your food, and without restricting what foods you allow yourself to eat.  It can also mean that you are engaging in movement that feels good to your body without feeling obligated to meet exercise goals or engage in exercise as a way to compensate for eating or as a means to change your body.

Another way to break free from diet culture is to recognize that bodies come in all different shapes, and that contrary to what our society tells us, health can come in all different body sizes!  Following people on social media in different body shapes and sizes who practice self-acceptance and call out diet culture can be another way to help you stop engaging in it.

It is important to remember that you deserve to eat any food you want and that sounds good in the moment without the need to justify why you are eating it.  Tomorrow morning, I may eat another cookie for breakfast not because I deserve it, but because it is absolutely delicious!

Michelle Piven is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Supervisor. She has extensive experience treating eating, mood and anxiety disorders in both adolescents and adults. Michelle also provides individualized parent coaching to families navigating big feelings, transitions, and challenging behaviors.

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