Pleas for ‘wellness’ moderation: Foods aren’t dirty, bad, or a cause for shame

jessicaknoll-150x150elliekrieger-150x150Moderation matters in all things, though its proponents often seem to get shoved aside by more extreme views. Now there is welcome new push-back against wellness hype by those who instead want science- and evidence-based approaches to health and nutrition to prevail.

In separate and unrelated expressions of their points of view, novelist Jessica Knoll (in a New York Times Op-Ed) and dietitian and nutritionist Ellie Krieger (in a Washington Post column) both take after the way that a certain chic crowd tries to get Americans — women especially — to adopt what they say is wrong thinking about food and eating.

Krieger (shown, above left) calls it cringe-worthy that individuals focusing on diet and nutrition reflexively now apply loaded, moralistic terms to food like good, bad, dirty, and unclean. She describes the problem she and others in the field have with this:

“Our choice of language not only mirrors our current way of thinking, it also has the power to shape our attitudes and behaviors over time. That’s why so many food and nutrition professionals cringe at much of the conversation around food and health today. Seemingly innocuous words and phrases that are regularly tossed around set us up for unhealthy approaches to food.”

Knoll (shown, above right) has a starker take on these uses of harsh language, attributing them to efforts to shame and guilt-trip Americans, including herself.  The Los Angeles resident says she had a “poisonous relationship between a body I was indoctrinated to hate and food I had been taught to fear as wellness.” She goes on to say that she came to “recognize wellness culture for what it was,” or she describes it:

[It is] a dangerous con that seduces smart women with pseudo scientific claims of increasing energy, reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of cancer and healing skin, gut and fertility problems. But at its core, ‘wellness’ is about weight loss. It demonizes calorically dense and delicious foods, preserving a vicious fallacy: Thin is healthy and healthy is thin.

She said she struggled with food, weight, and health issues for a long time before others helped her to a new view:

I no longer define food as whole or clean or sinful or a cheat. It has no moral value. Neither should my weight, though I’m still trying to separate my worth from my appearance. They are two necklaces that have gotten tangled over the course of my 35 years, their thin metal chains tied up in thin metal knots. Eventually, I will pry them apart. Most days, I feel good in my skin. That said, I am probably never going to love my body, and that’s OK. I think loving our bodies is not only an unrealistic goal in our appearance-obsessed society but also a limiting one. No one is telling men that they need to love their bodies to live full and meaningful lives. We don’t need to love our bodies to respect them.

She gets more provocative, writing:

The wellness industry is the diet industry, and the diet industry is a function of the patriarchal beauty standard under which women either punish themselves to become smaller or are punished for failing to comply, and the stress of this hurts our health too. I am a thin white woman, and the shame and derision I have experienced for failing to be even thinner is nothing compared with what women in less compliant bodies bear. Wellness is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.

If that is too strong for a reader’s taste, Krieger has her take, concluding her column about guilt and eating, hard and fast bans on certain foods like carbohydrates, and fretting about good, bad, and clean eating:

The bottom line is that much of the language around food and nutrition that is batted around today traps us into a reductionist, all-or-nothing way of thinking that prevents us from achieving true well-being. So next time you catch yourself or others using the words here, take a moment to pull back far enough to see the bigger, more nuanced picture and reconsider.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the importance of staying healthy — and out of the way of potential injury in the costly, inefficient, and risky American medical system.  Medical errors claim the lives of roughly 685 Americans per day─ more people than die of respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. That estimate comes from a team of researchers led by a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. It means medical errors rank as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer.

Research shows that Americans can boost their health, with common sense and with many simple and small steps like not smoking, exercising and moving around, getting a good night’s sleep, avoiding stress — and, of course, eating in healthful ways. That does not mean starving one’s self, declaring a fatwah on any one food or kind of food (sugar, fats, carbs), gulping down supplements and gee-whiz tonics, or obsessing about pounds, inches, and calories.

Rigorous, reliable research on diet and nutrition is uncommon, so it’s worth paying attention still to results of a recent $8-million, year-long study conducted at Stanford University with more than 600 test subjects. The New York Times reported on the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Nutrition Group and others. Here’s the core of the published work’s key findings:

[P]eople who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year. The strategy worked for people whether they followed diets that were mostly low in fat or mostly low in carbohydrates. And their success did not appear to be influenced by their genetics or their insulin-response to carbohydrates, a finding that casts doubt on the increasingly popular idea that different diets should be recommended to people based on their DNA makeup or on their tolerance for carbs or fat.

It may benefit us all if we stay away from self-enriching purveyors of extreme goop and gobbled-gook and stick to a sensible middle ground on health, nutrition, and wellness. As author Michael Pollan has suggested in pithy fashion: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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