Let’s face it. We’ve all been indoctrinated into the diet zeitgeist of our time, whether we want to admit it or not. That’s why I sat down this week with Kara Loewentheil, J.D. Master Certified Coach, to talk about diet brain. Kara specializes in teaching women how to “unfuck their brains,” and I asked her to walk me through how women can take this process and apply it to their relationship with their body.
The diet myth is everywhere. You can’t even sit at the dentist’s office without being inundated with ads for things that are going to flatten, tone, trim, whittle, shred, or otherwise mutilate your body into a shape others might find more acceptable. And even if you’ve entered into diet thinking in a freely-chosen way, to “get healthy,” odds are you’ve absorbed some really toxic ideas along the way.
“Health is not available to everyone in the same way. The lie of the beauty industry, and the diet industry, and now some of the ‘health’ industry, is that perfect health is available to everyone if they act the same way, and usually, if they buy a certain product,” says Kara.
Your diet brain is taking in all the marketing messages around you and convincing you that you are not enough, that you and your body don’t measure up, and that the way to get there is by buying into another diet or “health” plan, program, pill, potion, or product. But in truth, you’ve got to work with the body that you have, and also the way that body is hard-wired.
“The actions you take have some impact. But so do genetics, and epigenetics, and environment, and trauma, and your family’s origins. There’s so many factors, but we’re discouraged from doing the one thing that does work, which is tuning into our own bodies for guidance. You’re the expert in your own body, and really getting to know it and how it feels is the only thing you can be sure of,” Kara says.
The problem with diet brain is that it’s actually preventing you from making the choices that might benefit your body, and your physical health, the most. Because all your choices are being run through the, “If I just lose 10 more pounds” filter, you can’t really tap into what’s going on in your body.
The good news is that it’s totally within your ability to unfuck your diet brain and begin to take better care of yourself.
1. Let Go Of On / Off Thinking About Dieting
One of the most insidious and destructive thought patterns of the diet brain is “on-the-wagon / off-the-wagon,” or, “on-again / off-again” thinking.
“Your body’s not a wagon, and it’s there the whole time,” Kara says. “Whatever you’re doing to your body in that meantime, ‘off-the-wagon,’ your body is absorbing and processing all of that.”
On/off the wagon is a false binary that allows us to disassociate from our bodies and causes us to do harm to ourselves, or punish ourselves, through the choices we’re making.
“We’ve all been in that place when we’re ‘off-the-wagon,’ where we’re basically punishing ourselves with food,” says Kara. “Eating cake you enjoy is a great way to spend your time. Eating cake you don’t enjoy because you’re punishing yourself for being off-the-wagon and using cake to do it? Not as much fun.”
Instead of being caught in the false binary of on-again / off-again, think of yourself as always loving your body. Or at least, always accepting that it’s there and it is absorbing the consequences of your decisions. Whether that’s through eating cake, going for a run, or not doing those things.
2. Stop Pathologizing the Idea of “Health”
“All of the value judgements and moral inferences that we used to apply to dieting are now applied to the concept of ‘health,’” says Kara. “Health is not a moral obligation. You don’t owe it to anyone, or society, to be at a particular standard of health.”
Kara cited the work of Isabel Foxen Duke as being one of the places where she began to identify this phenomenon.
“‘Health-ism’ or ‘Nutrition-ism’ has been called our most prominent ‘new religion,’ as people convert to different sects in droves—committing fervently to X, Y or Z dietary path of choice—and truly believing that ‘this way of eating’ will save them,” Isabel has written.
“We’re all trying to avoid death by eating the exact right ratio of carbs. It doesn’t matter how often you’re eating keto. You’re still going to die,” says Kara. “I’m not saying that nutritionally, there’s no difference between Fritos and kale. But the moralizing that goes along with it makes it impossible to actually eat for health, or to have any reasonable personal concept of health.”
Releasing yourself from the moral implications of your food choices, or overall wellness choices, will help you unwind the mental drama you’re experiencing about those choices, and focus more on actual well-being.
3. Listen To Your Own Damn Body
If you do nothing else, do this one thing, Kara recommends.
“Pay attention to how you feel, and ask yourself what you’re feeling,” says Kara. “Just notice it by asking, ‘What does this feel like in my body, and what is the thought in my head?’ Just paying attention to that underlying thought, and the feeling that you’re having, and bringing awareness to them by jotting them down on a piece of paper, is a huge first step.”
Once you develop this awareness, you can use mantras to rewire your thinking, by choosing a thought you can really believe to counteract the negative thoughts you’re having. Your body will always tell you if you’re on the right track by reacting to your thoughts with physical feelings.
For example, if you’re experiencing a lot of mental drama around your food choices being “right” or “wrong,” Kara suggests the mantra: “What I choose for lunch is not a reflection of my moral status as a human being.”
It sounds extreme–but many of us with diet brain really do feel that our moral status is tied to our choice of lunch in some way, without realizing it!