Weekend Musings: Beware of New Year’s Diet “Advice”

The following contains my personal opinions and a synthesis of my own research through the years. However, I am not a professional and only wish to start a conversation, not give medical advice.

Hi friends!

As I navigate the check-out aisle at Walgreens, new posts on BuzzFeed, my feed on Twitter, and shared posts on Facebook, I am bombarded by unwanted “diet advice.” You know the kind:

How to Lose that Holiday Weight!
The Detox You Will Actually Enjoy!!
Cleanse Those Holiday Goodies Away!
Get Your Bikini Bod Back!
Ten Recipes to Undo All That Eggnog!!

The exclamation marks are a must. 😉

At their best, these articles contain nutritious and unprocessed recipes yet typically just emphasize the caloric content and temporary extreme restriction. At their worst, the articles include body shaming, misogynistic notions of what a woman’s body should look like or what women should care about, unrealistic guides from celebrity trainers, and misleading (or downright wrong) advice about “healthy eating” (e.g. DRINK GREEN JUICE TO BURN YOUR FAT AWAY!).

(I almost linked you to actual articles for examples, but I refuse to give them any more traffic.)

I am not against using the notion of a “new year” to make positive changes to your life. After all, I did this when I first started eating less meat. I am asking you to be careful about the goals you are setting and the action plan you choose to achieve them.

I have two main issues with these articles:

  1. They are not realistic or even safe approaches to long-term changes.
  2. They are inundated with toxic messages about health and beauty.

While I always advocate for healthier lifestyles via more home-cooked meals, less processed foods, more healthy grains, and lots of fruits and vegetables, I do this because I believe it allows the body to run more effectively, NOT to cut calories. If these things cut calories, you’re probably not eating enough of them. The concept of extreme “dieting” to “work off holiday treats” is a project that is doomed to fail from the start.

It is natural and intuitive to eat a little lighter for a day or two after a day of feasting, but (in my opinion) it is not so natural to drink nothing but green juice for a week straight. Thanks to our fast-paced, impatient, and “quick fix” culture, this style of dieting is tempting to many.

However, such restriction will, almost inevitably, perpetuate a cycle of yo-yo dieting. Or worse.

(This is the time when I share with you my own research. Please read with a critical eye!)

The brain is biologically wired to respond to short-term jumps and dips in energy intake (i.e. calories). However, if your body continuously receives lower amounts of nutrition for an extended period of time (like an extreme diet), your brain will signal to your body that you are in the midst of a famine. It will consequently tell your organs to hang on (and STORE) every source of energy it gets to keep you functioning through this period of starvation.

Your metabolism will slow down. Your body will try to conserve energy, making you feel lethargic. Triggering your “caveman instincts,” it will prompt you to find food, and quickly, and once you do, your brain will tell you to stock up so you’ll be prepared for the next “famine.”

In extreme cases, this explains why many people with bulimia originally started by restricting calories and trying to control their weight, until their bodies eventually pushed them to a binge-purge cycle. In less extreme (and more common) cases, this leads to yo-yo dieting and cycles of weight loss and weight gain.

Thus, any changes you choose to make (at any point in time, not just on January 1st), should be sustainable, not 1200-calorie meal plans or juice cleanses or unrealistic workout regimes.

At this point, I should address veganism, since many people would consider it an “extreme diet” that is unsustainable. My response: it depends on how you approach it. If you turn to veganism to cut fat and calories, or as a way to lose weight, you will feel deprived and probably struggle, just like you would cutting calories as an omnivore. Speaking from my own experience (which I recognize could differ for someone else), if you turn to veganism as a lifestyle change (as opposed to a diet) and maintain healthy levels of caloric intake and eat foods that you genuinely enjoy, it will not feel restrictive or depriving. Thus, realistically speaking, the sustainability may differ from person to person, depending on motivations, support, and access to certain foods.

General guideline: if it is so restrictive that it tricks your brain into thinking you’re in a period of famine, it will probably not give you long-term success. That includes “clean eating,” NAS (no added sugar), and, yes, veganism. Think “I’m going to replace the chicken with quinoa and chickpeas,” not “I’m going to take out the chicken for a low-calorie meal!” The former is a lifestyle change. The latter is a diet, and it’s not sustainable OR safe.

I cannot emphasize this enough: these are my opinions after years of researching nutrition and plant-based eating (as a personal hobby), as well as my own experience searching for the right volume of food while eating vegan. Consult a professional if needed.

However, even more concerning to me is the toxic messages these articles perpetuate.

My motivation for writing this post was the disgust I felt at being assaulted by body-shaming Us Weekly and Women’s Health headlines everywhere I looked. Although I make a point to ignore their covers entirely in the check-out line, the sheer volume of these headlines has felt impossible to avoid lately.

It seems like every magazine and online publisher wants me to feel guilty about each morsel that went into my body between December 23rd and January 1st. They are assuming that–because I am a woman–my primary concern at this point is to “fix” my body after being a “glutton” during the holidays so I can have a body suitable for the male gaze.

They are training our brains into associating holiday treats with gluttony that must be undone in order to gain social acceptance. They are training us to feel shame, and then exploiting that by providing us with the “solution.”

Even if you know deep down, as many women do, that the photoshopped images of models are unrealistic or that the standard of beauty is arbitrary and unattainable, it seems we continue to subconsciously fall for these tricks. How many times have you heard someone (or yourself) utter something along the lines of “I’m going to have to go for a run after this” during a holiday meal?

Furthermore, I feel these are often said as if it were an apology. In many cases, we do not actually go running at all, or whatever exercise we claimed to do; we merely said it to excuse our supposed gluttony in the company of others at that moment. It is as if we fear we are being judged by others for having a second cookie, and we need to convince them we are not possibly that reckless and have the personal responsibility to run it off later. Because we have been trained to think and behave this way.

Regardless, we are succumbing to the toxic beauty culture around us. Exercise is great, and so are vegetables, but not if they’re being used as a punishment.

But let’s not forget one important aspect of this phenomenon: magazines and websites publish these articles because we read them

They are in the business of making money (and/or getting page views). If diet advice–strategically paired with glossy images of tall and thin Caucasian models donning string bikinis–is what gives them more readers, that’s what they’ll publish. Again, and again, and again.

Now, these companies should take more responsibility about what they’re publishing. Absolutely. And thank goodness there are clothing companies like Modcloth and Aerie that are demonstrating that successful companies can do just that.

But until the others get the hint, we can challenge them by not falling prey to their gimmicks. Do not click on the article that claims to have the juice cleanse that will give you rock hard abs!!! Do not read the magazine that boasts the exercise regime that helped a Kardashian lose that baby weight in three weeks!!!

In addition to being one less consumer of these profit-seeking ploys, you will benefit by being exposed to one less toxic message. One less toxic lesson in beauty. One less toxic image of a photoshopped bikini bod. One less toxic example of body-shaming. One less toxic fad diet. One less toxic claim that your value lies in your ability to align with a narrow-minded and Eurocentric standard of beauty.

Kudos if you read this entire post.

Have a happy, healthy, and fulfilling 2017!

About Lauren Smith

Lauren is a herbivore, Slytherin, and connoisseur of oats. She is a former teacher who is currently studying to earn a master's degree in curriculum development. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.

4 Responses to Weekend Musings: Beware of New Year’s Diet “Advice”

  1. Christine says:

    I have to admit that I enjoy reading those diet/weight loss articles in magazines, even though I take their advice with a grain of salt, so to speak. One thing that bothers me is the “What I Eat in a Day” series that runs in People magazine (other publications may do something similar). The number of calories always looks too low, and makes me feel piggy for eating as much as I do. The nutritionist will also nitpick details of the celebrity’s diet, even if he/she eats very clean overall. My mom doesn’t think the celebrities are being honest about what they eat, or the articles may not be reflective of what they eat every single day. If that’s the case, I’d be interested to know what the celebrities really do eat in a day.

  2. I read the whole thing. Your perspective is refreshing. Thank you.

  3. Wow Lauren, I completely agree! This year I’ve actually decided to go on a small weight GAIN journey (muscle gains, of course), and it’s quite triggering to see all of these “reset cleanse” and “weight loss” programs suddenly being launched in my face just because the rest of our consumers are fueled by shedding off pounds and appearing smaller. Plus, a lot of these programs market restrictive diets, supplements and other dangerous habits that aren’t sustainable long-term! But I’m glad that many people see this problem and are combatting the notion that new years always mean taking things to extremes in terms of health.

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