The best word I can use to describe our dieting and weight loss culture is “obsessive”. And maybe “pervasive”. It seems impossible to escape – unless you cut ties with the majority of your friends, family and coworkers, stay inside all day, and steer clear of the internet or any other form of media. You just can’t opt out of this toxic cultural obsession.

I wish I could avoid falling into the trap, but I am reminded every day of the extreme importance we place on food and weight. On my way to work, I pass a health food store plastered with gigantic ads for yet another miracle weight loss product. At lunch, a coworker is more likely than not to comment on how her fast food lunch is so unhealthy, and that she feels bad for eating all those fries. At my evening zumba class, two women pull me into a conversation about their eagerness to lose weight in their “problem areas”. All of these experiences, and anything like them, trigger a strong feeling of discomfort for me. I’ve had insecurities with my body weight and my appearance over the past decade, so it’s not something I can resolve overnight. Our culture’s obsession with eating “right” and having the perfect body has impacted my mental health for long enough, and I am trying to take small steps in my everyday life to reduce that impact.

I realized I had a problem when I had constant headaches and dizziness from not eating enough. I was deliberately lying to my partner and my family about whether I had enough food, because I didn’t want them to make me eat more. Even though I tried to deny it, I could feel a distinct sense of satisfaction when I went to bed hungry. I noticed that this behaviour came up when I was especially stressed or anxious, and it faded in and out of my life. Over the past year, I have had several experiences with disordered eating (which to clarify, is not the same as an eating disorder, but unhealthy nonetheless) and my baseline appetite has dropped uncomfortably low. I dread mealtimes. I often feel hungry, but I just don’t want to eat. I generally stay within a healthy weight range, but it is a real struggle. Here’s how I’m trying to repair my relationship with food:

I try not to classify foods into “good and bad” groups

One of my biggest pitfalls is categorizing my foods as good or bad. Apple = good; cupcake = bad. It might seem reasonable at first, but it’s become a huge problem for me because I’m filled with guilt and shame if I eat too many “bad” foods and not enough “good” foods. The guilt and shame make me anxious, which triggers my cravings for sugar and salt. I overeat snacky (aka “bad” foods) to feel better, and then the cycle of guilt and shame starts all over again. Surprisingly, this is not actually the best motivation to eat healthier. So instead of thinking of foods as good or bad, I will think of foods in terms of their food groups (there’s nothing subjective about categorizing an apple as a fruit) and I will strive for a balance between the groups. If I’m getting a good balance of grains, fruits, veggies, proteins and dairy, then I can also enjoy dessert, and I don’t need to beat myself up for it.

I remind myself that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes

I have often had people comment to be that I must be a healthy eater because I’m thin. The truth is, being thin or fat isn’t necessarily a great indicator of your overall health. I used to have a completely sedentary lifestyle, with no exercise other than a two-minute walk to school, and I was not fat. I exercise more now, but I know people much larger than me who are in way better shape. My waist size is not indicative of my fitness level. I also have depleted iron stores and a massive sweet tooth, but you wouldn’t know either of those from just looking at me. Even though I know this, I still fall into the trap of size stereotypes. I have to constantly remind myself: there’s a lot of diversity in healthy bodies!

I make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible

I don’t want eating to be such a chore. I want to enjoy my meals, so I’m trying to find ways to make them about more than just eating. Having a dinner with friends is a great way to shift the focus from food to social company, and I find it a lot easier to eat when I’m around other people because I don’t have the headspace to ruminate on my food too much. If I’m feeling particularly inspired, I try to cook using brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, or I pretend I’m plating a dish at a fancy restaurant. Somehow, food that looks good tastes better. By getting more involved in the creative aspects of cooking, I’m able to enjoy the whole process a lot more.

I didn’t always have to think so consciously about my meals. When I was younger, I used to think, “I could never develop an eating disorder because I just love food so much!” Not only was I entirely naive about what causes eating disorders, I also couldn’t imagine that I might not always be such a food enthusiast. Even as a picky eater, I still loved the idea of eating, and I thought that protected me. I’ve come to realize that no one is immune to the diet and weight loss culture we’re exposed to on a regular basis, no matter how much we want to deny it. I’m trying to reduce its impact on my mental health by changing the way I look at food and the way I perceive our body shapes. Despite all the negative messaging around me, I hope these small positive acts can make a difference.

Photo credit: “Trop” (“too much”) by Stéphanie Kilgast.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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