The Language of Wellness

Our words matter.

When it comes to wellness, there is so many buzz words that go viral on social media and become part of our culture.

These words are always evolving, and I'll even admit that I've said some diet-y things in the past. I've updated posts I've written from several years ago and can see how my mindsets have evolved - even when I thought I was non-diet focused, little things from diet culture snuck in. Dietitians are definitely not immune to this language and may be struggling with eating disorders, orthorexia, or disordered eating themselves. I won't be calling myself a clean eating, paleo, or 'real food' dietitian anytime soon.

Why Language Matters

Kids pick up on things pretty early on. I've had plenty of clients come to me in eating disorder treatment after their doctors tell them to cut out sugar, carbs, or to lose weight (as a pre-teen or teenager - so unethical!). There's even studies showing a large majority of kids as young as six worry about their body are engage in dieting. This is so sad to me.

When kids hear adults talking about foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, or talk negatively about bodies, they hear that. I've heard awful stories from health classes in school as well, including having kids count their calories or not allowing certain foods at schools.

For many people, it becomes internalized. We start to believe - consciously or not - that when we eat something "good" or "healthy," it means we're worthy, good, or healthy. On the other hand, that also means we feel bad about ourselves or guilty when we eat something that is "bad" or "unhealthy."

As a culture, we're terrified of weight gain or being unhealthy, so we try to control that through our food.

When that fear exists, we fall prey to the fear-based language and ridiculous health claims that promise health, happiness, and unicorns.

Example: All those juice cleanse or detox teas tell you that you need their product to rid their body of 'toxins.' They promise increased energy, weight loss, 'detoxification,' better digestion, and more.

You could be innocently browsing Instagram and a detox ad pops up. All of the sudden, you worry that you're full of toxins and believe you need this product.

Ambiguous, Fancy Language

The problem is all this ambiguous, fancy language.

What are these toxins? Why do we need juice or teas to detox? 

As a dietitian, I know that my liver does a pretty great job of detoxifying, which is its job. I know any weight loss that would happen would be water weight, and there's little (or no) science to support the use of juice cleanses or detox teas.

Yet, the general population does not have the scientific background, and when health care professionals like doctors or dietitians are promoting these things, then it's so easy to fall for these myths. Just look at one of the biggest offenders: Dr. Oz, and there are so many doctors that write annoying diet books.

If you see a book with the name The (insert diet here) Cure or The (insert diet here) Detox or add the word miracle in there, run away fast. While there are many great doctors that can provide health at every size care of refer to a dietitian, many doctors do not have that much education in nutrition.

This can lead people to believe they need certain foods or supplements in their diet to be healthy, or that they need to eat in a certain way to avoid sickness. 

While some foods or supplements may have a positive effect, many don't, and many styles of eating can actually be harmful to physical or mental health. Still, many effects may be a nocebo effect.

There is harm to using this fear-based language. We're creating a culture obsessed with food, exercise, and wellness that believes they are never doing "enough." When you believe unscientific beliefs that sugar in fruit is dangerous, or that you need a superfood smoothie everyday, there can be harm to your health. It can lead people towards disordered eating or eating disorders, orthorexia, or just so much physical, mental, and financial stress around food. 

Our bodies are resilient, and there is no one style of eating that works for everyone. There may be a few guidelines that can be helpful for most people, including eating a wide variety of foods, eating overall balanced meals and snacks on a regular basis, enjoying your food, and learning to tune into your body (intuitive eating). 

Unfortunately, there's nothing sexy or headline-grabbing about those things.

Most people are interested in reading those articles that make big claims or is an extreme way of eating rather than just hearing to eat a wide variety of foods. 

While nutrition science can be fascinating (at least to me, #nerdalert), most of it is not. Some people may see 'eating a variety of foods' is boring compared to hearing that cutting out a certain food will triple your energy.

Many of these sensationalist claims about nutrition are either purely inaccurate or the science is blown out of proportion. A short-term study that's done on rats cannot be applied to humans - or in other words a study that shows rats are "addicted" to sugar does not mean "sugar addiction" is a real thing in humans.

What to Watch Out For

All of us, especially dietitians, health care professionals, therapists, and even wellness bloggers, should be talking about health and wellness in clear, understandable language, or explain it better. If that's you, stop using this diet-culture, fear-based language, such as clean eating, sugar addiction, encouraging restriction of entire foods or food groups, and telling people they must eat or not eat certain foods.

If you're a reader, here's what to watch out for in wellness spheres. If you see something you don't understand, question it, call it out, or unfollow that person. Here are some things to be aware of, but I'm sure there are so many more, and things are always changing. 

  • Fear-based language
  • Hidden diet-culture language like 'lifestyle,' 'eat intuitively and you can lose weight.'
  • Ridiculous health claims, especially claiming a diet or food can cure everything
  • Making claims that a food or diet can cure or heal something on its own. Often, there is a combination of supportive tools. The only example I have is a food allergy or celiac disease where clearly cutting out the food will support health.
  • Ambiguous, unclear language - toxins, detox, cleanse, healing, real, clean, the "best" way to eat
  • Talk about what you 'should,' 'shouldn't' eat or promoting the idea that superfoods or certain foods are critical for health. Or talking about the "dangers of ____."
  • Promoting weight loss - ask them for the science or proof that it works (it doesn't exist)
  • Use of words like cheat, guilt/guilt-free, bad, unhealthy, junk food, or extreme ways of eating
  • Using medical language like will cure hormonal imbalances, detox your body, heal your digestion, and more.

Feel free to question me if you're unsure about anything I say as well :)

As Yoda says in Star Wars, "Unlearn what you have learned."* There's so much wellness BS out there, and it's become normalized in our culture to have food restrictions or follow extreme diets. We need to unlearn and question all the diet culture beliefs we have to create a balanced relationship with food, exercise, and our body.

*I'm years late to the party, but I'm currently watching all the Star Wars movies, and my boyfriend will be so proud of me for quoting it.

Yoga + Diet Culture: Think Less, Feel More.

First off, I love my yoga practice and I love teaching yoga.

It brings me so much joy and presence to fully be in my body when I practice and teach. The sight of students in savasana at the end of a practice is one of the best things ever - and my own savasana is bliss, most of the time.

Yet, lately, I've struggled with how the physical yoga (asana) practice has become enmeshed with diet culture. It's become the way for many wellness-obsessed people to "cleanse and detox" and engage in disordered behaviors under the guise of health. Yoga on Instagram is all about challenges to do the fanciest arm balances or poses that require extreme flexibility (hypermobility that may lead to injury or pain).

In the last year, I've been to a handful of classes where teachers talk about "burning off calories" or talk to students afterwards about juice cleanses or vegan diets. I've seen challenges in studios that encourage taking as many classes in a month as you can - leading some students to take multiple classes a day (or high-intensity physical practices).

Not only is it inappropriate and unethical for teachers to encourage disordered eating and exercise patterns, I also find students are so vulnerable and see their teachers as leaders in the community that they trust their guidance. Students and teachers can become so extreme in their diet and physical practice. To them, it looks like dedication but it can easily turn into disordered exercise - or an eating disorder. 

I find yoga can be such a healing practice in recovering from an eating disorder, improving body image, or connection to self, but when studios and teachers encourage extreme methods to the physical practice, it's confusing and harmful for students. Instead of encouraging being gentle and compassionate with their body, students are being told to push through another chatarunga or find their limits and only given two minutes for stillness in savasana at the end. Stretching and sweating can lead to a sense of calm or an endorphin release, and while that can be beneficial, if that's your only go-to coping tool, it ultimately becomes more harmful than good.

When yoga teachers use language rooted in diet culture, such as pushing or forcing, it encourages disconnection to the body. Instead of connecting mind, body, and heart, which is what yoga (union) is, it's turning people further away from their body's signals while using spiritual language. It turns into an obsession with the physical practice and how the body looks in the pose rather than how it feels.

Many studios use mirrors, which can be helpful at times to help with alignment, but it also can lead to comparison or a hyper-focus on the look of the pose. Many students are intimidated by studio classes because of focus on the body and many teachers' lack of knowledge to teach to all body shapes and size.

One of my favorite cues - from Jason Crandall and the Yoga Land podcast is - any amount of the pose is still the pose. (Heads up: I enjoy that podcast, but there can be talk about sugar/clean eating at times if that is triggering to you). It's never about what the pose looks like because physically, we all have different body shapes and proportions. If you put 10 people in the same pose, everyone will look differently, and some people may never be able to do the pose or the full expression of it. That's totally okay. I may never do lotus pose because when I try, it hurts my knees, and I'm not willing to risk injury for a shape.

Instead, when you can switch perspective to how the pose feels from the INSIDE OUT, it allows you to build connection with your body. You notice the sensations of your muscles working, stretching, or the breath circulating within your body. 

This was one of the biggest lessons ever for me. I could focus on the internal sensations of the breath and my body, and with that, it shifted to the emotional and mental state in a pose. In triangle pose, I feel expansive and free. In child's pose, I feel grounded. In a seated forward fold, I can surrender deeper into myself. In backbends, I can open up, be vulnerable, and learn to trust myself. Embodying these shapes helps me feel more comfortable with these feelings in my life.

That's the magic in yoga. 

It's never about the physical pose or those Instagram shots of handstands on the beach. Sure, that can be fun and playful, but the magic comes from the inner work.

The healing and power of yoga comes from being able to build that connection with your body. Your body will tell you your limits. In the physical practice, your breath is a great guide. When your breath becomes choppy or you lose it, back off. Skip a vinyasa, rest in child's pose, or take a restorative or yin practice instead. 

The physical practice through classes is the way many of us get into yoga. The sweating and moving can feel really good, and it can help get people into their bodies in order to experience the other benefits. Yet, when yoga becomes linked with diet culture, that's where most people stop. They compare themselves to Instagram yogis and focus on perfecting the poses or getting a "yoga body" (not a real thing).

It's through the physical practice that we can prepare ourselves for stillness - in savasana, meditation, or pranayama. In our crazy-busy society, stillness is needed. In the stillness, we can realize we are enough as we are. We don't need to change our bodies or ourselves. 

If you're struggling with disordered eating, here are some ways to use yoga in a supportive way:

  • Find a variety of classes. Try out a gentle yoga practice or a restorative or yin practice. 
  • Feel free to take a break from sweaty hot yoga classes with mirrors everywhere.
  • If you do practice vinyasa classes, skip a vinyasa or rest in child's pose when you're tired. It's okay to take a break. Remember ahimsa (non-harming) - listen to your body and practice compassion. Injury or pain is never worth it.
  • Tune into the internal sensations - your breath, where you feel the muscular work or the stretch.
  • Explore different themes on your mat like creativity, stillness, expansion, freedom, grounding, surrender, playfulness. This can be a chance to embody different emotional states.
  • Explore other aspects of yoga, like meditation, pranayama (breathwork), or svadhyaya (self-study) or yoga philosophy. One of my favorite books lately is The Radiance Sutras - it's a great one to pick up and read a few pages at a time. 
  • If you just really don't like yoga and have tried it out before, don't force yourself to go. If it's not your thing, find a different way to connect to your body. Yoga classes may not be your thing, and that's fine too. 

I'll leave you with one of the intentions I've been using my classes lately: "Think less. Feel more."

How to Nourish your Brain

One of the most fascinating parts of nutrition and the body is the brain. 

If you've ever struggled with disordered eating - or just have gone too long without eating - you've felt the side effects in your body. You start to think about food, food cravings pop up, and you probably feel hunger in your body in some way. If this becomes consistent, the food thoughts become constant and obsessive. The food cravings may turn into binges or just eating a lot of food, especially easy to digest food like snack food or desserts.

In any type of disordered eating, the brain is going to be affected. It's also going to react in a protective manner because it wants to survive. 

How to Nourish your Brain

All these obsessive thoughts about food are a protective mechanism for the brain and body! When you're not getting enough nourishment, your blood sugar starts to drop. Since your brain's preferred fuel is glucose (delicious, nutritious carbs!), it starts to signal hunger through hunger hormones. You'll start to think about food or you'll be craving your next meal or snack, and you may feel sensations in your stomach. With increased hunger, you'll feel ravenous, tired, and perhaps lightheaded as your blood sugar really drops. 

If you have a meal or snack and refuel your body, you'll fill satisfied and satiety cues will be triggered. Food just won't be as appealing for the next few hours, and your brain will be able to think, focus, and concentrate on other parts of your life like work, relationships, or fun until your next meal or snack. 

It's pretty cool how your body can manage this so well on its own. 

The brain is such a small organ compared to the rest of your body, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. It uses more energy than any other organ in the body and 20% of the energy you eat goes up to your brain! 

This means that disordered eating patterns directly impact the brain. If you are restricting your diet - or following a diet, which is restrictive by nature - your brain isn't the energy it needs. You may find yourself obsessing about food, not able to focus or concentrate, irritable, lightheaded, or anxious because of lack of nutrients. You'll likely feel more emotional or have mood swings.

Your metabolism is going to slow down as your food thoughts amp up because your brain wants you to seek out food to refuel. You might have intense food cravings for carbs and fats (think ice cream or chips) because it's energy-dense food. You could struggle with "emotional eating" or binges, which are often a sign that your body needs consistent nourishment.

Luckily, recovery from disordered eating or an eating disorder leads to a well-nourished brain. I've heard many clients feel the difference pretty immediately. As you give your body consistent fuel and tune back into your hunger cues, your thinking may clear and food thoughts decrease. You'll have sustainable energy again and won't have to rely on coffee to stay awake during the day. Your moods may stabilize, so you can do the mental and emotional work of healing your relationship with food and your body.

Eating regular meals and snacks and honoring your hunger is one of the best ways to build back trust with your body and brain. It helps your body's cues to normalize over time because your brain starts to trust that there is consistent fuel coming in and that it's not in a "famine" state. It will also allow you to live a life beyond diets. When your body is satisfied, you'll have so much more mental space to be creative, explore other hobbies, and live life outside of food. 

Now, I'm signing off for a night-time brain-fuel snack (chocolate, of course!).