Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Whether you're new to intuitive eating or have been practicing for a while, navigating diet culture can be hard. Part of what makes it so challenging is because diet culture is so deeply rooted in our sport's culture and society. It's also because dieting has shifted from being transparently about weight loss and appearance to disguising itself under the umbrella of 'health and wellness'.
Why the switch? People are realizing that dieting just doesn’t work for most people in the long run. This goes beyond anecdotal evidence - the research supports this as well (1). This is also one of the reasons for the popularization of a newer, and thought of as a more unconventional, approach to nutrition and health; being an intuitive eating and Health at Every Size (HAES) approach. Unlike dieting, these mind-body approaches to nutrition and lifestyle changes have been associated with improvements in physical and psychological health (2, 3, 4).
In fact, even traditional diets like Weight Watchers have rebranded themselves to sound less 'diety'. Other dieting companies such as Noom have also re-worded their message to come across as being 'non-diet', 'lifestyle' approaches to eating. Well, I'm calling BS on that, and if you stick around, you'll be able to spot even the sneakiest diet messages hidden among nutrition approaches that sound like they promote 'health and wellness' but are actually rooted in restriction.
What is the diet mentality?
The diet mentality is a result of all the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs around food and nutrition. It includes rules around eating such as: restricting certain foods/food groups for non-medical purposes, ignoring hunger cues, dismissing food preferences, eating between certain times, and eating to 'control' weight or appearance. These can all result in feelings of guilt, shame, and failure after eating certain foods.
These rules and beliefs disconnect us from our instinct and emotional response to food that we're all born with. Instead, they come from external sources such as diet/nutrition books, social media, friends, family, etc. that makes it challenging to trust your body to tell you what, when, how much, and why to eat.
It can also make it difficult to sustainably incorporate sports nutrition tools and strategies that can truly be used to improve your athletic performance. The most common example I share with riders is the topic of carbs. In the world of sports nutrition, carbs are king…or queen. In the world of dieting, carbs are villainized. Simple carbs are even more villainized by diet culture, whereas they're an incredibly important sports nutrition tool for athletes. And they're delicious.
Where does this all begin?
Although there are many reasons people start dieting, in my experience, I’ve found that riders tend to start making nutritional changes with the goal of becoming better riders and feeling better in and out of the saddle. You may be wondering, “What’s wrong that?”. Well, that in and of itself isn’t an issue, it’s all about the intention behind it and the approach. If your goals include making changes to reach a number on the scale and/or to change your body shape/size because you were told that will make you a better rider/be better for your horse - that's where the problem lies.
When riders start their first diet, they may notice changes they consider to be positive and in the direction of their goals. They may experience weight loss, more energy, and receive compliments on their ‘new body’ from others. These initial changes tend to happen quickly and with relative ease. The thing is, your body is smart. It doesn’t know you’re restricting calories or certain macronutrients intentionally, so it will set compensatory mechanisms into action to make sure your body gets the energy and nutrition it needs (5, 6).
Having increased thoughts around food and heightened cravings for the food(s) restricted is one of those mechanisms. The increased cravings ultimately lead to binging or overeating, which can feel out of control for some people. This is often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, failure, and perhaps even physical discomfort. That emotional and physical discomfort reinforces the idea that the food must be the problem (spoiler - it's not), which sets the dieting cycle into motion.
Riders then tend to chase the initial response their bodies had when they first started dieting. But again, the body is smart and continues to adapt to prevent negative consequences that are associated with restriction. One of the potential consequences of undereating is the increased risk of developing Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) syndrome which includes: decreased metabolism, decreased concentration, an impaired immune system, nutritional deficiencies, impaired bone health, impaired concentration, strength and endurance, and gastrointestinal issues (7). Chronic dieting can also lead to: weight cycling, tendency to store weight in the abdominal area, increased risk of heart disease, disordered eating/eating disorders, social anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and losing trust in the ability to listen to your body's needs.
So, how do you break this cycle?
One of the first things you can do is reflect on your dieting history. Whether it was a traditional or pseudo-diet (i.e. ‘Whole 30, everything in moderation, portion control, eating clean), when did you start your first one?
How long did it last?
How many diets or attempts to make sustainable changes have you made since then?
How has dieting served you in the past?
What has it taken away from you?
What can you get back from letting go of dieting and making peace with food?
Time? Brain space? Energy? Improved relationships?
It can also be helpful to start to recognize the hidden diet messages that you hear from friends/family, social media, books, etc. This will help you learn to recognize even the most well disguised forms of dieting messages. Doing that can help built resilience that can keep you from getting pulled back into the vicious diet cycle.
Ready to take action? Try a social media detox!
Where you get your information is so important, and social media is FULL of diet culture and misinformation. I challenge you to try out a social media diet culture detox to help you say peace to diet culture.
Here are some accounts to follow that can help reinforce the intuitive eating principles you’re reading about here:
Patience and self-compassion is key.
If you've been in the dieting cycle for a while, the idea of giving up dieting may seem scary. Diets may have helped get you through hard times, they may have been a place where you found comfort, security, and consistency, especially during this last year that we've had.
With time, practice, and patience, the journey to reconnecting with your internal wisdom as an intuitive eater is possible. One of the best parts of embarking on an intuitive eating journey is, there is no such thing as failure. Every eating experience is seen as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your relationship with food and your body. There is no doing it ‘wrong’. And over time, it can help reduce feelings of guilt and shame around eating.
The ultimate goal is for you to be your own body’s expert and to feel confident in your food choices. Ditching the diet mentality will help clear up mental space and energy so you can be more present for your horse(s), enjoy your favorite foods without the stress, and be the best rider and horseperson you can be.
If this resonates with you and you’re interested in learning more about working together, you can apply for 1:1 or group nutrition coaching here.
Thank you so much for reading! Feel free to comment or tag @the.equestrian.dietitian with your thoughts!