less dieting: a cause for celebration or deeper consideration?

As an advocate for more healthy and happy in the world, news that less people are dieting should be a big win for me. According to USA Today’s “Fewer people say they’re on a diet”, that’s exactly the case:

 “On average, about 20% of people said they were on a diet during any given week in 2012, down from a high of 31% in 1991, according to new data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Women showed the biggest decline, with 23% reporting being on a diet in 2012, vs. 36% in 1991.”

The title of the piece points towards what I think is going on (and what it suggests) – less people say they’re dieting. I’m going to hold off on tossing the confetti and popping the champagne.

Does this mean less people are dieting?

It seems to me that more people than ever are working on their bodies. I see all kinds of new diet foods on the shelf (gluten free is the diet du jour). There seems to be just as many magazines offering ways to drop 10lbs fast or TV spots talking about the latest research on which workout is best for dropping pounds (or not).

I think I have some insight into what could be going on. The poll allowed people to define for themselves what “dieting” meant–something I think is important to take into consideration.

Let’s face it: it’s not ”sexy” to be on a diet any more. Powerful women don’t diet – they accept their bodies. We spend hours and hours and all kinds of money in the pursuit of body acceptance. I know I would hesitate to tell anyone I was on a diet, even if I was (let’s say theoretically for a medical condition OR for aesthetic reasons).

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In this culture where “dieting” is taboo, it’s become the socially acceptable—and celebrated—behaviour to eat for our health. I know plenty of people who are afraid of the gluten ghost today and who bought fat free everything in the name of their health. Depending on the “lifestyle” flavor of the week, it can become easy to see a “diet” as a way of life, especially when marketers encourage us to see things that way.

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I think eating with our health in mind is a wonderful thing, but I’m not naïve. In our society, taking responsibility for your health carries moral significance. I know that—and so do marketers. The person who doesn’t take responsibility for their health—the overweight person who you see ordering French fries, for instance—is seen as any host of undesirable things: lazy, gross, unhealthy, a burden on the tax system, etc. It’s no surprise to me that people want people to know that they eat healthy. Dieting, however, has come to be seen not only as something that doesn’t work but also as an indication that you’re vain or narcissistic. No wonder the people they polled aren’t on diets!

It’s interesting: “Orthorexia” emerged in the 1990s (in the years between the polls in the article). This diagnosable eating disorder is the extreme effect of what focusing on “eating healthy” can do (“an eating disorder in which a person is obsessed with “eating right”). Whether you call it a diet obsession or a healthy eating obsession, no one wins when food takes over your life.

Part of me still wants to celebrate that less people are dieting. Maybe all the anti-dieting workers in the world and the intuitive eating advocates have made a difference. But given that there are still so many overweight and obese individuals who have to struggle with their weight as well as with the ways that people view their weight, I don’t think the battle has been won. I don’t think stigmatizing dieting fixes the issue–it just gives it a new name. Though I think that shifting a focus to eating for health is a good thing, I think people need to be careful not to take “health” information exactly as it comes. Figuring out what you define as health and moving towards that will help you keep an eye out for things that are misleading and simply using health as a way to market or legitimize themselves.

Do you have a special approach to eating? Would you call it a diet?
If something is labeled or called “healthy,” do you assume it is good for you? What does that mean to you?

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