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When I was ten, I gave a sketchy website my mom’s credit card information to get three free months of “miracle” diet pills. At 12, I experimented with dieting – trying to give up sugar and carbs, but inevitably failing. By high school, I was shaming myself for every crumb that entered my body. Even though I was a student-athlete and needed to consume more calories than most teenagers, I felt out of control with my eating. I grew up thinking I was fat, and that food was the problem. But the real problem was my dialogue with food. 

Thirty million people in the United States have an eating disorder, most of whom are young women. But you don’t have to suffer from an eating disorder to have an unhealthy relationship with food. Diet culture is everywhere, and it impacts everyone, whether you choose to see it or not. I don’t claim to have struggled with anorexia or bulimia, but I definitely had a toxic perception of food. While the body positivity movement has made strides in promoting healthy curves, social media and photoshop prevent significant progress in getting rid of diet culture. So, what do we do?

Well, I started by letting go of my old dialogue with food. Let me explain.

My sister went to college to be a dietician. She started talking about how unhealthy we eat as a family and encouraged my parents to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, and healthy grains into our meals. They did. But they also kept our favorite parts of our old diets – spaghetti dinners, baking banana bread, and going out for ice cream on the weekends. 

We didn’t give up unhealthy foods entirely just because we were trying to eat healthier. And I realized that I only saw food in two ways: delicious and terrible for you, or tasteless and healthy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

From a biological standpoint, food has one purpose: to nourish you. Its evolutionary function is to give you the vitamins, amino acids, and energy you need to live out your daily life. So, if you start to treat food like a burden, you won’t be fulfilling its fundamental purpose. You don’t have to eat to be stuffed full. And you don’t have to eat like a rabbit to be healthy. You just have to eat to sustain your body’s basic needs.

For example, my weekly food intake includes broccoli, quinoa, apples, spinach, strawberries, and bell peppers. It also includes pasta, coffee, chocolate, potatoes, cheese, and alcohol. Have you ever heard the old saying, everything in moderation? Yeah, that’s my life motto.  

Since high school, I’ve become a major foodie. I don’t put just anything into my body. Some say that makes me a picky eater, but I think of it this way: what if this was my last meal? Why would I eat something that wasn’t great when it could be the last thing I ever eat? Of course, sometimes I cheat, but as I said, everything in moderation! Sometimes you just get a craving for an Oreo McFlurry… and who am I to refuse myself something so delicious? (Not sponsored by McDonald’s; I just love Oreos and ice cream).

So, I eat my fruits and vegetables (because they’re good for me, and because I love them), but I don’t restrict myself from enjoying an occasional bowl of mac and cheese or stress-baking chocolate chip cookies during finals week. If there’s one thing that never works, it’s completely giving up something that you love. That’s why diets aren’t a permanent solution to weight loss. Most diets require you to give up a food completely – carbs, sugar, and salt being the most common. And then, your body craves that food until you eventually give in. People that do achieve their weight loss goal and stop dieting tend to gain the weight back because they resume their old unhealthy eating habits.

What if you could eat that food that you like without shame or guilt? Just maybe once a week instead of every day? Wouldn’t that be a lot healthier – both physically and mentally? 

Here’s the thing: our dialogue with food is malleable. It changes when we watch fast food commercials, absorb social media content, and talk to our friends about the latest diet fad. And even though the body positivity movement is growing, there’s still an undeniable social pressure to be thin. And that is the most powerful influencer over our dialogue with food. But it’s a trojan horse, a hidden lie. Health is complex and can’t be determined just by body size or shape. I threw out my bathroom scale a long time ago because weight doesn’t mean anything. 

There are more important indicators of health, like how you feel and how you treat yourself. Remember that mental health manifests itself in physical ways, and your emotions are tied to your physical pain. Keep in mind that your dialogue with food is also a matter of mental health. Shaming yourself for eating goes against your body’s evolutionary instincts – you need food to survive! And you don’t have to give up your favorite foods just to be healthy. You also don’t have to starve yourself to love yourself. Instead, reflect on your dialogue with food. If food could talk, what would you say?

Resources:

National Eating Disorder Association Helpline

For Anorexia, Bulimia, or Binge Eating Disorder

Signs of an Eating Disorder  – for those struggling

Signs of an Eating Disorder – for friends & family of those struggling

How eating disorders differ in men and young boys

Recovery Record – app to help manage eating disorders

University of Iowa Counseling Services – free for UI students and faculty

Emily is a senior at the University of Iowa, majoring in journalism & mass communication and pursuing a certificate in sustainability. After graduation, she hopes to work as a science journalist for a digital news outlet, working to engage and inform audiences on relevant scientific topics. She interned at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Office of Communications during the summers of 2020 and 2021. In the future, Emily strives to improve scientific awareness, and show audiences how science intersects with culture and human behavior.
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