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Credit: Bijou Karman
personal essay

Why Leaving Behind Diet Culture Meant Giving Up Labels

published Aug 2, 2021
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Humans like labels. It’s why we follow astrology accounts on Instagram, read up on our Myers-Briggs personality types, and tell anyone who’ll listen that we need ample alone time because we’re sensitive introverts. And we really like to label ourselves through the lens of diet and food preferences. When we identify as keto, Paleo, vegan, raw, pescatarian, carnivorous, locavore, or a zillion other descriptors, we’re reaching for something. But what? And why? And, most importantly, do these labels really make our lives healthier and better?

After close to 20 years trying on different labels, I’ve decided to call off the search. There’s no perfect way to describe how I eat. I’m done defining myself as a vegetarian, meat-eater, food purist, or anything else. Here’s why.

My History with Food Labels and Diets

For some folks, food labels really work. I’m not talking about a nutrition facts sticker, but rather, specific ways of cooking and eating. Whatever the reason (dietary, environmental, religious, or personal preference), some people thrive when they have a clear definition of how they approach food. That’s great! I’m definitely not here to yuck anyone’s yum. But that approach doesn’t work for me.

The first food label I tried on was “vegetarian.” In my teens, I decided to quit eating meat after a particularly harrowing incident involving a traditional family recipe, a meat grinder, and some slow-cooked pork parts. That lasted for years — almost 15 — and even delved into vegan territory once or twice. 

Weaving in and out of that period were other diets and eating styles. I tried the macrobiotic diet. Then I cut out carbs. I followed guidelines for a low-FODMAP diet. I brought animal products back in, but refused to eat any meat that was conventionally raised. I spent a couple of years adhering to Ayurvedic diet guidelines.

But for the past couple of years, I’ve been shedding away labels one by one. All of this slow sloughing away has allowed me to get rid of the problematic root cause that put me on this diet-seeking journey in the first place: I was a disordered and restricted eater.

In my childhood, I struggled with bulimia and anorexia. Through therapy, I was able to replace my disordered behaviors with healthy, nurturing coping mechanisms. Some pretty amazing things happened after that: I attended culinary school, worked in a restaurant, and even spent time as an editor at a food magazine. But even though I had “recovered,” I wasn’t entirely free from the disorder. Throughout all of that, I maintained a hawk-eyed control over the foods I would — and would not — eat. 

How did I go 20 years without realizing that my eating “preferences” were actually a subtle perpetuation of my eating disorder? It all boils down to two words: diet culture.

How Diet Restrictions Can Lead to (or Perpetuate) Eating Disorders

There’s a fine line between eating disorders and disordered eating, but they’re both directly influenced by diet culture. Broadly defined for Western culture, diet culture is an ever-changing set of beliefs and guidelines — spoken and unspoken — that value thinness and appearance over health. Diet culture thrives on the belief that we’d be able to “fix” ourselves if we could just get our eating under control. That’s where diets morph into disordered eating. Disordered eating habits are breeding ground for life-threatening eating disorders, as they can quite literally alter your brain chemistry. But even if food obsessions never morph into a diagnosed illness, they can negatively impact your life and take up an inordinate amount of brain real estate.

Why Diet Labels Negatively Impact My Mental and Physical Health … and How I Got Rid of Them

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of those food labels I was proudly wearing? They were diets. It’s so important for me to say here that if your food journey has brought you to a place where diets work — and feel nurturing — I’m all for it. But here’s how they were subtly harming me: In the pursuit of my “healthiest” body, I was still restricting my intake. It took me a long time (years!) to understand this. I thought I was just pursuing wellness; after all, I figured, I had recovered from my eating disorder. After a decade of steady, slow shifts, I was ready to start questioning the “why” behind my food choices. And just as steadily and slowly, I explored giving myself permission to eat things I genuinely craved — even if they weren’t allowed on whatever diet or food plan I was following. I learned that I love steak and that frozen toaster pastries are amazing. And that potato chips can (sometimes) count as my vegetable at dinner.  

Just as I’ve given myself grace in an evolving ethos, I offer the same for other eaters. There is room for opinions, preferences, allergies and intolerances, and beliefs across the spectrum. But I know one thing for sure: For me, a restrictive diet is an unhealthy diet. That means no keto, no Paleo, no low-carb, no low-sugar. And even though it still sometimes feels “safe” and comforting, no vegetarianism. I’ve stopped pursuing wellness through my diet because wellness is about so much more than what I eat.

So yeah: I’m a bacon-loving tofu fan. I buy whole-wheat sourdough bread and I top it with melted Kraft Singles. I keep my fridge stocked with local dairy milk and oat milk. Those contradictions may be confusing to some, but they allow me to live more freely and ditch the labels. And that feels like my best, healthiest life.