Fostering a healthy relationship with food (by being healthyish)
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While completing my nightly Tik Tok scroll, a recipe video for a vegan rendition of Olive Garden’s greek salad appeared on my feed. This particular creator frequently pops up on my page — probably because the algorithm has discovered I’m a vegan who loves cooking videos. Although I seem easy to please, I have beef (figuratively, of course) with most “health food” influencers. But this specific TikToker is different.
Rather than pretending to be a nutritionist or dietitian, she simply shares her plant-based recipes without telling her followers why she uses or omits certain ingredients. Although most of them tend to lack processed foods or gluten, she doesn’t market low-calorie counts or advertise her eating habits to be the magical road to weight-loss, which can often induce body image anxiety and cause diet comparison among viewers. Her videos made me feel calm and informed rather than stressed out and overwhelmed, emotions I often feel when watching other health influencers.
I compiled all of these thoughts into a comment that fit within the character limit. Within a few days, I received 86 likes on my post. It may not seem like much, but it made me realize I wasn’t alone in my feelings about health influencer culture.
I first became interested in healthy food when I was 14. At a visit to the pediatrician for an annual check-up, the nurse nonchalantly revealed I had gained a significant amount of weight. My mom flashed me a troubled look, and I criss-crossed my arms in front of my stomach. At this moment, I became corrupted with a feeling that would haunt me for years: insecurity and disgust towards my body.
Rather than explain why my body was changing (like puberty, for example), she failed to correct the insensitive comments from my mom or acknowledge the tears silently slipping down my cheeks. I sat motionless and mute on the medical bed, but drafted a stern commitment in my mind: I would do whatever I could to drop the number on the scale.
That night, I began researching “how to lose weight” on YouTube. I eventually stumbled across veganism. The idea of restrictions appealed to my desperation, and after a few videos, I became convinced meat and dairy were the antithesis of health. I also discovered Ariana Grande, my idol as a teen, followed a vegan diet — which several vegan YouTubers emphasized to be the cause of her noticeable weight loss. Since I was economically privileged enough to make the dramatic lifestyle switch to fresh produce and expensive mock meats, it seemed like a no-brainer.
To this day, I hate the reason I became vegan. As much as I’d love to say I wanted to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a freshman in high school, I really just wanted to be skinnier. Fortunately, my motivation for keeping a plant-based diet quickly shifted from weight loss to animal activism and environmental reasons. Now, it’s simply because eating vegan makes my mind and body feel good.
But still, my food journey within dietary restrictions has never been stable. I often shuffle between weeks of unsustainable, extremely “clean” eating, where I view gluten as the devil’s spawn, and months where I allow stress to control my food choices. The back and forth relationship subsequently leaves me dodging the mirror before and after showers, and burying tight tops to the bottom of my clothing drawer.
In times of low self-esteem, I often resort to health food influencers for encouragement. Depending on the blogger, these social media binges can have varying effects on my mental wellbeing. Sometimes, it reminds me how much I love cooking nutritious food that fuels and restores my body. Other times, I’m overwhelmed by how unattainable a healthy diet looks, and click off with significantly less motivation than I had before.
After years of sifting through healthy food accounts and blogs, I’ve determined what activity triggers my body image anxiety. Oftentimes, these influencers flood their posts with weight loss and nutritional information. Not only can this be incredibly overwhelming, but according to a 2019 study, almost 90 percent of social media influencers are sharing inaccurate health information.
I’ve also learned to avoid influencers that heavily emphasize calories and fad diets. Calorie-counting is an outdated, exhausting diet tool, which has been debunked countless times through medical research. Similarly, those who encourage their followers, most of whom are young teenage girls, to partake in lengthy juice cleanses or raw food plans are ignoring — and thus, promoting — the abundant dangers associated with cutting out nutritionally dense foods.
Finally, my biggest turn off: assigning moral value to food. This is one of the most common tricks among today’s health food influencers — and it’s not their fault. We’ve been conditioned to think we’re ‘bad’ for eating brownies and ‘good’ for eating kale. These messages of moral impurity for our food choices are plastered throughout the wellness industry, from health food marketing to recipe titles (i.e. “8 Mouthwatering Pancake Recipes You Won’t Feel Bad About Eating”).
Once my food choices began to overlap with how I viewed my character, I distanced myself from influencers who actively practiced food guilt. Now, I notice it in other ways, like demonizing certain commonly used products for being so-called ‘bad for you.’ A favorite among plant-based foodies is to pit two commonly used products against each other (i.e. avocado oil vs. olive oil) and declare that one is healthier than the other, without any source of information. Most frequently, the more expensive one wins.
The most common similarity between these health food influencers is privilege. Fresh fruits, a rainbow of vegetables, and other “clean” foods are crucial to sustain these influencer-approved lifestyles. Yet a large portion of Americans are alienated based on these products. According to the USDA, an estimated total of 13.6 million Americans live in underserved communities that lack access to affordable, healthy food options, but generally provide easy access to convenient, low-nutrient fast food (most commonly referred to as “food deserts”).
At the end of the day, eating healthy is an accessibility and affordability issue. Despite this, health food influencers and the wellness industry tend to cater to a largely white, privileged, already thin, and able-bodied demographic, recommending food only they have the resources to buy.
After unfollowing most of my trustee health food influencers for endorsing unhealthy habits, I decided there must be a space for nondiet influences that encourage a nurturing relationship with food. And after some digging, I found it. It’s called intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is commonly described as the “anti-diet,” since it focuses on making peace with food (yes, all food!) and expelling the concept of food guilt. It encourages you to untangle your self-worth from your meals, and connect more deeply with your mind and your body to determine what will make you actually feel good — not simply look good.
This change in mentality opened me up to a whole new world of health food influencers, ones that advocate for food, rather than criticize it. Healthyish — where the “ish” underlined — is a blog that combines delicious cooking recipes, mental health essays, and guides to sustainable living. Since it’s a member of Bon Appetit, a food and entertainment magazine, it also emphasizes loving the art of cooking, something I appreciate as a self-proclaimed chef.
Around a year ago, after completing my first year at Michigan, I was at rock bottom with how I felt about my body. Instead of returning to my old habits of regimented workout plans and vilifying processed foods, I decided to create my own “healthyish” enterprise: an Instagram account where I post my favorite vegan recipes.
My account has encouraged me to prioritize my desire to cook creatively while keeping in mind my interest in mindful eating and mental wellbeing. Although I have a relatively small stake in the health food influencer community (171 followers, most of whom are friends and family), I’m careful to not repeat the same mistakes that triggered me in the past. This includes staying away from unrealistic meal plans or awarding foods a positive or negative rating. I’m extremely happy I can contribute to the “intuitive eating” space, rather than feed the anxiety-inducing atmosphere I used to dwell in.
As summer approaches and the overemphasis on “getting healthy in quarantine” continues, fad diets and unhealthy “weight loss tips” skyrocket on social media. I encourage you to reflect on your engagement with health food influencers, and determine whether they help or harm your mental wellbeing. If they make you feel overwhelmed or anxious, or simply not good, I urge you to clear them from your timeline. No matter where you stand in your friendship with food, remember to nourish your relationship with yourself and those you love first.
This is a snapshot of my own journey of finding peace with my health and body, and in no way is meant to represent or overshadow your personal experience. If you feel your emotional health is suffering in pursuit of your physical health, it may be helpful to pursue professional treatment, or, if applicable, seek resources at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website. For virtual communication, contact NEDA’s helpline: (800)-931-2237.