We've all heard of diet culture (our society's prioritization of weight loss and beauty ideals over actual health), and we've all heard how dangerous it can be for our physical and mental well-being. Eating disorders, depression, anxiety, malnutrition, and other illnesses can all be attributed at least in part to the influence of diet culture.

It's pretty clear that fad diets like the Atkins, South Beach, or Weight Watchers programs represent a harmful commercialization of our societal emphasis on weight loss. With slogans like "Shed 15 Pounds in 2 Weeks" and "Healthy Never Looked This Good," these diets encourage people to value weight loss and aesthetics over their well-being.

Diet culture has resulted in the idea that we have to cut out entire food groups and look a certain way in order to be "healthy." In this way, diet culture has defined health as fitting a certain dietary and physical mold.

Faced with so many restrictive fad diets and unsubstantiated food "rules," the promise of leaving the diet world behind in pursuit of "wellness" can be really appealing. In fact, there's a whole genre of content (online, in books, and through lifestyle consultants/dietitians) dedicated to the idea of promoting "wellness" through lifestyle and diet choices.

While this seems like the light at the end of the diet culture tunnel, there's a nefarious underbelly to the wellness community, the "wellness diet."

To better understand the wellness diet, what's so scary about it, and what we can do to combat it, I talked to Hannah Durbin (@healthy_happy_hannah), a lifestyle blogger who's an expert on the topic. Make sure to check out her blog and her Instagram for eating disorder recovery inspiration, workout ideas, and information about intuitive eating!

What is the wellness diet?

vegetable, cucumber, pepper, tomato, salad
Christin Urso

"The media has marketed the wellness diet to be a positive lifestyle change that will improve our overall health by teaching us to focus on 'clean eating' and nutrition labels.

"But through the eyes of someone who has experienced the horrors of a life-threatening eating disorder, I define the wellness diet to be society’s deceitful attempt to create a perfectionistic and discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like, and then sneakily marketing it as a beneficial lifestyle change.

"The wellness diet is not calorie-focused, like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers, but the restrictive mindset surrounding food is extremely similar. This diet has led us to label, and even moralize, certain foods to be 'bad' and 'impure,' encouraging us to permanently remove them from our diets (despite the fact that all bodies require different types of fuel).

"The wellness diet has abandoned balanced, intuitive eating and replaced it with an extremely detrimental dependence on society to tell us what to eat and what to avoid. In simpler terms, it’s media’s attempt to mess with our heads even more than it already has."

Why is it so problematic?

Luna Zhang

"This diet is a huge problem in more ways than one. To start, it has taught us to label food as 'good' and 'bad' based solely on its nutrition label. The problem with this is that it encourages us to moralize our food choices.

"Similarly to how my professors would categorize an A+ on my midterm as 'good' versus an F on my midterm as 'bad", we are now doing this with food based on its macronutrient and caloric composition.

"In simpler terms, we've been told that carrot sticks are the A+ on the exam, and the brownie is a big fat F, no exceptions. And even worse, if I dare eat that toxic brownie, I have also failed.

"The moment we label something as 'bad,' we begin to fear it. It begins to take up more space in our minds, giving it life and power. It abandons its neutrality and starts possessing moral implications. If we eat something 'bad,' we are also 'bad.' This not only results in obvious blows to our self-image, but also leads to compensation. 

"We have to be 'good' tomorrow in order to make up for being 'bad' today. With a mindset like this, eating disorders quickly develop.

"In addition, it completely ignores the fact that every human body is unique. Just like a sports car versus a tractor-trailer, our bodies similarly require different types and amounts of fuel to keep us going. We cannot possibly create blanket generalizations for food because no two people are exactly the same.

"For a simple example, if an Olympic marathon runner consumed the same number of calories as your average Joe, the athlete would be completely incapable of performing due to a severe lack of adequate nutrition.

"While society tells everybody to eat X number of calories, X grams of protein, X grams of carbs, and so on, regardless of who you are, we must be smart enough to understand that the media does not know us well enough to know our metabolic rates, activity levels, genetic composition, etc. Without that knowledge, nobody can accurately formulate diet advice for you."

What is intuitive eating?

"Intuitive eating is about getting back to your natural-born roots and learning to trust your body again. It steers clear of all diets and meal plans, and rather focuses on hunger cues, cravings, and your body’s signals.

"A simple way to think about it is by recalling how we used to eat when we were little kids – eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full, picking the food that sounds the best in that moment, and enjoying it. It doesn’t require any calculators or food scales, just you and your body. 

"It’s understanding that some days we may eat a LOT, and other days we may not eat much at all. It’s coming to terms with the fact that every day will be different, and that’s okay. Intuitive eating is learning to see food neutrally, without the labels.

"And most importantly, it’s learning how to eat outside of the diet mentality, meaning that we should place our focus on internal cues rather than external cues (like society’s endless list of food rules)."

What is your experience dealing with the wellness diet? How has it played into your eating disorder?

"My experience was pretty horrific, if we’re being honest. Just like I explained above, the wellness diet brainwashed me into believing that I needed to trust society more than I could trust myself. It taught me to abandon intuitive eating, count every calorie I consumed, track every step I took, and ignore all of my body’s signals.

"It is the reason I developed anorexia, and it is also the reason I almost died at the age of 19.

"I firmly believed that the only way to be 'healthy' was to eliminate most major food groups and blindly stick to a diet of baby spinach, grilled chicken breasts, egg whites, and water. I believed that I needed to burn off every single calorie I consumed, or else I would get 'fat'–the most toxic word in our universal language.

"I was tricked into adopting the wellness diet because I thought it was the answer. What I didn’t realize during those years was that the human body couldn’t possibly sustain life on a diet as restrictive as mine, but that’s not what the magazines told me.

"So despite the migraines, body shakes, hair loss, dizziness, concerning bone density scans, and permanent organ damage, I continued on.

"I was the prime example of what the wellness diet can do to a person. It not only stripped away my enjoyment of food, but also my enjoyment of life. My priorities became so narrow that the only things I could think about were nutrition labels, 'clean eating,' burning calories, and becoming smaller.

"It didn’t bring me health and wellness like it promised to do, but rather drove me straight into a hospital bed to fight for my life."

Are athletes at greater risk for buying into the wellness diet?

"After having the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of fellow college-aged students at a number of my speaking engagements, I have been repeatedly confronted with the tendency for athletes to subconsciously develop disordered thoughts and behaviors surrounding both food and exercise.

"I can’t necessarily say that athletes are at a greater risk than everybody else, since everyone experiences their own set of triggers, but I can absolutely agree that the pressures they experience to be in such perfect shape are extremely difficult to manage.

"Within my own circle, a number of my friends who were collegiate athletes admitted to having debilitating eating disorders throughout their athletic careers. Some of these friends became so ill that they were forced to take time away from their sport in order to focus on their own recoveries.

"This not only broke my heart, but also proved exactly why this 'wellness' diet was not actually promoting wellness, but rather triggering self-hate and self-destruction.

"It’s so dangerous for athletes to adopt this wellness diet because their bodies actually require more fuel than the average person. If they are eliminating food groups, restricting calories and avoiding crucial nutrients, their bodies are at an even greater risk for injury.

"Additionally, an athlete’s mental alertness is crucial to both performance and safety, so if they are not providing their brains and bodies enough fuel to stay alert, they again put themselves at very high risk for poor performance and injury."

What can I do to avoid buying into the wellness diet?

"DO YOUR RESEARCH. This is the best way to overpower the nonsense out there. Without doing your own research and understanding the truths about proper nutrition, it is much more likely to believe the crap you hear in the media. But even when doing your own research, it’s so important to make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources.

"It’s a sad truth that 90% of the stuff on the Internet is not accurate, but it’s something we must be aware of when we’re trying to educate ourselves. So be sure to double-check the sites you’re using, because researching false information will only add to the mess.

"Also, remember that you are unique. If you have questions about what is best for YOUR body, make an appointment with your doctor. Only a legitimate health professional can tell you what your individual body needs, so rather than relying on the latest trend magazine, have this conversation with your doctor instead.

"Lastly, respect your body’s individual needs. It’s extremely hard to come to terms with the fact that life is not always a competition, but that is something we all must learn to accept. Eating less, or eating 'cleaner,' than the rest of the world, does not get you a gold medal. Comparing your plate to someone else’s should never be a source of guilt, shame or regret.

"Knowing that your body requires different types and amounts of fuel is a simple fact. Just like we are all prescribed different doses of medication depending on our body’s needs, we all require different vitamins and nutrients from our food in order to sustain health. Know the facts."

What societal changes would you like to see in terms of food/health?

"I would love to see us go back to the basics. I would love for food choices to be made based on intuition, not because it is what every Instagram influencer is eating these days. I would love for all calorie-tracking apps to be permanently deleted. I would love for ice cream to be real ice cream again, not the low-calorie, low-sugar, high-protein crap.

"I want to go back to the days when food didn’t need to be studied, researched and calculated before we could consume it. I want people to simply eat what makes them feel good, and don’t eat the things that don’t. I would love to be able to go online without being bombarded with the latest juice cleanses and gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free recipes.

"I would give anything to wake up tomorrow without the pressure to eat just like everyone else in the world. And above all of that, I hope and pray that my future children can grow up in a world where they are taught to eat the way their bodies tell them to, and not the way society has demanded."

How do we get rid of diet culture?

"We begin listening to our bodies again. We stop relying on others to make our decisions for us, and rather listen to our body’s signals to point us in the right direction. We eat when we’re hungry, stop when we’re full, eat an ice cream sundae when we want one, but also never forget our veggies.

"We rely on our own medical professionals to give us dietary advice, not Cosmopolitan or the top Instagram influencer. We re-learn what it was like to eat when we were kids. We use our bodies as our guides."

Huge shoutout to Hannah for her thoughtful, research-based answers to these questions–people like her can give all of us hope for a future without diet culture.

It is so important to recognize that health is not measured on the scale or by how "well" you eat. True health is listening to your body, eating when you're hungry, and going to the doctor when you're sick. Health is not spending all day worrying about what you're eating, but living in the moment and enjoying the food that tastes good to you. 

There's no such thing as an "ideal healthy body," because bodies can be healthy and beautiful at any size.

If you're worried that you or someone you love might be struggling with an eating disorder, check out this website or call the National Eating Disorder Hotline, which is (800) 931-2237