How Health Coaches Are Contributing to a Diet Culture Full of Fear and Confusion

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If you go to the market and have these thoughts: “Oh, those tomatoes look so good. Thank goodness, they’re organic! Oh, wait, tomatoes are nightshades. I probably shouldn’t eat them. Oh, and they’re so acidic, should I be eating more alkaline foods? And I better not eat them raw, aren’t tomatoes better for you when you eat them cooked? But cooking destroys so many nutrients, I should probably invest in a dehydrator. Screw it, I’ll just not get them…” then diet culture and the coaches you follow may be failing you.

Two weeks ago I talked about how dieting shouldn’t be our normal state and some of the normalized things that go on in our culture that contribute to entire generations of women being obsessed with getting and staying “small.” This is a huge subject and one that I’ve only scratched the surface of. In this post, I want to talk about another aspect of it and something that may seem a little strange considering my job title.

I think some health coaches are unintentionally contributing to diet culture and might be doing more harm than good.

Before I get stoned by my peers, I want to say that not all coaches are doing this and of those who are doing it, I know it’s mostly with good intentions and in all honesty, I fell into this category when I first started out too.

A little bit of backstory.

Several years ago, I gave up traditional dieting in favor of a healthy “lifestyle” because after a decade plus of dieting I just couldn’t do it anymore. Dieting had turned me into someone who had frequent binges and a lot of shame around my body and food. Embracing a whole foods healthy lifestyle meant I lost weight and had an easier time keeping it off without feeling crazy or deprived. I felt much better eating “cleanly” and I really came to believe that a whole-foods based diet and eating as little processed food as possible was the way to health. My health coaching practice and social media reflected this. I still eat this way for the most part but I have become much more flexible as to what I view as “healthy” and it has more to do with where my head is at than what specifics I’m eating.

If you’ve been following me from the start of my coaching career, you may have noticed I’ve posted very little about actual food specifics the last few years. Gone are the whole food based detox programs, I rarely post photos of food I eat and it’s only on the odd occasion that I share a recipe, whole foods or otherwise. I don’t share much information about pesticides in our foods, how to sprout your own lentils and which health conditions need to avoid cruciferous vegetables. I now push intuition, body and self-trust / knowledge, joyful movement, and other things that sound really wishy-washy but really matter to someone who wants more peace with food.

Hypocrite or Evolving?

As my own relationship with food has evolved over time, I realized that some of what I was teaching and recommending in my early days of coaching conflicted with where I really want to take people – and where I wanted to be myself.

I want and I want others to feel confident in themselves as their only guide to making food choices. I want people to feel less fearful about food and more relaxed around it (and just so you know this does not necessarily mean disregarding nutrition or health). I feel a little hypocritical when I look back at some of my early work but Marie Forleo says that if you don’t look back at your early work and cringe a little, it means you’re not growing (so at least I’m growing)! Growth is good.

Diet culture wants you to feel scared and confused so you keep buying.

One of the things diet culture thrives upon is keeping people confused, keeping them scared of making choices, and teaching us that we can’t trust our bodies. If we’re scared and confused, fearful about our health and our bodies, we will run out to buy whatever it is they’re selling – shakes, exercise programs, food plans, supplements, etc. If we’re not scared and confused, if we trust ourselves as smart creatures who have always known how to feed themselves, there won’t be much we have to buy.

A lot of well-meaning coaches are constantly sharing information that the general public may not be aware of that the coach believes we need to know in order to feel motivated to make better decisions about health (how bad sugar is for us, how glyphosate increases gut permeability, how animal products cause cancer, how our phones are causing brain tumors and increasing ADD etc). The problem is that when we share so much of this kind of scary health information we are making people afraid of food and adding to the confusion that is already out there. After a while, this kind of information sharing creates a feeling that we can’t trust anything and we end up in a food choice paralysis.

More confusion and fear around food is not helping people make better choices.

Feeling afraid of food helps you develop eating disorders (fyi – aiming to eat perfectly clean and healthy all of the time and feeling ashamed and stressed when you can’t or don’t is called “orthorexia“).

Feeling confused around food makes us dependent on diets and diet gurus to tell us what to eat when really we should be dialing down into listening to our bodies’ hunger and satiety signals, paying attention to the way individual foods make us feel, learning about what foods our ancestors ate (it’s in our DNA) and being flexible to change.

In the world of emotional eaters and chronic dieters (where my viewpoint is), fear and confusion is the last thing health coaches should promote. Two of the main lessons we learned in coaching school was that the client has their own answers inside of them and that we have to respect something called “bioindividuality” – the idea that people know what’s best for their bodies and the way of eating that works for one person may not be right for another. 

I see a ton of coaches instilling fear in people because they believe one specific way of eating is correct. I know it has to be hard to coach people towards their own needs when you are a die-hard vegan or strict paleo, but being that rigid about what people should be eating is moving away from coaching territory and into something different (and depending on your state you may need additional certifications to do that). It’s really not our jobs to tell people what to eat in such strict terms.

I’m not knocking all coaches – I’m still a health coach and I have a lot of health coach friends who I respect and I know they are sincerely doing work that is going to change the world. 

Health coaching has been incredibly helpful for tackling my eating struggles, and I have a lot of tools that have helped me make peace with food (and helped me teach my clients the same). 

As a whole I believe the profession’s goals are to help people live healthier so that they can do more amazing things in their lives. This is a good thing but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some big problems! The intent in the health coaching community is good but sometimes the way we go about encouraging change is diametrically opposed to actually being healthy.

Health Coaches with Strict and Extreme Views

There is a faction of coaches who practice extreme vigilance about food and the ideas some of these folks teach contribute to deeper entrenchment into diet culture.

In addition to sharing lots of scary and over complicated info, they promote products and programs that perpetuate us not trusting our bodies to tell us what to eat (powdered shakes, special containers, and super specific and rigid meal plans, etc.) and others that have such high and restrictive standards of what constitutes healthy eating / healthy lifestyle (for example, raw food only, vegan only, paleo only, organic, local, non-irradiated, soaked and sprouted, etc) that by the pure challenges of following everything they recommend, we are set up to fail and become more confused and scared of food.

Let me illustrate how insanely difficult and impossible the way we seem to expect people to eat is (according to the things coaches share on social media). I personally have every opportunity to make this unrealistic healthy food movement come to life in my American home.

I have the knowledge to prepare food the “healthiest” way possible. I have the time and ability. I work from home, love to cook, and I’m a good cook.

I also have the financial means to buy organic, free range, local, grass-fed etc. foods. We prioritize food in my house over many other things.

And I don’t have children who pull at my pant legs and beg to have heavily processed chicken nuggets and hot dogs for dinner (just a cat who is a finicky eater).

This is not a brag, this is to show you how my life and I am well-suited to make this inaccessible and perfect food stuff work. I legit have all the means necessary to make foods the way people are preaching we need to if we want to be healthy and yet even I find I get tired of it, overwhelmed, apathetic, and annoyed and sometimes I wish there were take-out places nearby.

I’ve sometimes thrown all my food edicts out the window and eaten a frozen pizza (yes, even dairy and full of gluten and processed) because I can’t deal with checking all the damn boxes for another day and I want it easy. This is coming from someone who dearly loves food and nutrition.

If I can’t do “it” every day of my life and I’m the perfect candidate, then how can we expect people in other more complicated situations to get in line?

This is not really working guys!

Having a zillion rules about food, how it’s sourced, how to prep it properly and more, causes stress, panic and eating disorders. It does not actually make someone healthy. 

How can you not fall into some type of eating disorder when you no longer know what is SAFE to eat? And if we have to depend on another person more educated than us on food to give us guidelines (that change constantly), then we will never be free and never be healthy.

An overly puritanical “healthy lifestyle” can lead you down an unhealthy path of being overly restrictive with food just as much as the average diet can and all in the name of health, energy and clear skin.

If you’ve had any food struggles in your life, learning to trust yourself and re-engage with the wisdom and intuition we had as babies and toddlers is a better path to health.

Worrying about food all the time is not healthy. Worrying if you’re making the right choices is not healthy. Still feeling like crap even when you’re doing all the “right” things is not the picture of health.

It is much better to trust your body, feel safe with your own knowledge, and listen to your body to tell you what it needs. This leads to better mental health – and when we’re well on an emotional and mental level, we make physical choices we can feel good about too.

I’m not saying that health coaches need to throw out everything they’ve learned about nutrition, health, and how food is produced in this country, but we really need to start asking ourselves if what we’re sharing and recommending is helping people to feel empowered? Is it helping them to feel secure, relaxed and confident? Is it truly making people feel well on an emotional level?

Let’s ease up and help people get back in touch with those answers we know they have inside of themselves.

 

Contributor: 

Andrea Quigley Maynard

Andrea Quigley Maynard believes that we have innate knowledge about what, how much, and when to eat, and that relying on restrictive diets to manage our relationships to food is a temporary fix for a larger societal problem. As an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, she helps women reconnect with natural hunger cues in their body, learn to feel emotions instead of eating them, and trust their intuition so that they can make peace with food and get on with their lives. She lives in NH and coaches women remotely. She also shares her work through writing and webinars. Learn more at aqmhealthcoaching.com.