Well, ActuallyThe Thin White Men Who Rebranded Dieting as “Wellness”

Michael Pollan (left) and Samin Nosrat in Cooked, 2016 (Netflix)

We’ve made it through January, which likely means your coworkers and Facebook friends are eager to share updates about their liver detox, celery-juice cleanse, or Whole 30 challenge. They might hasten to assure you these regimens aren’t about weight, but about wellness. And animal welfare. And supporting farmers. Oh, and “healing the gut.” (In January, I find, people are very concerned about the state of their gut bacteria.) Except, actually, it’s about weight. We equate wellness—and, more weirdly, abstractly ethical or health goals like the farmers and the  happy gut bacteria—with thinness. America has been gripped by a deep-seated fear of fat for decades, and it peaks every year around this time.

It’s easy to blame this anxiety on the Kardashians as they shill for Fit Tea, or Gwyneth Paltrow with her recipes for Ayurvedic golden milk and spirulina-infused smoothies. After all, these women embody the unrealistic physical ideal we’re told to strive for—and they’ve built their brands by simultaneously inspiring and terrorizing their (mostly female) audiences. I know this because I spent the first decade of my career ghostwriting celebrity lifestyle books and covering “wellness” (as we now call dieting) for women’s magazines; I have seen how the shiny-haired influencer/goddess is made. But our current thinking about weight—and the belief that we need to control it by eating “clean,” home-cooked, restrictive meals—originates from a less glamorous but far more influential group of people: The mostly white, mostly male, mostly thin food writers and chefs who have been setting the agenda of what they call the “good food movement” for the past couple of decades. And in the process, they’ve turned being thin—and eating in the labor-intensive way they think guarantees thinness—into a moral imperative.

One of the earliest and most enduring such figures is the journalist Michael Pollan. Pollan started his career writing about plant science and human-plant co-evolution; his research later turned to crop cultivation and exploring how government farm subsidies have shaped the American food system and, subsequently, narrowed our diets. But it’s easier to get people to care about how their jeans fit than to get them to care about the plight of farmers. So in his iconic 2006 bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan linked the need for a more sustainable food system with the need to shrink American waistlines. He argued that corn had taken over American farming and now, in the uber-processed form of high-fructose corn syrup, was dominating American food manufacturing as well—and making us sick and fat.

Pollan built on the earlier arguments laid out by Eric Schlosser in 2001’s Fast Food Nation to make food political in a profound way and reveal important connections between industrial agriculture and environmental health. But Pollan also provided a moral justification for restricting your diet in dramatic and often disordered ways. And we ran with it. The Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a book that many female lifestyle gurus read and cite: Catherine McCord of the healthy-kid-food blog Weelicious describes him as one of her “food heroes” and quoted him in this recipe for mini cheesecakes (sweetened only with agave nectar, of course). Women’s magazines translated his salient points about whole grains and organic produce into dozens of bullet-pointed service pieces.

“It felt like I wasn’t just this vain, selfish person trying to lose weight,” says Christy Harrison, RD, a former food journalist, of her experience reading Pollan and similar thinkers while struggling with an eating disorder as she reported on the dangers of gluten and GMO corn for Gourmet and Plenty. “I thought, ‘I can help change the landscape and make everyone healthier.’ There was some desire to be communal about [dieting], a kind of social-justice drive.” But Pollan’s 2009 follow-up bestseller, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, wasn’t about social justice. It was a diet book, straight up, full of cute little guilt trips like “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” And Pollan, it’s relevant here to note, is quite thin. He might attribute that to his dedication to his food mantras, the most famous of which is the maddeningly vague “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (How much is too much? Isn’t bread mostly plants?)

But studies on the biology of body-weight regulation suggest that his physique is more likely due to genetic and environmental factors beyond his control. Research shows that changing your body size by changing your diet is virtually impossible: No matter what the plan is, and no matter how much celery juice is involved, dieters lose at most just 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in the first six months. Most then regain that weight, and then some, within one to five years. Expecting to look like Michael Pollan just by eating like Michael Pollan is as unrealistic for most Americans as hoping to look like Gwyneth Paltrow just by drinking your golden milk. And yet Pollan has long tried to turn his personal eating preferences into a social mandate, advocating for stricter regulations on food stamps so poor people can’t use them to buy soda and chicken nuggets, which he describes as “nutritionally worthless food-like substances.”

The phenomenally successful cookbook author, speaker, and columnist Mark Bittman is  another interesting case study. His 2013 New York Times bestseller, Vegan Before Six, pitched the kind of diet long beloved by popular media because, as he told Shape magazine, “cheating is built in.” On the VB6 plan, you can eat whatever you want for dinner as long as you restrict meat, eggs, cheese and dairy by day. Bittman himself lost 35 pounds on his plan, but devoted much of the book—as well as his subsequent speaking and writing career—to explaining the environmental and moral imperatives addressed by VB6. At women’s magazines, we called this dieting; because a man proposed it, it was framed as saving the planet.

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From Pollan and Bittman, the list goes on: There’s Jamie Oliver branding himself the savior of American school lunches. There’s Gordon Ramsay’s forthcoming National Geographic show Uncharted, in which he’ll visit foreign countries to teach them how to cook their own national dishes better. Even Anthony Bourdain, a white guy who often used his platform to amplify social-justice causes (most powerfully #MeToo), once groused about “unpatriotic” fatties with Ted Nugent. Meanwhile, the current definition of “clean eating” has expanded to once again include animal protein and fat, via Paleo and keto plans that, perhaps not coincidentally, were also developed by thin white men.

And thin white guys don’t have to be famous to think they know everything about food. In my book, The Eating Instinct, I explore the rise of wellness culture and the way the diet industry strives to disconnect us from our body’s innate hunger and fullness cues. Since the book’s publication last fall, many men have reached out to me with some version of “Well, I just eat whatever I want.” Some offer this as a way to atone for a past tendency to shame others for their bodies or food choices. Others say it with pride, as if they’re blessed with some innate bodily wisdom and can’t understand why so many scale-obsessed women lack their chill.

It is a revelation to exactly nobody that a thin, white man can eat whatever he wants and not hear anything beyond some gentle “maybe try a salad sometime!” joshing from loved ones, restaurant staff, doctors, and strangers. In contrast, women—especially if they’re middle-aged, not white, or less educated—experience weight stigma much more frequently than their male peers, and at lower body weights, says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, who studies the implications of weight bias at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. We can’t “just eat whatever we want” because we’ve been conditioned since childhood to view our bodies as unruly, undisciplined, and in need of constant vigilance. And so we blend smoothies, cut out gluten, and start January diets because we long ago internalized that whatever we’re really hungry for is wrong.

Historically, women also did all the from-scratch cooking that Pollan, Bittman, and others so revere. Rates of home cooking dropped as more women entered the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you now get home 15 minutes before your toddler starts screaming for dinner, it’s hard to envision roasting root vegetables rather than tearing open a box of mac and cheese. Healthy homemade meals require a significant outlay of time, money, and mental labor to plan, shop, prep, cook and, clean it all up. But if we don’t do it, we’re lazy, selfish, wasteful, probably fat, and certainly bad moms. As Karen, a 51-year-old mother and science writer in Silicon Valley, told me after confessing how often her family eats Nutella on toast for dinner: “I find it hard to exist in today’s judgmental food environment.”

The willpower-weight myth turns eating—an activity that, at its core, should provide comfort just as much as nutrition—into a contest of self-discipline and deprivation, of pulling yourself up by your Vitamix blender rather than your bootstraps.

After all, the kind of “clean” eating that the Thin White Guys endorse isn’t supposed to be hard, as long as you have the budget for organic produce and kids willing to eat things like daikon and turmeric. And even if that is hard, it’s worth it because it’s so much better for you. “Many processed foods deserve to be bashed,” one thin white guy tweeted at me recently. “It’s both cheaper and healthier to avoid them and instead eat more grains, beans, and rice.”

It’s not that he’s got it wrong. Grains, beans and rice are perfectly fine foods. (So is daikon.) It’s his confusion of correlation with absolute truth that rankles: He finds it easy to eat that way and he’s able to stay thin; therefore, so should we all. There’s no acknowledgement that some of us are too busy to soak beans on a weekday. That some of us (to say nothing of our partners and children) just don’t like beans that much. Or that some of us are eating plenty of rice and beans (and organic kale smoothies and cashew cheeses) but are nevertheless still fat. “Pollan […] reinforces the belief that some people—thin people—must have seen the light that the rest are blind to,” writes Julie Guthman, PhD, a social scientist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied the race, class, and body politics of the “good food” movement for more than 20 years.

In fact, normal, healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes beyond the narrow spectrum of Thin White Guys plus Gwyneth. And diets don’t fail because we lack the willpower to stay vegan until dinnertime; they fail because our bodies evolved to prevent weight loss as a protective measure. When your body senses that caloric or macronutrient restriction is afoot, it responds by slowing your metabolism to conserve resources and stimulating hunger hormones that remind you to eat. This has helped humans withstand eons of food scarcity; it is, admittedly, less helpful when you’re hoping to maintain the results of your celery-juice cleanse past February. But that’s a good thing, because we also know that attempting weight loss repeatedly is bad for your health: Women who lost at least 10 pounds three or more times within a four-year period were more likely to struggle with binge eating and get less physical activity than non-dieters, according to research published in the International Journal of Obesity. (They also—irony alert!—gained more weight.)

And yet 60 percent of Americans believe that losing weight is a matter of individual responsibility. We hear this plenty from female celebrities and Instagram influencers (especially those intent on “getting their pre-baby body back,” as if they misplaced it somewhere in the delivery room), but there is still something fundamentally male about the willpower-weight myth. It turns eating—an activity that, at its core, should provide comfort just as much as nutrition—into a contest of self-discipline and deprivation, of pulling yourself up by your Vitamix blender rather than your bootstraps. This is currently fueling a different kind of epidemic: Recent studies estimate that 50 percent of teenage girls and 25 percent of teenage boys are on diets. One study found that 1 in 8 girls had made herself vomit within the previous three months. The rate of eating disorders in children now outstrips their rate of type 2 diabetes. Restriction makes us sick.

We can’t put all of that on a handful of popular male food writers who pontificate about how easy it is to eat like them while erasing the labor that generations of women invested in making the food that meets those exacting standards. The TWGs are merely following in the footsteps of Dr. Atkins, South Beach Diet creator Arthur Agatston, and all the thin, white fathers of diet culture who came before them. (Even Jenny Craig co-founded her business with her husband, Sid.) But if you’ve decided not to diet this month—if, in fact, you’ve eaten a meal recently just because you craved it, and didn’t apologize to anyone in the process—know that you’re breaking free from more than the GOOP-ification of modern food culture. We need to talk more about how many of the food rules targeted at women come from men who will never have our bodies or wrestle with our cultural expectations—men who might have set out to make the planet healthier, but instead helped normalize dangerous and dysfunctional thinking about “good foods,” “bad foods,” and the moral value of the people who eat them. And then we need to change that conversation. And eat what we damn well please.    

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by Virginia Sole-Smith
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Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in AmericaShe’s also a contributing editor with Parents Magazine and co-host of Comfort Food Podcast. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @v_solesmith.