While it can feel like thinking back to March is like thinking back about 100 years, it was, in fact, less than a year ago. If you were in the United States, we probably all experienced something relatively similar—debates on whether or not to buy or make our own masks (or wear them at all), how much food to stock up on, if you’d be working from home for a long time (if at all), and, somehow, how not to gain weight. Yes. Diet culture roared into the early stages of the pandemic and made itself known. Little time passed before the internet was filled with jokes about the “Quarantine 15,” a riff on the “Freshman 15” students might gain during their first year of college. With talk of “soft pants” (formerly known as sweatpants), closing gyms, and, frankly, less socializing, a lot of people fretted about how to maintain or lose weight amid a global pandemic.
As we near the New Year, diet culture is likely to return with its standard vengeance, even as we still continue to face a global health crisis. In the face of diet culture, I give you this sentiment: You can eat what makes you happy and you don’t have to feel bad about it, Quarantine 15 or not.
Obviously, the big caveat when it comes to talking about food and diet is that you and your doctor know best. If you’re on a special diet or restrictions under a doctor’s guidance, of course, you should listen to the medical professionals in your life. Same with if your restrictions coincide with an ethical or religious belief system that’s important to you. My point is not that everyone should feel pressured to eat everything in front of them with unfiltered abandon, but rather, to drop the morality of food, and especially morality in certain kinds of food.
Here’s one example. When scrolling social media or reading headlines, how often do you see people push foods, meals, or recipes as “healthy” or “good for you” or “better” or “real”? While this obviously varies a bit on which corner of the internet you find yourself in, I’d say it’s pretty insidious. And here’s the thing: Food is food. Health is subjective. What does it mean for a food to be “good”? Sure, it could refer to your calories or your macros. “Good” can also refer to a much-loved family recipe, appealing smells and textures, a filling portion, or a meal that’s fast to prepare.
Here’s another common example. While we often read the word “real” to mean a food isn’t processed, the truth is, even the most processed, lab-made food is, well, real. And the truth is that when diet culture tells us only certain foods are “real” or “good,” there’s a whole of classism and ableism wrapped up in those ideas. Whether you make your French fries from scratch or they come frozen from a tray, the food is still real. And what you choose should be a choice based on what works for you, not what a diet influencer tries to shame you into.
What we eat does not make us good or bad people. Food can be one reflection of our values—vegetarianism or veganism, for example, or buying from local vendors or small businesses. Food can also be an extension of other goals—if you’re training for a major athletic feat, you may prioritize some food choices over others. But no food is inherently good or bad, and eating (or not eating) something doesn’t change your integrity as a person.
And if you’re wrestling with the argument of, well, what about health? Here’s a study to chew on. One 2017 study suggests that perceived weight stigma actually poses a greater health risk than what people ate. The same study found that weight stigma poses an equal health risk to that connected with a lack of physical activity. So, yes. Weight stigma and fatphobia can be legitimately damaging to people’s health.
Want to eat holiday cookies? Go for it—and only use the word “indulge” if it speaks to you with warmth. We’re surviving a literal pandemic. If there’s a time to be kinder to ourselves and drop the diet culture pressures, it’s now.
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