Christy Harrison Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Little, Brown Spark. 2019. Pp. 326. ISBN: 0316420352 (Hardback).
Janet Chrzan (University of Pennsylvania)
Intuitive Eating?? Really????
For the last few years, I’ve been reviewing popular American diets for an upcoming volume on fad diets. Diets are, as all are aware, extraordinarily popular in the United States, with roughly 50% of adults trying to lose weight at any given time period (according to the CDC) and approximately 30% actively ‘on a diet’, whatever that might mean. It’s clearly a national obsession, right up there with Flamin’ Hot Nacho Cheese Doritos and the Wing Bowl. This means, of course, that there is an endless and near-bottomless appetite for diet books, diet blogs, diet therapies, and diet gurus… and that a sure way to make money is to create a new diet (or something that looks like a new diet), become a diet blogger and lifestyle advocate, write a peppy easy-to-read volume about your diet’s wondrous efficacy, get interviewed by Oprah, Gwyneth, and Dr. Phil and make time to go shopping for your new yacht.
A rational understanding of nutrition, human biology, or even food composition is not necessary for any of those ‘make-me-a-millionaire’ diet gurus.
Occasionally a diet book comes along written by someone who has studied nutrition at a good school, one known for the quality of its programming and faculty. Unlike, for instance, the ever-popular online programs for ‘certified sports nutritionists’ provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine or the ‘Online Holistic Nutritionist Specialist’ degree offered by the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts… and other similar for-profit degree mills. The book in question, Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, was written by Christy Harrison, who has experience in both food (she had been a writer for Gourmet Magazine) and nutrition, having completed the New York University’s RD/MPH dual degree (an excellent program to which this author has sent her own students for further training in public health nutrition). High hopes ensued for a rational, well-written and sensible book about the importance of forming habits promoting a balanced diet, with side notes on portion sizes and food frequencies for optimal dietary health. Alas.
The book is organized into two parts, the first being a description of what Harrison calls “diet culture” or “the Life Thief” and the second part designed to provide a personal and affirmation-based solution to the problem for those who have been victimized by diet culture. She defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health”” (Harrison, 2019: 7). At about this page the reader realizes that this isn’t a book about diets or food, it’s a self-help manual designed to make privileged dieters feel good about themselves by embracing and denouncing all the myriad ways they’ve been victimized by American culture.
Alas, there are no recipes or food plans. In fact, Harrison suggests that “no good scientific evidence exists that eating so-called ‘processed” (or “highly palatable”) food causes significant weight gain or poor health outcomes” (ibid: 48). She also maintains that getting rid of ‘disordered eating habits’ rather than modifying diet promotes health, although people with celiac might benefit from “making a few changes in how they eat” (ibid: 78; italics added). However, she also tells readers: “take diabetes, for example: diet culture makes people with this condition live in constant fear of carbohydrates, but these nutrients don’t need to be off limits at all – they just need to be understood. Yes, someone with diabetes might (italics added) have a blood-sugar spike from eating a carbs-only meal or snack – within their rights as an autonomous human being, if that’s what they want or need to do” (ibid: 231; italics added). While she then does explain (correctly) that including other macronutrients with carbs can blunt the rise of blood sugar, she also falsely claims that diabetics are told to avoid all starches due to a stigmatizing ‘diet culture’ that demonizes carbs. Of course this isn’t true; it’s virtually impossible to avoid carbs and any RD or medical doctor who treats diabetic patients will teach them to combine foods to ensure a diet that discourages insulin spikes. What these quotes demonstrate, instead, is Harrison’s primary rhetorical tool: she makes a misleading and dichotomizing statement-of-fact about a topic relating to food use or health and then asserts that the science is wrong and that ‘diet culture’ controls discourse and practice to victimize people (well, mostly women).
This strategy prevails throughout the volume – she describes a situation, makes a statement, provides a negation and takedown bolstered by carefully chosen (favorable and cherry-picked) references and a smattering of seemingly rational scientific evidence, and then presents a testimonial from either her own life, that of a patient, or of another ‘victim’ (usually another afflicted healer from the self-help industry) who reiterates the narrative trope of how diet culture constructed the problem. The problem is solved when the person stops doing what diet culture tells them to do, realizes their utter victimhood, and embraces a free expression of their inner, authentic self to forgo all food rules. Again and again she makes definitive, declarative and often misleading statements designed to support her agenda, such as “It simply is not evidence-based medicine to say that people “need to lose weight” for any health reasons, because we have no safe, sustainable method of producing weight loss” (ibid: 158; italics original to text). Clearly both ends of this sentence are untrue; some health problems do indeed benefit from weight reduction and we most certainly do know how to encourage healthy and safe weight loss.
This points out her problematic use of research materials and scientific studies to support her cause; too often she cites sources that don’t support her statements, occasionally cites a research report without providing a full citation or cites a magazine story as scientific evidence. Or she will cite a source or two about a topic, asserting that one or two published outliers demonstrate that most science is wrong – but ignoring the vast pile of research that better defines the scientific consensus. Her evisceration of how quantiles are used in scientific and epidemiologic studies is a good example (see pages 232-235). Another example is her citation-free negation of nutrition science research in a general statement that “animal studies cannot be extrapolated to humans; at best, they can alert researchers to areas for further scientific study on humans. These human studies, in turn, must be repeated multiple times with large groups of people in well-designed experiments (that is, in randomized, controlled, trials)” (ibid: 235). From this statement of misinformation (misinformed because many aspects of human nutrition can indeed be understood by study of analogous systems in appropriate animal models) she then explains that since most nutrition studies don’t follow that best-case-scenario research model they are not capable of providing accurate information, although her analysis is muddled through with chatty inconsistencies. She also assumes that the worst case scenario is the standard situation; for instance, that suggestions to ‘limit sugar’, are actually ‘eliminate sugar entirely and never eat it again’, which allows her to construct straw-man arguments against the scientific research about that topic. But what can we expect from someone who writes, apparently with absolute certainly and seriousness: “after the fall of Rome, the notion of body fat as a symptom to be cured went mostly underground for a long time” (ibid: 20). These are common rhetorical tactics used by diet gurus; many diet books are positively larded with declamations and citations that seem to incontrovertibly support the diet… yet digging into the cited reports reveals that the author often misstated the outcomes or findings of the studies.
The signs of a fad diet are well known; The Pennington Biomedical Research Group provides a concise description (see file:///C:/Users/Janet%20Chrzan/Dropbox%20(Blue%20Horseradish)/JAC/Documents/Articles%20and%20Books/PNS_Fad_Diets.pdf). From my research and reading, fad diet creators nearly always assert that their diet – and only their diet – works. First they tell you how your extra weight is hurting you, assert that health is only possible if you follow their diet and that it will prevent most known diseases, then they provide ample, often bogus information that proves that other diets and nutritionists in general are wrong, all designed to support their diet, to discredit other diets and most everyday food use as well. Only they have the answer, and it’s to follow what they say for success, perfect health, social acceptance and life-long well-being.
And perhaps not surprisingly, albeit amusingly, Harrison follows this structure almost perfectly. The chapters each focus on a topic within food culture, define how “diet culture” has corrupted the enjoyment of food, negates modern science about the diet, and then provides a testimonial about how someone overcame the cultural programming about the topic to get healthy and to accept herself. In the first section, chapter one provides a history of “diet culture”; chapter two a discussion of how modern diets cause you to be a victim of the wellness movement; chapter three a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming time sink; chapter four a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming money sink; chapter five is about how diet culture creates victims of all of us and destroys well-being and self-assurance by fat-shaming and stigma; and chapter six chronicles how being a victim of diet culture makes you unhappy. In the second section, chapter seven counsels the reader on how to set boundaries and escape from victimhood, and chapter eight asserts that we are all born intuitive eaters but diet culture causes us to be victims and to lose our capacity to know what we want to eat. Chapter nine tackles the tendency to label foods as good or bad as problematic, arguing that all food rules (even cultural ones) are inherently bad and cause victimization and that we should just eat what we want all the time. Chapter ten introduces the Healthy at Any Size movement, describes how being large is to be victimized, and is largely drawn from its website and educational materials; and chapter eleven tells the reader to find a community of other victims to join in victimhood to denounce people who might say something negative about fatness and being a victim and that dismantling diet culture will create social justice and equal rights for everyone. Do you perceive a pattern? I do.
I’d like to diagram her hypothesis and analysis. She has identified diet culture as the problem for almost all food-related issues, and links diet culture to a patriarchal, racist agenda designed to keep all women disempowered: “diet culture, it’s very much a system of oppression, with its roots in racist, sexist beliefs about food and bodies” (ibid: 49) and “in the twentieth century, being fat was seen as a sign of lower evolutionary status, as was failing or refusing to adhere to binary gender roles and beauty standards” (ibid: 33). The volume is littered with comments that dietary restraint of any sort is linked to victimization, and especially for people who belong to groups that have experienced profound discrimination in the United States such as people of color and members of the LBGQT community. But Harrison seems to equate the discrimination and inequalities experienced by those groups – real, life-altering and profoundly inhibiting – as similar and perhaps even equivalent to the projected discrimination experienced by those who follow diet culture. Not, I need to point out, only those who are indeed large bodied and who have experienced the real and deleterious inequalities resulting from fat phobia and stigma, but all people (women) who have ever gone on a diet or bought into the thin body ideal or been a food activist (chapter two) or simply wanted to fit into last year’s jeans again. In effect, any attempt to regulate what you eat makes you a victim of the most repressive forms of discrimination and socially engineered denigration, and equates the sufferings of women like the author – young, white, well-educated, middle class, entitled and able to follow their own form of ‘diet bliss’ – as equal to and equally deleterious as the discrimination suffered by truly oppressed peoples. To be a victim of diet culture is analogous to being a victim of white supremacist misogyny and racism, apparently (see pages 112 and 264 for examples of how she links and equalizes these forms of oppression). Really? It’s astonishing to think that victimology might allow privileged white women to decide they have it as bad as historically oppressed peoples.
If we take a metaphorical step back to examine the rhetoric and construction of this volume, the how and the why of her idée fixe becomes clear. The first part of this is tied to how and where she started her enquiry, the second to how she conducted her research, and the third to the original structure and purpose of the writing.
Her original interest in writing about diets were her own experiences with dieting, her perceptions and anxieties about body size, and her experience of disordered eating, as she makes clear in the introduction. She provides readers with story after story of her own problems; she even tells us that she entered the RD/MPH program at NYU because of diet culture, because she was so disordered in her eating and thinking that she thought it would solve the problem (see pages 113, 127, 131 etc.). She even includes her student loan debt as part of the ‘steals your money’ hypothesis of chapter four (ibid: 127). In effect, she’s decided she’s a victim because she had the opportunity to go to a very good school to study the topic she had a psychological problem about… But it’s clear from her writing that Harrison’s problem was deeply psychological rather than food-related; she had an eating disorder, or at least could have been diagnosed with disordered eating. She makes this clear in story after story about herself, but especially on pages 9, 10, 57 and 111 (in which she describes her recovery with the help of a good therapist). But she then states “I was finally able to recover from diet culture by giving up all forms of dieting” (ibid: 10) indicating that she considered her problem to be societal (diet culture) rather than psychological. She has projected the psychological onto culture, and determined that culture is ill, not the self. The problems are external, not internal or part of the self. She also implies that anyone who diets at all has an eating disorder… because of diet culture.
She then uses this projection of causality to frame her research. Almost all her testimonials and stories are from people who are either archetypical “afflicted healers” who have recovered from eating disorders or patients with eating disorders. In effect, she has globalized the psychological problem of an eating disorder into a rationale against all food rules and dietary behavior and assumed that anyone who alters their diet or is interested in wellness is a victim of a societal ill. Furthermore, those who are part of the food movement: “(Michael) Pollan, (Marion) Nestle, and their ilk” (ibid: 61; parentheses and first names added) are complicit in the oppression and victimization of others. Indeed, not only are they peddling a dangerous diet culture, they are racist oppressors: “The food movement also implies that if you eat what it deems to be the right foods, you’ll avoid “obesity” and end up thin, just like Pollan, Nestle, and other (overwhelmingly white) food-activist leaders. In this way the food-activist movement upholds white culture’s preference for thinness by equating it with the picture of health, and defines “real food” as the type preferred by white elites” (ibid: 61). Again and again she provides narratives of how someone with an eating disorder overcame it to eat whatever they wanted to get healthy, conflating a psychological problem with a cultural process and identifying the cause of the problem as outside the bodies and selves – and minds – of those with eating disorders. And of course, that’s true to some extent; without a cultural preference for thin bodies many eating disorders might not exist. But that does not allow one to declare that all people who change their food habits or are involved in any kind of healthy eating movement are victims of diet culture or psychologically damaged; nor that they are racist. Indeed, while food justice isn’t baked into every food activism process (yet), many people involved in the food movement are active precisely in order to promote food justice within communities of color… and food justice often means food-secure access to foods she labels white and elite such as fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods that people from disadvantaged communities want just as much as the privileged. Not everyone who works in food is an oppressor, nor is everyone who changes their diet a victim. But that she clearly thinks that everyone should read her book is obvious: “in our society at this moment in history, it’s basically impossible not to fall into diet culture’s clutches at some point. As you’ll see later chapters, however, it is possible to extricate yourself and move beyond it” (ibid: 73). Yep, everyone is a victim and everyone has an eating disorder constructed, created and controlled by “diet culture”. Which only she can fix.
Third, the logical inconsistencies of the interlocking arguments have been amplified by the rhetorical structure of her original writings. Christy Harrison was, and is, a food blogger… and the chapters reveal that genesis. The chapters are organized thematically but do seem to be constructed of re-worked previous posts, with internal subcategories that tackle individualized issues. They have then been grouped into themes and strung together. OK, not a crime – and not the first time a blogger has written a book using previous material. Furthermore, the strongly declarative statements (often false or misleading) are precisely the kind of attention-getting rants that generate eyeballs on a blog page and for a podcast. She employs – and frequently, often two or three times per paragraph – the use of quotations around a word or concept to indicate the she deems it false. She is clearly telling her readers exactly what’s wrong with the world that she’s trying to fix – and its “food activism”, “real food”, “better choices” and “watch what they eat” among many other concepts. It’s a clear tell (my italics!) of intent and a furthering of the strategy to criticize everyone else while arguing for her solutions. Her need to denounce any idea that she deems a part of diet culture causes her to attack scientific protocols and principles as faulty. She refutes how research is done and often misstates or misunderstands research outcomes. For instance, her discussion about how weight stigma causes allostatic stress ignores other stress-causing variables that play a role in an overall stress response. Instead she assumed that the health outcomes associated with allostatic loads are due entirely to weight stigma, rather than to stressors known to cause weight gain, such as lack of sleep and high anxiety (ibid: 137-140). It’s an effective strategy if your only analytical tool is to bash every nail with a hammer, but not always an effective explanation of scientific findings. What passes easily in a blog post might not make it past a peer reviewer, and much of this volume would not stand up to any kind of careful review.
Ah, solutions. And here is the big problem. There aren’t really any beyond self-acceptance and a description of the Health at Every Size platform. In fact, by chapter two I was wondering if the food industry had paid her to write this book, after reading statements such as: “the movement’s anti-food industry sentiment has distracted people from the fact that, by and large, food activists have built their case for changing the food system on a foundation of weight stigma, which directly benefits the weight-loss industry and harms everyday people, particularly those in larger bodies.” She then attacks Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle before declaring “The food movement considers itself socially progressive yet it unintentionally upholds an outmoded, racist, oppressive view of bodies by accepting and repeating “obesity epidemic” rhetoric and blaming particular foods for supposedly making people fat” (Ibid: 59). She repeatedly tells people to eat whatever they want, including cravings such as cupcakes, brownies and other high-sugar foods, even if diabetic (see pages 225-236). Indeed, her discussions about the need for individualized autonomy and choice-making uphold a rigidly neoliberal, consumption-oriented construction of the self (see page 172). Another tactic is to mislead readers about what a word really means or how it is used to dismiss practices she equates with diet culture: “speaking of chemicals, they get a bad rap under the Wellness Diet, but your body is 100 percent chemicals… and you’d die without them” (ibid: 104). Besides, “arguments about how the food industry or the ‘standard American diet’ is purportedly creating an ‘obesity epidemic’ are intertwined with racist and classist beliefs… and that’s to say nothing of the fact that pointing fingers at the food industry conveniently deflects attention from diet culture, which deserves a lot more scrutiny than it gets in the food-activist movement” (ibid: 55). So the solution is to accept yourself and eat twinkies, because anyone arguing for systemic change in the food system is racist and attacking the wrong causes, and the food industry is not the reason anyone has gained weight. I suspect this might make people feel even more disempowered than before.
Harrison is right about many issues, of course. She ably describes why and how diets cause rebound weight gain and is correct that many diet protocols are biased in favor of the thin, white, young body. And far too many of the foods deemed healthy at any given point in time are indeed precisely the foods that the elite and privileged prefer and eat (hello Keto and Paleodiet, I’m talking about you). She’s right to link 20th century racism to notions of the ideal body – and does indeed credit Helen Zoe Veit’s outstanding research for making that clear (Veit, 2013: Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press. Many of the messages about body acceptance and accepting the self are indeed valuable, and important to the creation of a healthy diet and relationship with food. She’s absolutely right to encourage people to explore the HAES protocols and to learn how to eat a diet framed by internal controls. The problem is that she has fallen into the trap of almost all diet gurus: she relies on attacking others’ work and concepts as a rhetorical strategy to improve the appeal of her own ideas. Rather than explore the content and context of her construct ‘diet culture’, she assumes that everyone in food advocacy is complicit in oppression and denounces their work as part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. And perhaps because, fundamentally, she has no solution – her constructed creation ‘diet culture’ is too large and too structurally messy and embedded to be changed through the efforts of the neoliberal individual. And because she refuses to honor the work of others, she is incapable of participating within a mutually respectful community of change. Or maybe she really was paid by the food industry to write this book.
Why did I bother writing about this book? Well, because I think it’s very typical of the diet/nutrition writing that’s available to the general public and which explains so much of the confusion about dietary advice. Overall, this book misleads the reader about diet and health, and especially about science and behavior. Yet to the average, untrained-in-biology reader this book might sound knowing and wise, because there are lots of nutrition science words, references, and positive testimonials. Of course, that the average reader might not realize that the references aren’t always appropriate is a problem and supports the need for a good reviewer and a good editor. But this is not a peer-reviewed volume and thus those services weren’t provided (ahem, see cited sentence about Rome above…). One of the central questions that I have been asking myself as I write about diet fads is how to effectively convey good information to a public yearning for explanations without being condescending or dismissive of the ‘alternate facts’ that comprise too much of the understanding of nutrition processes. I’m still not sure how to do that but I know that all of us in food do need to speak up when we encounter truly bad advice and information. Almost every conversation I have with people about their diets makes clear how much they seek accurate advice and too often can’t rely on what they read and hear.
For alternative readings that cover these topics in far more accurate and positive (and do-able) ways, I suggest Finally Full, Finally Slim by Lisa R. Young, and How Not to Diet by Michael Greger. Both provide excellent protocols for establishing personal habits that guarantee healthy weight maintenance – at any size. For on-target discussions of oppression, fat stigma, and feminism, I suggest the fiercely intelligent and brilliantly funny Lindy West, particularly The Witches are Coming and Shrill; her columns for the Guardian and the New York Times are also superbly well-written and cogent: http://www.lindywest.net/columns.
Veit, Helen Zoe (2013) Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.