Fake Food Science Is Everywhere. These Influencers are Trying to Stop It.
But here’s the thing. Most of those diets, nutritionists say, are pseudoscience at best.
“I see a lot of it, and it’s really problematic,” said UK-based registered associate nutritionist Pixie Turner. “They’re not just selling the product, what they’re saying is ‘If you take the product, you can look like me too.’”
Turner is one of a handful of nutritionists who are using Instagram to directly debunk nutrition myths.
She’s anti-diet, and doesn’t believe in food restriction.
In a world obsessed with weight loss and “superfoods,” that philosophy can sound radical.
“We’ve managed to survive for thousands of years without calorie counters,” she said. “Our bodies are definitely able to know how much food we need.”
Health, not weight
As Turner points out, part of the reason she’s anti-diet is because studies have shown diets don’t work long-term.
That’s something New York-based dietician Alissa Rumsey was seeing with her clients years ago, when she ran programs focusing on their weight loss.
Her clients would lose the weight. But they’d come back a year later, feeling like they had failed for gaining it back again.
Today, Rumsey follows a health-at-every size approach as a nutrition therapist and certified intuitive eating counselor.
“We live in this culture where the diet industry is an over $60 billion industry,” Rumsey said. “And they have a lot riding on people believing that they need to lose weight.”
Her instagram feed pits the problematic idea of "self-control" against self-care: “I have to eat vegetables at every meal” vs. “vegetables provide me with the nutrients my body needs.”
The term intuitive eating was first coined in the mid-1990s by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It’s really about tuning into your body rather than looking for external cues about what you should eat.
That means not thinking about whether you should eat something, but thinking about whether you actually want to eat it.
“Really trying to pay more attention to what hunger feels like, and eating more when you’re hungry,” Rumsey said.
Culture of restriction
That can be unnatural when you’re constantly surrounded with images of what food is considered “clean” (an avocado, kale, protein shakes, eggs, grilled chicken) and food that isn’t (pizza, any carb).
The idea of dieting, labeling foods “good” and “bad,” has been around for hundreds of years.
The first fad diet, invented in the 19th century, was called the Banting, which emphasized fat and minimized carbohydrates. In the 1990s, people called that the Atkins diet. Today, many people follow a “Keto” diet, also low carb and high fat.
In between, there have been many others, claiming fat is good, then bad. That we should eat like cavemen. That we shouldn’t even cook food at all.
“There is a lot of fear mongering that is happening around food,” said Anna Sweeney, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating counselor in Boston.
“Because of the fact that Google exists, there are many many people who are unqualified to speak about nutrition who are doing it.”
In other words, nothing makes Kim Kardashian a nutrition expert. But seeing her eating an appetite-suppressing lollipop on Instagram is enough to convince people that’s the only way to get a “perfect” body like hers.
As Sweeney points out, dieting and food restriction can also lead to disordered eating.
“Half of my clients developed eating disorders on the heels of either being put on diets or being told that their bodies are wrong at a young age,” she said.
Culture around dieting can also be restrictive when it comes to the foods that are considered “allowed” or healthy. That can give people a warped sense of the foods they’re used to eating, especially when it doesn’t fit that mold.
Toronto-based registered dietician Nazima Qureshi tries to dispel that misinformation for her clients and her Instagram followers, many of whom are Muslim women.
“Not everyone is going to want to be eating grilled chicken and salad,” she said. “Even if there’s good nutrition information, it’s not from a cultural lens. So it’s not really giving solutions other people can follow.”
She sees herself as a positive role model who can help her clients incorporate the foods they grew up with into their daily life. And validating that those foods are good choices.
“The thing that’s most important is having a healthy relationship with food,” she said.
How to start
If you’re finding you need a change in the way you look at food and dieting, you can start right away by clearing out your social media feed, Rumsey said. Unfollow accounts that peddle fad diets and before-and-after photos.
The intuitive eating and health at every size movements are growing, and there are books and podcasts you can check out to see if they're a good fit for you.
When Rumsey changed her own way of thinking, she saw a change in her clients, too.
She had three clients return who she had worked with during her prior mindset on weight loss. She was upfront with them: this time around, she would not focus on weight.
“The first session the second time around, stuff came out... just because I was asking different questions, that were really impacting their beliefs about food and themselves and their body," she said. "So I immediately really saw that change, that shift in their perspective.”
Much of the belief with intuitive eating is something called habituation theory: that getting used to something makes it not as enticing anymore.
Take, for instance, chocolate. If you tell yourself you can have chocolate whenever you want after years of restricting it, you’re probably going to eat a lot of chocolate the first day.
But you’re probably not going to feel very good as a result. You’re also going to get bored with it.
“If that food is available all the time and you have constant access to it, it becomes normal food, and not this thing you have to have control about,” Turner said. “The end result is that you want it less because you’re not thinking about it all the time.”
Getting free from the weight of morality around food is the entire point. Life isn’t about celery juice.