Debunking Diet Culture
by WSNXT Team·
Written By Jade Scott
Diet. That four-letter word that quite literally steals the joy from food. It appears, most prominently, at the start of a new year, then is peppered throughout our calendars, inviting us to be ‘beach ready’ or ‘body confident’, instigating a fevered round of subscribing to programs for promised results. It is frustratingly timed, full of mixed messages and ultimately, not very helpful for the majority of people who seek out a solution to their approach to food and nutrition.
For years we’ve been bombarded with quick-fix options that exist in the realm of dieting; convincing consumers to change eating habits, eliminate whole food groups and prescribe to restrictive and sometimes dangerous methods, all in the name of quick results.
Public figure, actress and self-proclaimed ‘feminist-in-progress’, Jameela Jamil, regularly takes to her social platform to cast light on and break down the toxic messaging that dieting, shake brands and sometimes, celeb culture itself, can promote. It’s unhealthy, to say the least, and the language, mantras and entire premise is built on making you feel bad about yourself, not good. No thanks, you might say, but its power is undeniable and people still find themselves being captured as a statistic by these clever marketing tools. In a world that changes at a rapid pace, speed is everything and quick fixes have their megaphones turned up to max.
Jamil, along with her platform @I_weigh, which works hard to nurture and amplify ‘radical inclusivity’ so that people do not feel alone, has been a force of openness and honesty in the arena of diet culture and body image, and the dangers it presents to miss-informed consumers. And yet, we still recognize in daily life a problem that is manifested and festers based on the ideals surrounding achieving perfection.
Fear of gaining weight and fear of being judged for said weight gain or loss, has added up to some unhealthy habits that we carry with us and no more so than in our eating habits.
Image courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Pexels
To Diet Or Not To Diet, That Is No Longer The Question
Emily Hochman, CEO and Founder, nutrition app, Wellory, was one such person, back in her college days, whose fixation on weight control resulted in a drastic diagnosis. “When I was in college I dieted like crazy. I was terrified of gaining the ‘freshman 15’ so I did what mass media told me to do, which was to go on a diet. Now, I’m a type-A personality, an ENTJ, which means that when I do something, I do it 150%. What that meant was that I tried every different diet under the sun. You name it, I’ve tried it.”
This is not an unfamiliar story, and the results aren’t uncommon either, “I ended up with none of the ‘guaranteed’ results that diets promise you and actually ended up very sick. The doctors told me I had, not just one, but a handful of chronic illnesses. The advice was ‘don’t worry, we see this in 1 in 10 women, just take this medication, you’ll be fine’... I was convinced there had to be a better way.”
Buoyed by a mission to try and reverse the negative effects of so much dieting, Emily set about working out how to cure herself. “I knew, pretty intuitively, that I had changed my habits over the four years, based on diets, so I was really keen on figuring out how to reverse this diet. What is the anti-diet? I ended up enrolling at the Institute for Integrated Nutrition and became a certified health coach. I studied over 100 different dietary theories and learned the art and principle called Bio-Individuality, which means one person's food is another person’s poison. Through that experience, I was able to cure myself of the chronic illnesses I had been diagnosed with.”
Education and understanding our nutritional needs on a personal level became Emily’s focus. “Diets don’t work. Well, for me they definitely didn’t work... Once I started understanding how to eat healthily and worked on my own relationship with food, I then started to look at the greater National landscape. What I found was that, specifically in the USA, we’re really struggling.
“Over 160 million Americans (nearly half the entire population) struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food. 45 million Americans go on a diet every single year and fail. If I was able to cure myself of disease and really figure out how to have that healthy food relationship, through having an expert there, how could we actually help the hundreds of millions of Americans get access to health coaches, nutritionists and dietitians so that we can build away from this’ diet culture’ and focus on building personalized plans that are tailored towards individuals and their health goals.”
Ambitious? Yes. Needed? Absolutely. The entrepreneurs in the room would most certainly agree that the crux of what they do is based on locating a problem and working like crazy to solve it, often from a personal standpoint. For Emily, that was nutrition for the masses, in a personalized format, that solved the problem of unsustainable dieting. This is the anti-diet.
Emily knew instinctively that what was needed had to be part resource and part education, for clients looking to shift their relationship with food. “When I started to assess the problem I considered who could actually help solve the issue. I talked to other health coaches, nutritionists and dietitians, and found that the expert side of the industry was also struggling; lacking innovation, lacking technology and lacking tools that could really help, so I became obsessed with the idea of how we connect these two people; experts and consumers.
“There was nothing out there to enable this connection. I considered, what the brand is that could actually change the conversation, and how to put personalized dieting health at the forefront of every conversation. Finally, where is the technology that will allow us to do this at scale? With that hypothesis, I quit my job (I was working at a tech company in New York) and I started building Wellory.”
The Birth of a Nutritional Mindset
Wellory was born in early 2019. An app that pairs you and your goals with a nutritionist who works quite intimately with you to establish goals and a method that suits, not only your dietary needs but personality too. Food and the way we eat is deeply rooted in who we are as people so a one-size-fits-all approach was not going to work.
“When you start building a business, you have to understand what the problem is that you’re solving and does it already exist? The only companies that existed at the time that I found were weight loss companies, “sign up here to lose 30lbs” “lose weight fast” - very targeted, very antiquated messaging. Or, very tailored on weight loss fast or exercise fast. Both of those things are great, exercise is fantastic, weight loss is a problem to solve, what I thought consumers definitely needed was something that tailored towards someone who is seeking out a healthy relationship with food. Once you start eating more healthily (which we’ll approach in a more emotional way), the rest will follow; you’ll hit your exercise goals and, by the way, your skin will clear up, you’ll feel more energized, you’ll end up sleeping better too.”
Emily admits that the company’s first product was super scrappy but it was also smart and connective, “They say in product building if you’re not completely embarrassed by your first product then you’ve waited way too long! Our product was comical, but we had this hypothesis that the best way to connect consumers and experts in this digital age is all via messaging. It’s a great way of communicating.”
The notion that to have a nutritionist you have to be physically connected is somewhat out of date (especially now) so, instead of an offline, in-person experience, Emily channelled a more valuable online experience, where help is always at hand.
In a time where we recognize and understand so much more about mental health and how our physical lives play into the benefits of mental wellness, accessibility is a smart move. It means that help is at a touch of a keypad, which is a comforting thought, offering support and guidance every step of the way.
The route to good nutrition, on a personal level, is not a standard formula, but an individualized progression over time and Wellory is empowering people with the ownership of their own education in nutrition and development of new eating patterns and habits to sustain them. “Our network of certified health coaches, nutritionists and registered dietitians is over 675 and growing daily.”
It’s reassuring to know that there is such a wealth of health coaches and nutritionists on hand, particularly because physical health and the mental well being associated with diet culture is such a personal experience and there are so many personality types to consider.
“When a new customer signs up they fill in a profile and answer different questions about themselves within three sections; demographic information, what we call your nutrition profile (what are your goals? How often are you eating etc..) and then your communication preferences; do you want someone who is direct and to the point or do you want someone who is a motivator, a cheerleader? Based on that information we have an algorithm that matches them to the right nutrition coach and will help them hit their goals.”
Unsurprisingly, the majority of consumers affected by clever diet marketing and promotion are women and this is reflected in Wellory’s core customer base at the moment, “80% of our users are female, and they’re in the 29-50 age range, working professionals, most are working moms. For them, Wellory becomes an opportunity to do something for themselves. Usually seen doing 112 things for others, their family, their co-workers etc.. for the first time, this woman feels like she has the support but also the accountability, the guidance and the hug she needs to feel really good in her own skin.”
Keeping access to nutrition as simple as possible is another hurdle that the industry struggles to overcome. So much of what we’re told is a simple, quick and effective guide can often feel laborious, isolating at times and ineffective when faced with it alone. A mindful approach to nutrition, where there is help at every turn, bolsters you to continue with your progress and strive for those milestones.
At the start of 2020 KETO was ranked one of the worst diets by US News & World, and yet, it remains one of the most popular among consumers. Jamil’s recent post urging her followers to read up and educate on the risks associated with the diet shows just how quickly food-related ‘trends’ can enter our psyche. Any diet that extols the virtues of cutting food groups (Keto is famously very low carb) is putting your body under strain and there have been reports of it being misunderstood and misused. There is research to support that it has helped with certain types of drug-resistant epilepsy, but for those seeking to lose pounds, it is not necessarily recommended. Speaking in a recent video published by Plant Based News on its YouTube channel, Robert Ostfeld, MD. MSc, Director of Preventive Cardiology at Montefiore Health System and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said that "The keto diet, I believe, is based on misinformation”.
This being said, we still buy into and believe the loudest and most flashy of diets that promise results, and this is damaging, both to our mental and physical health.
At Wellory, the emphasis is entirely different. An open dialogue with a certified professional and steady monitoring and adjusting of your nutritional plan and goals, is designed to bring about change in the long-term.
Emily supports the honesty of photo-sharing to keep on track with your goals, “You can download the app, create a profile, get matched up with a nutrition coach and then from there you land in our in-app messenger. You’re prompted to take a picture of everything you eat and share with your coach, and then, after five days of photo sharing, we build a personalized plan, based on a meal by meal approach. So we help to build a breakfast habit, a lunch habit, a dinner habit, dessert, snack, wellness etc. And we also set weekly goal-keeping exercises so that we’re keeping our clients on track and actually building sustainable habits.”
Putting the onus on the user requires a level of honesty, teaching about commitments, ownership of your own relationship with food and, your relationship with your nutritionist.
“The power in that is that is where the change happens. The problem with dieting is you’re out there alone, doing something by yourself on an island, and that’s really hard. No one is keeping you accountable or encouraging you to make positive change. We’re actually a behavior change platform; it’s in those special moments that the change happens, where the insight happens and the self-awareness. That’s the power of what we’re doing.”
Empowering You: She Stopped Dieting for Herself and Others
More than designing an app, Emily and her team are invested in the health and wellbeing of Americans and the mission does not stop there, “We have some pretty big ambitions. We want to help as many people as possible build better habits, we want to become a company that is one of the best companies to work at in the world and I feel that we’re on a mission to building both of those things. I’m pretty proud of that."
On the subject of innovation and entrepreneurship, there is power in the small team mantra and something that Emily firmly believes in, “I actually think that there is a big difference between men and women founders [in this respect]. Women really know how to operate cross-functionally, they know how to operate in a pretty lean way and can take on a lot. This is a very generalized viewpoint but I do think that there are a lot of companies that scale teams too quickly and I don’t think that happens with as many female founders.”
Nutrition is a huge industry and challenging when you’re attempting to shift the conversation, “Very few companies today have actually focused on how to give access to nutrition education and support. A lot of companies put the onus on how to become a weight-loss company or how to build a product - meal delivery or frozen foods. For us, we’re focused on nutritional behavior change. How to help people have a healthy relationship with food, helping to educate on what to eat, how to eat and why.”
As the month of January continues apace with diet 'solutions' and confusing messaging, it is encouraging to know that there are people, like Emily, whose sole focus is to break the chain of unsustainable dieting and throw wide open the window of nutritional education and a mindful approach to what we eat and why.