I once relapsed back into disordered eating after getting a facial. I was seeing an esthetician for adult acne, a problem that had been plaguing me for years.
“Don’t eat tomatoes or any nightshades,” she told me at our first appointment. “And give up dairy.” This, according to her, would solve my problem.
What the esthetician didn’t know is that I had already tried giving up dairy. Multiple times. I had also given up gluten, sugar, nightshades, caffeine, soy, corn, some fruits, all grains, and more. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes all at once. I had given them up for reasons like acne, but also because of my deep-seated — and disordered — belief that I could be good or bad depending on what foods I ate.
By that time, I had already been in and out of two different therapist’s offices in an attempt to cure my years-long disordered eating, an issue I now know is called Orthorexia, and one the esthetician had just sent me spiraling toward again.
I had planned to make myself a pizza that night (with tomatoes and cheese, among other things), but spent the entire drive home trying to figure out what else I could eat. When I got home, I paced my condo for a good hour, folded laundry, cleaned the litter box, and did whatever I could to get the anxiety in my body to go away.
It didn’t go away. After more deliberation, I went ahead with the pizza, but by that time, my stomach had become a solid rock — one that would reject anything I put in it, “clean” or not. I ate the pizza, but I thought and worried about every single bite. I cried, because why couldn’t I be stronger? I cried some more, because when was I going to be free of this? When was I going to stop being afraid of food?
By afraid, I mean physically terrified to swallow certain kinds of food. While I did and do worry about gaining weight in a culture that is fat-phobic, my fear mostly had, and sometimes still, has to do with cleanliness. Any food that is considered “dirty” by holistic health practitioners and the “wellness” community — wheat, corn, soy, dairy, meat, sugar, caffeine, or anything processed — has the potential to contaminate me.
If I’m not eating 100% “clean,” (basically only vegetables) then I believe that on the inside I’m dirty. That my organs won’t function properly. That my muscles won’t work to their optimal ability. That my mind won’t be its sharpest and my emotions won’t be their steadiest. And all of it will show up on my face — as redness, as acne. There’s a lot to unpack there, I know. It has roots in my Catholic upbringing, in diet culture, in a number of other things that I’m still working through with my third therapist.
More people than any of us realize are walking around in the precarious grip of diet culture.
But my point isn’t to unpack it here. Rather, I have a plea. If you are a practitioner or influencer of any kind — a massage therapist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, an energy worker, a yoga teacher — if you are anything except a trained dietician (and, I would argue, a non-diet dietician)—please, please, please, stop giving advice about what people should eat or drink.
More people than any of us realize are walking around in the precarious grip of diet culture. It’s almost impossible not to be, with messages of what to eat or what not to eat assaulting us every day, from every angle. I get diet messages on Twitter, at the office, on the radio, on TV, in a casual lunch conversation with colleagues, and from influencers, writers, musicians, and actors.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words “keto” or “Whole 30” while going about my day I would be writing this from the villa I purchased in Mexico. I’ve stopped following some of my favorite yoga teachers and others on social media because of their proclamations about eating a vegan diet or their daily check-ins about going gluten-free.
But it’s not only food. On more than one occasion a practitioner I see regularly has told me to have a glass wine when I get home. And she’s not the only one. Everyone, it seems, wants me to have a drink.
I get it. I am high-strung. I struggle with anxiety. Those who have worked on my body through acupuncture, massage, or yoga adjustments have felt the tightness that lives there. Yes, I need to relax. But that’s why I’ve come to these professionals. And when they send me off with a prescription to drink my worries away, it isn’t helpful. Part of the reason my body is tight is that I spent decades doing everything I could to not feel anything. I come to the holistic professionals to help me release the tension, anxiety, and emotions, not bury them further.
I’m not saying it’s anyone’s responsibility to tip-toe around me and my issues. I know that most practitioners bring these suggestions forward in an effort to help. If they knew I was sober, or in recovery from disordered eating, they might watch what they say. I also know that if I am triggered by something someone says, then it is my responsibility to recognize that and to pull out my toolbox and get to work on dealing with it.
The only thing we know for sure is that every body is different, and it’s not possible to make blanket statements about any one thing for any one person.
But I still think we can all do better with awareness. We can all think about which parts of ourselves we are speaking from when we speak. I know very little about quantum physics, or human anatomy, so in general, I don’t spend my time at my day job talking about them as if I do. I’m asking practitioners to do the same. Have you done the research and discovered definitively that gluten is bad for people? Or that dairy is? Or that one glass of red wine a day is good for people? Have you run scientific experiments or gone to school to study nutrition? Have you found irrefutable evidence for your position, whatever your position is?
You haven’t. I know you haven’t because there is no irrefutable evidence (unless you have Celiac disease). Some studies say gluten is bad. Others say it’s harmless. Some say a glass of red wine is good for heart, others say any alcohol causes cancer. The only thing we know for sure is that every body is different, and it’s not possible to make blanket statements about any one thing for any one person. And doing so can cause harm.
Now, I am far enough along in my recovery to recognize the B.S. I know when to check the science on a claim or when to dismiss someone’s advice to go dairy-free. But that hasn’t always been the case. And it’s not the case for millions of others struggling with the same issues. If practitioners aim to help us heal, they can do a better job of this if they stick to their training.