In their January issue, Self magazine partnered with model and body positivity advocate Iskra Lawrence, who has been open about her experience with disordered eating and is a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorder Association.
There was one problem: The feature paired Lawrence’s commentary on acceptance and healthy eating with a calorie-restrictive meal plan. It was a move many ED advocates took issue with.
“I’m just surprised to see [a diet plan] coming from you as a body positive advocate,” Megan Crabbe, a body positive blogger, wrote in an open letter to Lawrence following the publication.
“Your work promoting ED recovery reaches millions, and so many of the people who are currently struggling with an eating disorder see you as the ultimate inspiration to fight their way out,” she continued. “You have a lot of influence over some very impressionable people, and what you’ve given them, quite frankly, is poison.”
Self apologized and swiftly removed the meal plan to leave only the workouts. Lawrence also released a statement to her 2.9 million Instagram followers:
“I don’t believe in diets, haven’t controlled my food since recovery, and would never mean to advocate for them,” Lawrence wrote.
The glossy is hardly alone ― Resolutions focused on diet and fitness are wildly popular and, as a result, health-focused publications almost universally offer plans each January that cater to those goals, with headlines promising stories that will help you “kickstart” your diet.
But there is often a darker side to this messaging: According to experts, the meal plans so often found in lifestyle magazines and on health blogs in the new year can be confining, time-consuming and fundamentally unsustainable. They can also be dangerous triggers for those with eating disorders.
“I would encourage anyone ― regardless of eating disorder vulnerability ― to avoid following those types of plans and to avoid reading about them,” Jennifer E. Wildes, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Chicago, told The Huffington Post.
The problem with ‘New Year, New You’ diet plans
The number of calories a person needs per day varies by age, sex and activity level, and whether he or she looks to gain, lose or maintain weight. In other words, a person’s diet is far from one size fits all. Yet, in most cases, “New Year, New You” diet strategies tend to ignore that, Wildes says. Or there is only one strategy at play: To lose weight.
This particularly includes one element some of those plans like to drive home: The idea that “clean eating” is the ultimate diet. The focus on “kickstarting” good nutritional habits by eating a diet free of all processed foods is misguided, Wildes explains. Different people require different things, so this blanketed guideline may set someone up for failure.
Self magazine’s meal plan is a prime example of a clean food diet: Breakfast was a green smoothie. Lunch was a salad composed of vegetables, lentils and tahini dressing. Dinner was a black bean burger which suggests portobello mushrooms in lieu of a classic hamburger bun. The whole day’s worth of meals totaled approximately 1,600 calories, according to the printed version of the plan.
More importantly though, a ‘clean food diet’ presents two separate problems: The language used and the actual advice delivered. Eating disorder experts usually bristle at the word ‘clean’ in connection to eating because it inherently makes other more indulgent food sound ‘dirty’ which can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder vulnerability.
The glossy never used the word ‘clean’ in their piece, but the meal plan they suggested still sent the insidious ‘clean eating’ message – that you should strive to eat a diet 100 percent free from processed food. To be clear, eating this way is fine if that’s what you prefer, according to Wildes, but it’s not necessary to maintain a healthy body weight or lose weight. And for people who’ve experience disordered eating, it’s damaging. This type of diet can also be impractical for a busy person since meal plans like this require dedication and time spent meal prepping days in advance.
“Unless you are someone who genuinely likes to eat these foods, and some people do, the likelihood that you are going to be able to follow a diet like that in a long-term sense is not great,” Wildes said.
Of course, as Self’s and other diet plans suggest, there are some foods that we should obviously eat more than others. However, restrictive food recommendations based on one nutritionist’s meal plan published in a publication often do not match government guidelines for a balanced diet, Wildes said.
This means that someone who follows this advice verbatim may not be following a nutritional plan that’s suitable or sustainable for them. This is particularly true for someone with disordered eating, who may be more vulnerable to messaging that suggests a healthy diet means a lower caloric intake. Eating disorders can manifest through a tendency to create rigid rules around eating.
Lawrence’s fanbase, largely comprised of those recovering from disordered eating, were led to Self and its corresponding diet challenge by her presence on the cover. But these meticulous plans can have a negative affect beyond that community.
“I think that these sort of restrictive diets are not particularly healthy for any of us because they’re almost impossible to follow,” Wildes explained.
Still need diet guidance? Here's what you can do instead
The most updated dietary guidelines suggest all Americans get their nutrients from a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy. Excess sugar and fat should be limited, not eliminated.
According to William H. Dietz, Chair of the Redstone Center for Prevention & Wellness at George Washington University, there is research that the Mediterranean diet may be useful, given its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, low-fat meat and fish. But nutrition science shows there’s no true diet that is the gold standard, he explained.
Additionally, many meal plans don’t take into account personal food sensitivities, which are critical in shaping a diet. The most important aspect in revamping your nutritional habits, Dietz says, is to choose a way of eating you can really live with.
“I think you want to get away from the perspective that ‘all I need to do is follow this diet for a month and I’ll be fine,’” Dietz told HuffPost. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables, has a good source of protein, reasonable source of dairy and whole grains is a good place to start. But you did not hear me say ‘free of processed foods.’”
Wildes and Dietz both said gripping onto a restrictive meal plan for one to two months might lead to shredded pounds, but the weight will typically come back. And research shows that weight cycling, also known as “yo-yo dieting,” usually leads to weight gain long term.
If you are looking at some of the New Year’s challenges, whether you’re vulnerable to disordered eating or not, Wildes says to pause and consider what you value most both physically and emotionally.
Because overall wellness is the whole point “New Year, New You,” anyway.