My Experience With Diet Culture
Hi friends, I’m Chloe- Personal Trainer and Assistant Manager at The Gym Group, Leeds city centre. As somebody who entered the industry at a young age, it is safe to say that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and have many “cringe” moments from my early years in the industry. Ultimately, my experiences, years of educating myself and the professional relationships I’ve built have led me to how I conduct my business today. I’d like to share my experience with diet-culture in fitness, albeit, a little self indulgent, in the hopes to help those who do not feel “Inspired” by certain narratives in fitness…
A bit about me…
I entered the fitness industry as a PT at 19 years old, having previously been training and auditioning for drama school. I finally got accepted into a university in Surrey however I declined the offer. I had been battling poor mental health and a very disordered relationship with food and exercise and was not ready to relocate so far from my family and loved ones. Once my relationship with fitness and food has somewhat improved, I realised that the prospect of helping other people be a healthier version of themselves was something that excited me. I wanted to be personal trainer. Honestly, although when I entered the industry my relationship with food and exercise was much “healthier”, I was still heavily involved in what we these days call “Diet Culture”.
What is Diet Culture?
Now, there isn’t a set definition of what Diet Culture is, so here is what I would consider diet culture to be;
“The belief that appearance and thinness are valued over physical and psychological well-being”.
You may agree or disagree and it's definitely a conversation I am happy to have.
Here are just a few examples of diet culture in every day life;
⁃ Labelling foods as good or bad.
⁃ The concept of earning food after a work out
⁃ “Clean eating” (the term)
⁃ Feeling guilt and shame for eating “unhealthy” food.
I was still very much aware of what my body looked like, I tried to change it even though I assumed I was healthy as I was eating more (oh the naivety…) I was still so fixated 24/7 with the way I looked and performed, to the point I was constantly burned out from my unhelpful “perfectionism” which led me to miss out on a lot of social occasions and events. But nobody knew this because on the outside I was “dedicated” and fulfilling my role as a fitness professional.
It stands true that the behaviours in which I partook were not healthy to me at the time. I define healthiness as being both physically well but also mentally and at the time, I was not. I was over exercising and under recovering. There was no balance in my life at that time which I later found out was important if I wanted to look after my health and live a happy life.
Could this narrative be pushing people away from fitness rather than encourage them into it?
The unrealistic expectations of what it takes to be a person who is into fitness, or for somebody to be a healthy individual can be so off-putting and inaccessible, that it creates negative connotations around exercise and health, thus forming the belief that we just aren’t cut out to exercise or look after our bodies… some like to call it “The all or nothing mindset”.
Having a low body fat percentage and being healthy are not synonymous with one another or at least should NOT be a statement pushed on all individuals. There are so many aspects to our health that are important. We simply cannot assume one’s healthiness on body fat percentage alone. In fact, having body fat percentage so low can cause adverse health effects, such as loss of period (Amenorrhea), loss of bone density, fatigue, inability to concentrate, loss of libido and other symptoms. I’m not saying this is everybody’s experience, as I can only really talk about my own and of course, there are other factors that can cause the above to happen.
Don’t some individuals need to lose weight to be healthy?
It may be that an individual who partakes in activities that improve their health and wellbeing does in fact conclude in weight loss. This is not always a universal experience, so marketing weight loss to all individuals could be unhelpful. The healthy behaviours that an individual had partaken in may not result in the same body if somebody else did exactly the same. This is why personal trainers, dieticians, nutritionists and other health professionals have a duty of care to ensure what they are advising is NOT a cookie cutter approach.
A life that aligns with your values
“There must be more to life than changing the way I look”. My breaking point was when I started to face other issues in my life. Balancing these life-problems alongside battling my desire to “Fit in with the fitness industry” was too much and I couldn’t cope.
I wasn’t living a life in line with my core values. Some of my core values include;
1. Family, friends and loved ones
Having low energy, and trying to “Keep up appearances” meant I wasn’t meeting my core values which led me to feel particularly unhappy.
Constant thoughts around ones self and how one looks cannot ever truly make somebody happy (perhaps a subjective statement but this seems to be true to the majority of people I have worked with over the last 8 years).
My lack of energy and mental clarity meant I could not give my friends, family and community the energy I desired. I was not honest about how I was feeling. Although I had goals at the time, they did not allow me to harness energy into my other values.
My values were not harmonious with one other.
I am a competitive individual. I love challenging my limits, learning new skills and feeling uncomfortable. I believe you can challenge your limits and fulfil your inner competitor by getting involved in new and challenging forms of movement without it negatively impacting your life and health.
Perhaps a controversial statement but I do think it is ok to do uncomfortable things. I do not believe that every activity we should do will feel “joyful”. Deadlifting 100kg and spinning does not feel joyful in the movement but my intentions behind those activities are positive ones. However I do think we should have the ability to understand ourselves enough to know when moving “joyfully”, partaking in low intensity exercise or even taking time off to rest is necessary for us to not only be healthy, but to attain our goals.
I train for mental focus and to see improvements in lifts, but I can also comfortably accept that other aspects of my life need tending to. I can also comfortably accept weight gain without tying any value to it. To me, I have struck the perfect balance. I am still passionate about health and fitness, but I also know what my other values in life are and will make time for all of them. I now have the time and energy to put effort into important relationships and my community. I now feel like I can be honest about how I feel and talk about my experience in the hopes to help others who felt like me. I can set goals based not only in fitness but also life-oriented goals that involve my loved ones and my career prospects.
Do you work with clients who want to lose weight?
In short, the answer is “it depends”. During my consultation process I find out why it is the individual desires fat loss. Usually, the response is followed by something like “I want to be healthy, live longer and be fitter”. In this case, I suggest we implement behaviours that will encourage the individual to partake in more physical activity, introduce or add more food groups throughout the day, improve their sleep hygiene and to monitor stress. Often, the individuals come to realise this is what they want to prioritise and they come to the conclusion that although challenging, the journey to a higher-energy, active and balanced life is what they want.
This, however isn’t always the case and I do not sell myself or my services to people when I think it will not be helpful for beneficial to them.
I feel like it is my duty as a fitness professional to remind you that personal trainers are not qualified to give out nutrition plans and any sort of “personal” nutrition information, unless they have the credentials of course. Our focus with clients should be on physical activity and movement. Although arguably, I do think nutrition habits of a client should not be ignored. If a client should show signs of a disordered relationship with food or you feel their nutritional habits could in fact be detrimental to their health, that’s when the collaboration with dieticians, nutritionists and doctors are put into place, with the consent of the individual of course.
Am I anti fat loss?
This is a concept I’ve struggled to voice my opinion on without my own experiences and emotions getting involved. But here is my current stance… it depends. We live in a society where appearance and losing fat is valued so I understand people’s desire to want to lose weight. Do I encourage it and think it’s unhealthy for everybody? I don’t encourage it or “love it”, but it would be ignorant and unhelpful for me to tell people what to do with their bodies. I just hope to encourage people to challenge their perspective on fat loss and to really ask themselves why losing fat would improve their lives. I do believe some of the ways people are encouraged to lose fat and some of the methods they’re encouraged to partake in can be unhelpful, sometimes dangerous and uneducated. I dislike the promises of a happier, more confident and healthier life that come with fat-loss advertisements as we know this is not always the case.
I am still young in this industry and ever-learning. I'm sure I am yet to have conversations with fellow fit-pros and clients that lead me to understand and learn more. With the help of some skilled and highly educated fitness professionals both locally and across the UK, therapy and hours of self-development and learning, it became clear to me why I was in the industry in the first place. I want to help people move and I want exercise to be accessible to EVERY body. There are any benefits exercise that have NOTHING to do with the way one looks;
increased bone density, cardiovascular health, improved focus, improved sleep, increased mood and many more I haven’t mentioned.