Between #eatclean and #foodgasm, #carbfree and #fatdieme, it’s time that we come clean with ourselves – does anyone know what to eat anymore?
Have you ever counted out seven almonds or clicked on a baity “lose a dress size in a day!” headline? Then you know what we’re talking about. The quest for body perfection and a promise of a thinner, happier, better you is nothing new.
But #realtalk for a second. Have we gone too far? And also, if diets really worked, shouldn’t we all look amazing right now?
Actually, we’re getting fatter – four in ten Singaporeans are now overweight, says a report from the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. Of these four, one in ten are obese, which is more than twice the level reported in 1992. But at the same time, eating disorders like anorexia are reportedly also on the rise. Wait, what? How can startling opposites, obesity and anorexia, both be worrying trends? What’s going on?
The thing is, our modern relationship with food is pretty warped, especially in a digitally savvy, first world country like ours. A quick scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed will likely reveal the extremes. Sexy six-packs and yoga-honed #fitspo collide with pizza art and the latest must-eat salted egg indulgence on a daily basis. It’s discipline and willpower served with a side of “treat yo’self” attitude. Is it any wonder we’re confused?
THE CULTURE OF EXCESS
The social nature of food means that many of us eat out multiple times a week. And when you add in the fact that many of us are less active once we start working, it can become a dangerous recipe for bad health. In fact, a recent study by the International Diabetes Federation found that amongst developed nations, we’re second behind the US in terms of the number of diabetics per capita.
A virtual obsession with food isn’t good for us, either. That joke about Asians photographing food might be old and tired, but it’s still true that we just can’t get enough #foodporn. From watching Master Chef and Chef’s Table, to foodstagramming on the regular, we’re a foodie nation and proud of it. And when it comes to the food we love to like on Instagram, the general rule of thumb is the more decadent, the better.
However, new studies have shown that eyeballing crispy truffle fries and oozy cheeseburgers can spark salivation and lead to changes in our insulin levels, as well as trigger ghrelin, the hunger hormone. The implication of ogling food is that an overactive appetite for images of mouth-watering food on social media could potentially lead to weight gain.
FAD OR FICTION?
At the other end of the spectrum are the new fad diets and detoxes, which promise the same thing that all diets have promised since time immemorial – an easy way to lose weight. With over 400k hashtags and counting on Instagram, “teatoxes” have become one of the most popular weight loss trends of the social media age.
The skyrocketing success of the “teatox” comes from the fact that it sounds natural, and also because of clever marketing campaigns that leverage on fit, nubile, young women paid to post photos with their “teatox” drinks on their popular social media accounts. As a result, the tempting promise of “drink tea, get skinny” has seduced thousands. But as Racked explains, “The primary ingredient in nearly every single evening ‘detoxifying’ tea is senna, an FDA-approved plant found in Ex-Lax and a number of its stimulant laxative competitors. While senna isn’t necessarily harmful for one-off use, health experts say it’s not a substance people should be consuming on a regular basis, let alone for two weeks straight as an attempt to drop a few pounds.”
“Food is ultimately about feeling good and enjoyment – we shouldn’t be counting calories”
"Everyone wants a quick fix or a magical solution,” agrees Ralitza Peeva, a Singapore-based counsellor and life coach. “We’ll try anything for a few days rather than invest time and effort in lifestyle changes to benefit our health in the long-term.” That’s why we keep opening our mouths and wallets for “teatoxes”, detoxes, and cleanses, in spite of research showing that our bodies detox themselves just fine, thank you very much.
“A lot of fad diets rely on obsessive behaviour like weighing food,” says Pooja Vig of The Nutrition Clinic, Camden Medical Centre. “If you’re following someone on social media who’s suggesting a certain way of eating, it’s really important to research it first. Fad diets can do a lot of damage in the long term, and harm your metabolism. Anything that’s restrictive or extreme such as liquids only or eating a surplus of one food group should raise a red flag. These diets can start unhealthy habits that can develop into disorders.”
THE EFFECT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Dr Victor Kwok, a psychiatrist from Sengkang Health, also adds, “Many of my eating disorder patients recall starting a diet, and the praise they received from family and friends reinforced the drive for weight loss.” Observing a trend of an increased number of young female patients with eating disorders, his 2016 research shows that the use of apps and the Internet is associated with severe eating disorders.
70.9 percent of people who suffer from eating disorders use social media to compare themselves to friends and celebs, “leading to strong dissatisfactions with their own bodies”. Dr Kwok explains, “The Internet helps them find ways to lose weight and hide their illness, and apps are used to count calories and monitor activity levels.”
“Many of us now are very disconnected to what healthy food is,” says Pooja. “Social media shows us thousands of perfectly edited images and information about celebrity diets that aren’t necessarily true and are far from healthy,” she warns.
“Celebrities, models and social media personalities with normal bodies often show themselves losing weight and this is dangerous,” agrees Dr Kwok. “Studies show that people are accessing the Internet unsupervised at a younger age. This can result in a higher drive to pursue unrealistic ideals of thinness and perfectionistic traits pertaining to body shape and weight.”
THE END OF DIETING
Whether we’re eating too much or too little, we all need to start moving away from our food fetishes. Camera-wielding foodies should flip their focus to the people they’re sharing a meal with. Diet obsessives need to give themselves a break from calorie counting. At the end of the day, if you’re spending way too much energy, time and money on worrying about eating, stop.
“Food is ultimately about feeling good and enjoyment – we shouldn’t be counting calories,” says Pooja. “Everything in moderation is the best diet,” says Dr Kwok. “If you’re fearful of eating or your drive to lose weight becomes more important than school, work or relationships, you need help.”
Our bodies are smart. Let’s start to trust them again, rather than celebs and online advice. Eating shouldn’t be a game of good or bad, right or wrong. Fried chicken does taste as good as skinny feels, but then so do fresh strawberries after a swim. And instead of making the same promises to lose “X” kilos, maybe our next New Year’s resolutions should be to trek in Nepal, to learn to code or to pick up Italian. Now, these activities sound much more interesting and a whole lot more fun.
The Wackiest Fad Diets
1820s Tapeworm Diet
Once upon a time, these live creatures were marketed as weight-loss aids. Yes, live worms hatch in your stomach. You don’t put on weight… but the worms do. The parasites can even grow up to 15 metres long!
1920s The Smoking Diet
Before we knew it could kill you, it was marketed as a weight loss aid due to nicotine’s stimulant properties.
1960s Sleeping Beauty
Diet Feeling peckish? Pop a sleeping pill! Popular in the time of Elvis Presley, this diet ensured that you weren’t cheating on your strict diet as you were never awake. Zzzz...
2000s Cotton Ball Diet
Beyoncé ate cotton wool in her “Pretty Hurts” video as a reference to this creative diet trend that died off once people started needing surgery for blocked intestines. Ouch!
2010s Morning Banana Diet
Invented by a Japanese pharmacist and adopted by K-Pop cutie, Seo In Young, this diet consists of a breakfast of bananas and warm water every morning, and no food four hours before bed. In time, you’ll get a smaller face and waist plus bigger breasts. Like, really?
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s eating habits, get in touch with Singapore General Hospital’s Eating Disorders Programme. Phone 6321 4377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org