It’s 2017, and the clean eating movement is starting to crumble. A BBC Horizon documentary hosted by geneticist Giles Yeo criticises the social media-led trend that promises “wellness” via a strictly prescribed list of whole foods as little more than a fad diet. Ruby Tandoh attacks the restrictive eating promoted by key wellness figures like Deliciously Ella in a widely shared VICE article, and food historian Bee Wilson follows with a cutting Guardian long read that asks how we fell for a food philosophy built on dodgy nutritional guidance from 22-year-old models. A year later, Tandoh publishes Eat Up, a book about “food, appetite and eating what you want” that goes on to become a Sunday Times bestseller.
And so, we broke up with clean eating almost as quickly as we fell for the rainbow quinoa bowls that it sold to us just a few years before. Today, we continue to coexist with kale and CBD, but also live in the age of wellness backlash. The overhead shots of gluten-free grains in our Instagram feeds are sandwiched between #honourmycurves selfies and cartoonish slices of pepperoni pizza. Fashion brands that spent decades using exclusively thin models are releasing “body positive” clothing lines – co-opting a phrase with roots in the radical fat acceptance movement of 1960s New York. Even WeightWatchers underwent a rebrand, shifting from a focus on weight loss to “inspiring healthy habits for real life.”
In 2019, blathering on about your attempts to “eat clean” – and God forbid, Instagramming any of the associated kale smoothies – is tantamount to asking for a plastic straw for your Diet Coke. Dated to the point of tacky.
As with any cultural trend, something had to fill the turmeric-stained void it is rapidly leaving behind. Combining our ultimate rejection of goji berries and newfound love of #lovingourbodies, the anti-diet movement encourages an intuitive approach to food, and has gained popularity among nutritionists and body-positive influencers. Last year, the Washington Post declared the “non-diet dietician” as the latest trend in healthcare, and the Anti Diet Riot Club hosted a packed launch event at a venue in East London. Founder Becky Young described the group as “a small antidote to diet talk in our homes and workplaces.”
The anti-diet movement has also reached the publishing world. In the last six months alone, it has given us The No Need To Diet Book: Become a Diet Rebel and Make Friends with Food by London blogger Pixie Turner; Just Eat It by nutritionist Laura Thomas; Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison’s Eat It Anyway: Fight the Food Fads, Beat Anxiety and Eat in Peace; and The Fuck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy, by Caroline Dooner – based in part on the anti-diet messages she shares via her popular Twitter profile.
Evidently inspired by the success of Tandoh’s Eat Up, these authors argue for relaxed eating, and want to help readers move away from diet culture and achieve better relationships with their bodies. They appear in promotional photos surrounded by doughnuts, or eating pasta and smiling. Yes, they want us to eat up, but also to eat it anyway, just eat it and eat everything … and stop worrying about it! In the introduction to The Fuck It Diet, Dooner writes: “This book is for chronic dieters. It’s for the people who have been on every diet, who have spent hours worrying about and micromanaging the minutiae of the calories or toxins in the food they are eating – and don’t want to do it anymore.”
I think these anti-diet books have something else in common, too. In their own way, each one promises to change your life for the better. All you need to do is listen to everything they tell you about how to eat.
Anti-diet books are not really a new trend. In 2016, Bee Wilson published This Is Not a Diet Book: A User’s Guide to Eating Well. Years prior to this was Geneen Roth and her writing on conscious eating, and before that, Susie Orbach’s pioneering feminist text Fat Is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978. The book was one of the first to make a link between psychological needs and food habits – a concept from which many of today’s anti-diet books take inspiration.
“We can go back and talk about how intuitive eating was developed in the 90s by dieticians,” says Thomas, the London-based nutritionist and author of Just Eat It, which was published in December and features a giant pink doughnut on its cover. “That’s where that specific set of tools originated, but if we go back even further to the 60s and 70s, the non-diet approach as we know it really has its roots there in the fat acceptance movement that was borne out of radical feminism in the Bay Area of California amongst queer, Black, radical fat women.”
Anti-diet writing may have a long legacy, but this is the first time that books seeking to dismantle diet culture have become a genre of their own, separate from feminism or food history. And thanks to the popularity of the body positivity movement and the associated wellness backlash, it seems to have resulted in a lucrative publishing opportunity. Several of the anti-diet authors I spoke to were approached by publishers to write their books.
“I definitely think that Ruby Tandoh was the crest of that wave,” says Susannah Otter, commissioning editor at Hardie Grant, which published Laura Goodman’s courgetti-eschewing cookbook Carbs last year. “Publishing, by its very nature, always goes with the trend, so whatever goes up must come down. There was a point where there were no clean eating books on the market and then the market was flooded. This is kind of the cynic’s view, really, but it is just like a pendulum that swings.”
Eve Simmons, whose book Eat It Anyway was published in January to coincide with new-year-new-me diet season, also noticed a lack of books championing un-restrictive eating. She and co-author Laura Dennison wrote Eat It Anyway as a “mission to help you love food again,” drawing on their own experiences of overcoming eating disorders.
“We were like, ‘There is literally nothing out there that is just common sense and nutrition,’” Simmons says, “‘telling people the facts and the science and letting people make their own minds up based on that, rather than this trendy bollocks.’”
Pixie Turner’s The No Need to Diet Book was published in March and covers diet culture topics including emotional eating, orthorexia and “health beyond nutrition.” Turner is a working nutritionist, registered with the UK’s Association for Nutrition, but sees her book as more than just a collection of healthy dietary tips – it’s a radical act.
“I think when we’re surrounded by all this diet culture,” she says, “it is a radical thing to go against that and do something that involves centring your own experience – your internal cues, not external cues – and to actually enjoy food.”
So, what’s the problem? Diet culture is bad for all of us. Any book that attempts to dismantle its key tropes by encouraging women to enjoy food can only be a good thing. The issue comes when anti-diet messaging is co-opted by those who do not prioritise the radical feminist ideals that founded the movement.
The recent influx of no-need-to-diet books might be one manifestation of this, but it’s far from the only instance of anti-diet ideology becoming diluted as it enters the mainstream. Search the #antidiet hashtag on Instagram and you’ll find thousands of inspirational quote tiles (“Riots not diets”, “There are better things to do in the morning than weigh yourself”), shots of fish finger sandwiches and memes mocking “Karen” and her perpetual diet. ’Gramming a green juice or detox grain bowl may have once raked in the likes; now you’re more likely to get that good engagement from a cookie iced with a joke about diet talk.
“I am a little bit cynical of the fact that it’s quite convenient that some people have managed to get a book deal out of it,” says Simmons of the popularity of anti-diet influencers, before adding with a laugh: “Which, I know, you could say that I’ve done the same.”
Simmons and Dennison started the Not Plant Based blog at peak wellness in 2016, publishing stories that challenged the trend’s dubious health claims. Since clean eating’s fall from grace, which Simmons links to a 2016 BBC Three documentary Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets, she has also noted an increase in anti-diet messaging on Instagram. Indeed, Turner tells me that she “used to be one of those wellness bloggers who promote a lot of bullshit online,” before realising “the error of my ways” and deciding to rebrand from “Plantbased Pixie” to “Pixie Nutrition” and share myth-busting nutrition advice on her channels instead. Other wellness influencers, including Joshua Wolrich, the Instagrammer formerly known as @unfattening, have made similar pivots away from diet culture – whether for audience engagement reasons or because of a genuine change of heart.
“There’s all these body-positive bloggers or authors or whatever, almost presenting something that seems like a way of life,” says Simmons. “They are the expert and yet you don’t really understand how they’ve come to that. I’m always interested in the personal. Why do you feel that this is important? Why is this something that you care about? Especially people who are profiting off it.”
When your motivation for pushing anti-diet messages is tied to raising your Instagram profile or getting a book deal, can you really uproot a system as misogynistic and deeply ingrained as diet culture? Much like the craze for chatty history books on “rebel women” a few years back, the anti-diet trend in publishing and on our social media feeds serves as a convenient way to champion a feminist cause, without actually doing much of the legwork required to enact real change for equality between the sexes.
Even Turner, erstwhile wellness blogger, worries about the anti-diet movement being co-opted by those who don’t care about its message.
“I definitely have already seen a lot of people jumping on the non-diet bandwagon when they don’t understand what it’s about,” she says. “They have no idea what they’re doing, they just see it as a buzzword, so they’re jumping on it.”
As anti-diet messaging gets co-opted, it also runs the risk of being simplified, which can negatively impact people’s health. Despite what the Instagram memes may suggest, non-diet eating isn’t about consuming whatever the hell you like. Thomas established the London Centre for Intuitive Eating, which offers training and treatment focused on intuitive eating, two years ago. In Just Eat It, she details how intuitive eating, the process of eating without rules or external influences can “help you get your shit together around food” and reduce binging or emotional eating. This is a process that involves self-reflection and in some cases dedicated sessions with a mental health or eating disorder specialist – something she thinks is missed by many anti-diet influencers.
“As a clinician who has spent a lot of time researching and training in these approaches, to then see it distilled down to the ‘hunger and fullness diet’ or gym bros on Instagram like, ‘Fuck it, eat whatever you want,’ there is a danger of intuitive eating or non-diet approaches being memeified because a lot of the nuance being missed out,” Thomas tells me.
Simmons has a bleaker view of the ways in which the anti-diet message can become distorted on social media.
“Fundamentally, eating disorders, especially the type of eating disorder that I had, where my organs were shutting down, are very serious clinical illnesses,” she says. “They are not something that you can just present in an Instagram quote or a hashtag.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the non-diet diet has been embraced with the same fervour as the many fad diets that came before it. The trend for unrestricted eating could be just that: a food trend like clean eating or the 5:2 diet or Paleo or subjecting yourself to an ungodly concoction of cayenne pepper and lemon juice (ty, Beyoncé). A piece published by the Evening Standard in January declared the no-diet diet as 2019’s hottest eating trend, listing “feel your fullness” and “honour your hunger” as if they were the latest superfoods.
Sure enough, flick through any of the recently published anti-diet books and you’ll find a narrative depressingly similar to that of a traditional diet book. They speak to the reader as a chronic dieter – female, of course – and depressed with her lack of progress at losing weight. The authors note that they are not doctors, but justify their claims by explaining that they, too, had a troubled relationship with food. (In the introduction to The No Need to Diet Book, Turner writes, “I have done juicing, ‘clean eating,’ Paleo, veganism, vegetarianism and even a brief attempt at raw veganism.”) Finally, the authors introduce the reader to their salvation: a new eating approach that helped them realise that they need never to diet again.
In short, both anti-diet and traditional diet books promise to revolutionise how you think about food, whether by helping you to eat onion rings without feeling guilty or discovering cacao bites as a “healthy” substitute for Kit Kats. With a few exceptions, they are written by thin, white women. These similarities – including the alienation of fat bodies – haven’t gone unnoticed by the anti-diet book authors I spoke to.
“It is a problem that people are more likely to listen to someone that is saying these things if they appear thin, rather than if they appear fat,” says Turner. “That is a huge, huge issue and something that we need to address because this isn’t just something for thin people; this is meant to be for everyone.”
Simmons says that dispensing nutritionist-approved eating advice, without triggering readers who have eating disorders or excluding fat bodies, was a concern for her and Dennison when writing Eat It Anyway.
“I’m still really grappling with it and trying to work out how best to approach it, however for the one or two people who might have a negative experience [with the book], I think that there is nothing else out there that has the insight and personal experience and understands all the nuances of [an eating disorder] and is accepting of it, while also being damning of the illness and trying to make you angry with the culture that reinforces it.”
Despite the anti-diet authors’ worthy aims, this doesn’t get away from that fact that their books function in basically the same way as a Louise Thompson fitspo cookbook, instilling women with a set of instructions to become a better version of themselves. It might be to eat your breakfast mindfully, rather than count out eight almonds as a snack, but it still assumes that women must be told what to do with their bodies.
“Women are led to believe that they need to be controlled, and so they seek out that control to reinforce it, whether it’s about food or the home or cleaning or work or children,” Simmons sadly points out. “That’s why we’re so subject to all of these rules, because we’ve been controlled for so many years, so we still feel that we need that in order to justify our existence.”
In fairness, all of the authors I spoke to were aware of the irony in writing an instructional book about intuitive approaches to eating – something that is in its very definition supposed to come naturally. In Just Eat It, Thomas writes that she is “conscious of this becoming another ‘this worked for me, so it will work for you too’ book,” before adding the disclaimer: “I’m not promising you the Earth. For a lot of the people I work with, intuitive eating and non-diet approaches aren’t miracle cures.”
“There is no such thing as the perfect diet. Nutrition is not all-or-nothing, black or white."
Thomas also tells me that she was aware of the danger of doling out a set of food rules and instructions for the reader, many of whom may be suffering from eating disorders which hinge on the near-religious following of arbitrary regulations.
“I’ve tried again to instil the idea that there is no such thing as perfect eating,” she says. “There is no such thing as the perfect diet. Nutrition is not all-or-nothing, black or white, and really the goal of intuitive eating is to be flexible.”
But of course if you are someone who struggles with disordered eating – in other words, the type of person who would pick up a book with a doughnut on its cover and a blurb that promises freedom from dieting – you may well take it this way.
In fact, the similarities between anti-diet books and your mum’s old copy of Atkins for Life make me wonder how far we have actually come from diet books. While Otter says she does not publish diet books at Hardie Grant, she predicts a return to the traditional diet book, sooner or later.
“The axis is going to come back at some point,” she says. “The quick fix will never go away.”
Toward the end of writing this piece, I find myself browsing Amazon’s current bestseller list in food books. More than half of the top 20 are slimming titles, with promises of fast weight loss and guilt-free recipes emblazoned across their covers. Anti-diet books may have their flaws, but when faced with a new low-calorie cookbook from Tom Kerridge or one that tells me to eat the doughnut – and enjoy it! – I know which way I want the axis to swing.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.