When it comes to eating and diets it seems like everywhere you look there’s another expert telling you what and how you “should” be eating to lose weight and promote health. There’s the physician endorsing meal-replacement bars for health in the grocery aisle, the doctor on television telling you to eat chia seeds to make yourself fuller for longer, the trainer at your gym that’s telling you to workout in a “fasted state” for maximum calorie burning potential, then there’s the dentist telling you to fast all day and consume all your meals within a short period of time. One piece of advice can conflict with other pieces of advice and before you know it you’re overloaded with information. With all that “advice” out there who do we listen to? This expert? That one? Where does your own knowledge gained through lived experiences and your own body wisdom fit in? Don’t despair! You are already armed with a powerful tool to evaluate claims you hear from diet experts. Your own critical lens can help you to figure out what makes sense and doesn’t make sense to you.
Critical Lens Toolkit
Asking questions through a critical lens can help you to evaluate if diet claims make sense to you.
WHO’S VIEWPOINT IS IT?
Who is the diet expert that is giving you advice and where does this expert’s knowledge come from? Are you able to access more information to help you decide for yourself if the information seems credible? Remember expert knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. That is, people are influenced by their own positions, values, and their lived experiences in the world. This means that they cannot offer an all-encompassing view of the world that takes into account everyone’s experiences. An expert’s view will not necessarily make sense for to or apply to everyone. Does this diet expert give information or hints about what might influence their specific perspective or position?
WHAT’S THE PROMISE?
What piqued your interest in this diet expert’s testimony? Or in other words what promises are associated with their diet advice? Weight-loss? Fat loss? What are the values that have been connected with these weight loss promises? Increased life satisfaction? Happiness? Success? Health? Achievement? Based on your own wisdom and experience about diets how often are diets able to follow through on the promises they make? In the short-term? In the long-term? What are some of the positive and negative consequences of following diet advice to achieve weight-loss?
WHAT IS YOUR INTERNAL RESPONSE?
When hearing a diet expert’s advice pay attention to your own internal responses and natural resistance to things that don’t seem to fit with your experience.
You can reflect on why certain things may ring true for you. It’s possible to agree with aspects of what an expert says without meaning that you have to agree with all of it. For example a diet expert might say something like “Green tea can help you to feel more awake and can help stunt hunger. Therefore you should drink at least 5 cups a day.” You might find yourself agreeing that you’ve felt more awake after drinking green tea and you’ve found that it has been satisfying to drink. However you might find yourself wondering about the advice of drinking 5 cups, thinking back to the time when you had 2 cups of green tea and didn’t like how you felt irritated and restless. You might also think about your personal preferences and that while you like green tea, you enjoy coffee more and would likely find drinking 5 cups of tea unpleasant. Just because some of what is said makes sense to you doesn’t mean that you have to agree with all of it.
You might also find yourself feeling skeptical of an expert’s viewpoint. For example, a diet expert may tell you that they don’t get hungry when they fast all day. Maybe the diet expert reasons that signs of physical hunger experienced during the fast is really just thirst or “psychological hunger”. But then when the diet expert says that when they get home after a day of fasting that they want to eat and eat and eat alarm bells of skepticism may begin to ring in your head. Your own knowledge and wisdom about what happens if you don’t eat all day may resist the ideas that this expert put forward. When it comes to diet advice, what does your lived experience, body wisdom, or knowledge tell you about the diet expert’s viewpoint?
CAN THE ADVICE REALLY APPLY TO EVERYONE?
Diet advice prescribed to everyone often overlooks the diversity that makes up our population. Generalizations cannot take into account individual experiences and differences. For example let’s imagine that a diet expert claims that since cow’s milk is filled with protein and “good carbs” that everyone who wants to lose weight should drink it. While milk may have some nutritional benefits-will this advice be helpful or realistic for someone who’s lactose intolerant or someone who detests the taste of milk? What if someone has limited access to cow’s milk?
IS IT TOO RIGID TO BE REALISTIC?
According to the expert are there specific rules that you have to follow? How flexible are these rules? Rigid eating rules cannot take into account the complex roles that food serves in people’s lives and simplistic or extreme positions can set someone up to experience failure. Have you tried diets in the past where you were instructed to adhere to rigid rules? What happened? If the diet expert prescribes rigid rules, do they encourage you to ignore or discount your physical, emotional, social or other needs?
Do you hear any “shoulds” in the diet-experts advice? Take a moment to think about how many “shoulds” you’ve heard over time about what and how to eat. Do any of these “shoulds” conflict? Ask yourself how the diet expert knows specifically what you should be doing. What are their prosed reasons for this “should”? Do you agree with these reasons? Do they make sense to you? Do you need more information before you make a decision for yourself about the helpfulness of this “should”?
Do you hear any black-and-white all or nothing thinking in the diet expert’s claims or advice? Noticing this type of thinking can provide useful insight into the limitations of the diet expert’s viewpoint. All-or-nothing or black and white thinking is extremely limited in the real world. How many aspects of life fall into either one extreme or the other? Does it make sense to apply extreme positions of “good or bad”, “all or nothing”, “should always or should never” to human behaviour, attitudes, feelings, and thoughts about eating? Think about your own wisdom and experience. Have you ever tried to follow an extreme all-or-nothing rule when it came to eating? Some examples are: Never eat carbs, never eat gluten, you have to eat fish oils, never eat before you work out, you have to eat at least 100 grams of protein, you must always eat this. If you tried to follow one of these rigid rules, what happened when your thoughts, behaviour, or experiences conflicted with this rule? For example: how would you feel if you tried to follow a rule of never eating carbs and then you ate a side of rice with your meal? How did this extreme position effect you? In the short-term? In the long-term?
THE RESEARCH SAYS WHAT?!
Diet experts may quote existing studies or research as evidence to back up their claims. However when a diet expert makes a general reference to research it does not necessarily give you the whole picture or mean that you should take it at face value. The reality is that even if a diet expert refers to credible research, there are limitations and potential bias acknowledged in the actual research that the diet expert may not mention. It is also important to remember that what you’re hearing from the diet expert may be the diet expert’s interpretations of what the research means rather than the actual research findings. Have you ever been in the position where you read something and disagreed with someone else about what it meant? Do you think there is more than one way to interpret or view what results mean? Do you think the diet expert’s interpretation of what the research means might be influenced by their individual position or bias? When you hear the expert’s advice what part of what they say is based on the research and what part is their interpretation or opinion? When referring to research does the diet expert mention where they get their information from? Do they refer to specific studies where you can find out more information for yourself?
Let’s look at an example:
A diet expert advises that people should go on a diet of liquids instead of solids to lose weight because research shows that liquid diets result in more weight loss. Imagine that you find the research study that the diet expert referred to when they made this claim. You read through the study and notice that the study was three months in length. You also observe that participants on the liquid diet restricted their meals to powdered juice or meal replacement shakes. You use your critical lens to evaluate both the study’s author’s and the diet expert’s claims. You might decide that while the study’s authors claimed that the liquid diet was “effective” that a study lasting less than 3 months was too short a time frame to make sense to you as measuring meaningful or lasting change. You might also think about your own experience of trying a juice diet and noticing that while there was some initial change the diet was not sustainable in the long-term and weight-change wasn’t permanent. You might wonder what happened to the participants in the study after the study ended. You might wonder if it really makes sense for the diet expert to base their advice to others on this study. You might wonder if the diet expert was advising people to drink juice or meal replacement shakes too? You might decide that instead of being restricted to juice and meal replacement shakes that it makes more sense to you to have the flexibility to choose foods that you enjoy and you find to nourish and support your well-being and engagement in life.
Just like in the above example you can ask yourself: What does your own lived experience and wisdom tell you? What was the length study? Who participated in the study? What were the limitations of the study? Are the results generalizable to the general population? Do you think what was done in the study to achieve change is sustainable? What other variables might have contributed to change in the study? When was the study published? (Remember that knowledge can change over time). Using your own critical lens you can evaluate for yourself if the research and the claims diet experts connect to it makes sense to you.
WHAT’S YOUR LIVED EXPERIENCE?
You can reflect on your own experience when hearing diet advice. For example imagine a diet expert advises fasting all day then consuming all your food within a 3 hour period in the evening. You can reflect on your own experiences and knowledge to help you decide how the advice resonates with you. Have you had the experience of fasting all day then eating all or most of your food within a relatively short time frame? How did you feel during the day before you ate? Were there any physical effects? What was your mood like? What were your thoughts about? What was your energy like? Were there any social impacts? When you did eat, how did you feel afterward? What were your food choices like? Did you notice any physical effects? Social impacts? How would you describe the experience? What were your thoughts like? What were the benefits you noticed? The consequences? Do you think this approach would enhance or help support you with engaged living and nourishing your well-being? Using your own experiences and knowledge you can take what an expert says into consideration as you use your own knowledge to figure out what makes sense for you.
WHAT ARE YOUR OWN RESOURCES?
When trying to decide whether something makes sense to you sometimes its helpful to talk to others and hear perspectives from sources that you trust or respect. This could be a dietician, your doctor, a family member, or a trusted friend. Maybe some of what is said will make sense to you. Maybe there will be a viewpoint that you didn’t think of before. Maybe some of it won’t influence your decision. That’s okay. As you talk to others about these ideas you are in the process of critically engaging in evaluating the idea and moving away from simply accepting a claim just because it came from a diet expert.
YOUR KNOWLEDGE-YOUR POWER TO DECIDE
People are often exposed to the message that weight-loss can help them to achieve what is most important to them: self-esteem, self-worth, value, health, relationships and fulfillment. When experts promote weight-loss diets it can be more difficult to resist the invitation to view weight loss as a valuable or desirable goal to promote well-being. It is likely that there will continue to be weight-loss diet experts out there ready to give you advice about what you should or shouldn’t eat to lose weight. However when you ground yourself in self-trust and the value of your own critical lens, lived experiences, and knowledge, you can use your own resources to help you decide what makes sense to you in nourishing your well-being.