Diet Culture in the Health and Fitness Industry

Having recently received yet another targeted ad inviting me to take part in an ‘eight week summer fat blast challenge’, I wanted to share my thoughts on why I will always say “no thanks” to diet culture.

Diet culture is all around us. It’s plastered over social media, at the gym, on food packaging, in conversations with friends… it is EVERYWHERE. This is an industry that needs you to doubt yourself, simply because there are billions of £££ to be made from our insecurities.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture describes a society that places value on being a certain size and weight. Essentially, it promotes the concept that health = thinness, and it oppresses people who don’t match up with this image. It displays itself in numerous ways, some more subtle and sneaky than others. A few examples include:

  • Food advertised as ‘guilt-free’
  • ‘Clean eating’ social media accounts, and the epidemic of ‘clean eating’ in general
  • Fit teas/ skinny teas/ detox teas
  • Our language around food, e.g. labelling foods as good or bad
  • Demonising food groups, e.g. ‘I’m not coeliac but I won’t eat gluten because it is THE DEVIL’

Why is diet culture problematic?

You may view a fat blast challenge or a ‘guilt free’ chocolate bar as being harmless, and I understand why; we’ve been conditioned to believe that health = thinness. That thinness = happiness, success, superiority. That our self-worth is directly linked to our physical appearance.

I used to have a very unhealthy relationship with exercise. Five years ago, my sole reason for exercising was to burn calories so that I could drink all the wine and eat all the pizza without feeling guilty. Essentially, I was exercising because I hated my body.  

80 – 90% of the time I now have a healthy relationship with fitness; I fully appreciate that there are so many health benefits that exercise can have that aren’t directly linked to aesthetics. My mindset has shifted from ‘having’ to exercise to choosing to exercise, but of course this took time – a LONG time. I don’t want to oversimplify it by using phrases such as ‘exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it!’ or ‘just practice radical self-love!’ – not only is this patronising, but learning to navigate the pressures of diet culture is a lot more complex than this.  

How can you remove yourself from toxic diet culture?

The diet industry’s focus is (almost always) appearance based. This industry does not care about your physical health, and it most definitely does not care about your mental health.

Here are a few things that have helped me:

1.          Have a social media clean up

Unfollow the accounts that focus on dieting, ‘toning up’, or anything else that makes you doubt your self-worth. Basically, try not to consume content that impacts you in a negative way.

2.      Stop engaging in diet jokes

This is probably not the best example, given the fact that it is the middle of summer. However, I get sent this every year without fail, and it makes my blood BOIL:

I have also been tagged in the below meme three times this week:

I simply refused to engage in these discussions, regardless of whether it is a light-hearted joke or not. I will either leave the conversation or change the subject, because quite frankly it makes me uncomfortable.

3. Educate yourself

Take the time to educate yourself about the true links between health and weight. If, like me, you are a thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied person, I would encourage you to learn about the experiences of those who do not fit into diet cultures ‘ideal’.

Here are a few of my book/podcast recommendations:

Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen

Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach

Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison

(Please do let me know if you have any further recommendations!)

Acknowledging that diet culture exists and that it’s an issue is the first step. This is just a tiny part of a much wider discussion, but I hope that it provides a useful insight into a culture that is so entrenched within our society.

The Health Benefits of Journaling: A Mell Telka Guide

I was asked to write this post by a friend who struggles with anxiety. I hope they find it helpful, and I hope that others do too.

Earlier this year, I was encouraged to start journaling*. I made a half-hearted attempt at this a few months ago but, to put it bluntly, I didn’t really see the point. However, a few weeks ago I started journaling daily, and I must admit that I am a bit of a convert.

There is increasing evidence to support the idea that journaling has a positive impact on mental and physical well-being. 

I don’t want to provide too much information on how to begin journaling, as I’m still working this out myself. However, here are a few tips that I have discovered in my journaling journey (journaling journey?!) thus far:

1. Write quickly and freely; do not worry about spelling and grammar. I found this hard at first, given the fact that typos give me mild palpitations. Don’t strive for perfection; your journal is for your eyes only (unless you feel that sharing it with others might be of use).  

2. Pick a daily/weekly/monthly theme. Some of my initial attempts at journaling left me feeling negative, hence why I gave up. I now realise that this is because my writing had no structure, which led to me writing a variety of jumbled up, confused thoughts.

I now have dedicated days to write about specific topics, although I will deviate from this if there is something more pressing that I feel the urge to write about.

I also conclude each post by listing three things that I am grateful for. Daily gratitude is something that I have been practicing for years, and although it may sound a bit wishy-washy, the simple act of writing down the things/people/opportunities for which I’m grateful forces me to pay attention to the things that I sometimes take for granted.

3. There’s no wrong or right way to journal. I have been told by numerous people to use paper only; journaling on one’s laptop or phone is supposedly ineffective. This is complete and utter rubbish; do what works for you, not what works for a 42-year-old man from Preston (just a fictional example. Obviously).

How does journaling help me? It helps me to understand and manage my emotions. It helps me to feel empowered and in control. It helps me to identify my problems. It helps me to put things into perspective.

Journaling is something you need to get used to and comfortable with, and I’m not quite there yet. It’s a powerful tool, and one that I am keen to explore further.

If you journal, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Why do you journal? How frequently do you journal? How do you structure your writing to ensure that you don’t go off on a tangent?

*Journaling, in my opinion, is whatever you want it to be. For me, it’s about exploring my emotions; both the uncomfortable emotions and incidents, and the overwhelmingly positive emotions and experiences.

Love Island, Body Image and Mental Health; Can Feminists Watch This Show?

With the new series of Love Island impending, I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to eight weeks of tacky reality tv at its finest. I am not being hyperbolic when I say I enjoy trash tv! The appeal of Love Island is clear; the drama, the incredibly attractive contestants, the potential romance, the unnecessary and (clearly often scripted) dramatic outbursts. 

Although I’m 99.9999% sure that I’ll be tuning into Love Island, I’m also very uncomfortable about the fact that I’m getting excited about such a vile show – and vile is an understatement. Matt Haig posted on Instagram a couple of days ago that Love Island is a public health risk, and I can’t disagree with this statement. 

The trolling of the contestants is vile. The body shaming is vile. The manipulated drama is vile (although of course, this is what keeps the ratings so high). The lack of diversity and representation is vile. The attitude towards women is vile.

The contestants represent a body type that, for many, is unattainable. This is stating the obvious. The bigger issue is that the women are immediately judged on what they look like; there is no mention of their career, their interests, their personality – and this can be damaging for both contestants and viewers.

According to recent research carried out by YouGov, one in five adults feel shame over their body image. The issue is even more prominent amongst teenagers; over a third of teenagers feel upset about their body image. It would be incredibly naïve to blame Love Island for this, but programmes of this nature certainly don’t help the matter…

It goes without saying that Love Island isn’t exactly intellectually stimulating material. People like trashy, superficial tv, therefore it’s unsurprising that Love Island is the most successful show on ITV2. I have read numerous articles exploring how Love Island is about more than superficial factors; it’s about friendship, love, loyalty, vulnerability etc., which to an extent I agree with. I’d still argue that the overarching theme is ‘trashy escapism’, but I’m starting to think that there could be slightly more to it than that.  

The underlying question here is ‘can feminists still enjoy Love Island’; clearly, I think they can, given the fact that I would identify myself as both a feminist and a person who watches Love Island.

This may be a controversial opinion, but I think that Love Island highlights certain areas that I, as a feminist, find interesting; the importance of female friendships, an exploration of relationships (albeit forged relationships), perceived expectations in a relationship. It portrays both men and women embracing their sexuality with confidence and having open and honest discussions about their feelings.

I’m aware that this is a contradictory post. I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m happy to admit this. I’m also aware that I’m speaking from a place of privilege; I am a 28-year-old, thin, white, cis-gendered female, and I’m at a point in my life where I’m fully aware that there are far more important things than my body fat percentage. However, if I had watched the show 10 years ago, I think it would have sparked all sorts of insecurities.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this (to clarify, I’m not interested on hearing whether you think the show is trash or not – we’ve already established that ultimately, it’s garbage).

Can you be both a feminist and a fan of Love Island? How dangerous are programmes such as Love Island when it comes to body image and mental health?

My Mental Health Journey (Chapter One)

Inspired by mental health awareness week, I wanted to share an insight into my mental health journey. The reason I have titled this post (Chapter One) is because this is very much a journey that I am still on; it’s not something that has an end date, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I have spoken about my anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health struggles in a previous post, and after many years (almost a decade) of being too ashamed to talk about this, I am finally at a stage where I feel comfortable having open and honest conversations about my mental health. In fact, I actively try and talk about it as much as I possibly can, because I find this so helpful. As mentioned in my post about anxiety and running – shame has no place in your life!

However, I understand how difficult it can be to reach out for help, or to even acknowledge that you might need help, because I’ve been there. I thought it might be useful to explain the steps that I took, and the steps that I am currently taking. (Disclaimer – of course, this is relevant to my mental health journey and I am by no means suggesting that these are the steps that anyone else should follow).

Just over a year ago, I reached a point where quite simply I could no longer ignore the fact that I needed help. I can pinpoint the exact moment – it was Thursday 31st May at 6:15pm and I was at East Croydon station. I was on my way to a 10k race, organised by my running club, and for some reason I decided to get off the train two stops too early. I stood there on the platform feeling completely lost, full of dread; a kind of foggy, overpowering, out of control feeling which was both horrendous and liberating all at once. It was liberating because it was the poignant sign that I needed to seek help.

That evening I emailed the Samaritans, and I can’t thank them enough for their support. They convinced me to book an appointment with my GP, and for me, this felt like a big step because up until that moment I had simply refused to acknowledge that there was an issue. I needed somebody to TELL me to visit my GP, even though I already knew that it was an appropriate first step.

Over the past year I have tried CBT, talking therapy, mindfulness classes and most recently medication. Of course, there are plenty of other ways that I look after my mental health. This includes leading an active lifestyle, eating well, moderating my alcohol intake, and all the other things that 21-year-old me would have mocked, but 28-year-old me wouldn’t have it any other way #adulting

At this stage, I don’t want to go into detail about what’s worked for me and what hasn’t as of course this is different for everyone, plus I’m still working this out for myself. One piece of advice I would give is to try and be open minded. For example, up until recently, I was SO against medication; the thought of it terrified me. I know others who assume that mindfulness is a load of rubbish, or that CBT is a pointless exercise – assumptions that cannot be made prior to trying out said method. There are many ways to take care of your mental health and being open minded has definitely helped me. 

Another piece of advice I would give (this is advice that I have given previously, and advice that I will continue to repeat until I’m blue in the face) – talk about your feelings. Talk, talk, talk and keep the lines of communication open. Ensure that talking about your feelings is something that you prioritise. Having honest conversations with friends and family is probably the thing that has helped me the most; the little reminder that you are going to be okay and that the panic (or whatever it is that you are experiencing) is only temporary.   

REMEMBER: Mental health is so important, and you are never alone.

London Marathon 2019

It’s hard to put into words how much I enjoyed the VMLM (even though those who saw me in the latter stages of the marathon might think otherwise, so perhaps I will rephrase that and say that I enjoyed approx. 86% of VMLM).

I don’t think I stopped smiling for the first 22 miles. I felt much stronger than my previous two marathons, and it was exciting to experience all my hard work paying off. I also think there’s something magical about running a marathon in your own city. I’m obviously biased when I say that London is the greatest city on earth – but for me, it is. The nostalgia of running past key places from my childhood definitely enhanced my VMLM experience; school trips to the Cutty Sark, summer walks over Tower Bridge etc.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Miles 23 – 26.2 were vile. Just…horrendously VILE. There was a small vomit incident, tears, severe anxiety and a trip to St John’s Ambulance (who were incredible) after almost fainting at the finish line. The final few miles proved to be a tough mental battle, but a mental battle that I powered though due to my amazing supporters, random strangers, and my own willpower. 

I don’t really remember crossing through the finish line, as I temporarily lost consciousness and it’s all a bit of a blur. I wasn’t even aware of my new PB until messages from my friends and family started pouring in…in fact, I had just told my group pacer that I had finished in what turned out to be six minutes slower than my chip time!

Just to clarify, I’m aware that losing consciousness after (or during) a marathon is BAD – I’m certainly not proud of this and watching the footage of my wobbly post-finish episode is quite terrifying. One positive aspect to come of this is that after chatting with some medical experts, I understand why I fainted and can therefore work on this aspect of my training next year.

Something else VMLM taught me is to not underestimate the sheer power of my own brain. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about my anxiety and panic attacks; four days before VMLM, I genuinely considered not running as I wasn’t sure if at that point in time, I would be mentally strong enough. One of my best friends gave me a good talking to, and I am so glad that I listened to her!

There were certainly parts of the marathon that were mentally challenging, particularly those final few miles where I could feel myself growing increasingly panic stricken. However, as mentioned previously, I powered through this mental battle and proved to myself that I am so much stronger than I give myself credit for. Yes, getting a PB was fantastic, but recognising my own inner strength was even more fantastic.

Sorry to end this post on a super cheesy note, but I just wanted to say a big old thank you to my friends, family, South London Harriers, and to everyone else who supported me in the lead up to VMLM. I am beyond grateful.

Thoughts on turning 28

Originally, this post was titled 28 thoughts on turning 28. Just before posting it, I realised that my list of 28 insights on turning 28 was cliché, dull, and probably not 100% honest. Therefore, here are my honest thoughts on turning the big 2-8 in a few days…

When I was a young and foolish whippersnapper, I thought that as I approached my late twenties I’d be:

  • Rich
  • Married
  • An extremely successful author (I spent ridiculous amounts of time writing novels as a child)
  • Able to cook more extravagant dishes than pasta & cheese
  • A homeowner þ

How times have changed! All of the above, bar the one point that I have ticked off, are now of little importance to me.

What is important to me now?

  • Taking good care of myself. Taking good care of my brain. Not drinking 86 glasses of wine every Friday night. Running, running, running. My Babcia (Grandmother) always told me that there is nothing more important than your health, and I think this has finally clicked. This is now my priority over everything.  
  • Spending my £ on experiences, not things. When I think back to some of the things I purchased in my early 20s, I feel slightly nauseous! My original 30 before 30 list, created around 10 years ago, consisted of things such as ‘own a Chanel 2.55 handbag’, because I thought this was the ultimate symbol of having a successful, fulfilling career. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t aspire towards material possessions – but it just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I have no interest in spending my limited funds on an overpriced handbag. I would rather visit new places, learn new perspectives and consume experiences.
  • Stability and security; two things that make the teenage me want to cry with boredom. Being sensible with my £ and saving up for the important things…sorry to be so dull, but it’s true!
  • Spending my time with people who truly make me happy. It’s not about the number of people around you; having a strong support network of people you can rely on in difficult times is so important. Be kind to these people. Be kind to everyone, unless they’re a moron, in which case you don’t need to be kind to them all the time.

Reading back on this post, it still sounds a little cliché. I also feel weird about the fact that I’m not writing in complete sentences; this post has no structure (THE HORROR). However, these are my honest thoughts at this present moment in time. Perhaps this time next year I will have some sort of epiphany and be able to come up with some mind-blowing life lessons…but until then, I shall embrace my late 20’s in all its gloriousness and boringness and sensibleness.

Anxiety and Running

I am writing this post for two reasons: 

  1. To put it very simply – I find it beneficial. Writing about mental health is a method of expressing feelings that are sometimes too difficult to put into words. 
  2. I hope that by sharing my own experiences, it might help people who are feeling a similar way. Personally, I prefer reading incredibly open and honest blogs, particularly when it comes to mental health. It’s always comforting to know that of course you’re not alone. 

So, here is a recap of the past week…

Last Thursday, with 4 weeks to go until London Marathon, I was feeling strong, prepared and motivated. I had just recovered from a chest infection and was so excited to continue with my training. 

However, the following day I woke up feeling quite the opposite. I felt breathless, clammy and restless; all familiar symptoms of an oncoming unpleasant period of anxiety. The following three days consisted of multiple panic attacks, one of which took place during an organised 20-mile training run with hundreds of other runners. This REALLY bothered me; running has always been my safe, happy place, and this is the first time that my anxiety has interfered with that.

I spent the next couple of days pondering whether I should even be running a marathon; am I mentally strong enough at this current point in time? What if I have another mid-race panic attack, but this time in front of tens of thousands of people? 

After many wasted hours of unnecessary panic, I came to the following conclusion… so what?! What’s the worst that can happen? If for some reason I do have a panic attack during the marathon, I can walk for a bit. Yes, I’d be disappointed – but I haven’t dedicated over three months of hard, consistent training to give up at this late stage. 

Thanks to a variety of coping mechanisms and a fantastic support network which I am so grateful for, I’ve been feeling a lot calmer over the past few days. I’ve been able to shift my mindset and manage the panic attacks in a more effective way. 

I’m not saying for a second that my anxiety has magically been ‘cured’ – this is something that I’ve been working on managing for years, and I still have a long way to go. My point is that amongst the sheeny shiny perfectly curated Instagram squares, and the overly enthusiastic ‘NO DAYS OFF’ Strava beasts (I say ‘beasts’ in a kind and loving way of course), there are hundreds and thousands and millions of people who are struggling with their mental health.

There is nobody on this planet who is in a constant state of joy and happiness, and we should talk about that more openly. I am an expert at hiding my feelings, because quite frankly sometimes it’s easier to pretend that nothing is happening – however, I’ve finally realised that ignoring my emotions has a negative impact on my mental health.  

I could write a novel on this topic, so I’m going to end this post here before it turns into War and Peace. Some final thoughts – talk to people, overshare, talk to people some more. Shame has no place in your life.