How Useful Are Diet Labels?

Several years ago I wrote here that I was not going to go by any diet label. At the time I was more exasperated by the orthorexia of the whole thing. That was both internal and externally generated orthorexia. We can all say we don’t agree with labeling ourselves but it’s not a totally useless exercise. It’s a convenient way to compress down a lot of information into an easily identifiable and relatedable expression. Unfortunately it is also something which can lead to lots of false paths and lots of problems. In the past week I’ve run across several stories and instances which make me double down on that decision.

First we have this story in The Atlantic about vegan YouTube stars being held to “impossibly high standards” by their viewers. The long story short is that a lot of these YouTube “stars” feel the need to fake it if they can’t make it to the point where they are beyond disengenuous about what they are doing. The particular person they focused on a couple of people who claimed to be raw vegan but was seen eating chicken and fish on vacation. The horror of it all! She made a mea culpa video which further enraged her fans. Another one waited a full year to tell the world she had started eating some animal products since she had massive insomnia, anema, and an irrelugar menstrual cycle. Again that was met with lots of negativity. We can say that the silence is harmless and it’s their own business what they are eating but that’s not true at all. It is true for the every day people who go about their business doing whatever it is they are doing for eating but when you have people holding themselves out there as models of eating it’s important to be honest about it. This is especially true with people who have tendancies towards eating disorders and can potentially be suffering through health issues because they are seeing their “idols”, for lack of a better expression, soldiering through or more probably in their peak marketing presentation “living the dream” of whatever diet is in fashion for them.

All of that happened at the same time as seeing a bunch of stuff on Paleo “hacks” confusion about if it’s okay to eat eggs again or not and an innundation of “Blue Zones Foods” which were anything but. I say I don’t put a diet label on the way I try to eat. When someone asks me I used to say “Blue Zones-ish” or “mostly whole foods plant based.” I need to describe it some way that’s approachable without needing a pamphlet. I’ll also be the first one to own the fact I don’t eat ideally a lot of the time. This goes back to where the labels become next to useless, or even counter-productive. “I’m eating a vegan diet” or “I’m eating a Keto” diet or whatever is usually code for “I’m eating a healthy diet.” Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. People are often jumping from junk food standard American diets to this sort of thing when they switch over so I’d venture to say they are very much eating a healthier diet. Yet that gets old quick and what’s the next thing we reach for when we start getting tired of being so strict? We reach for junk food. Although it’s no longer junk food in our mind because it fits with that diet label we are choosing to try to adhere to. They are “vegan cookies” or “Keto snackbars.” I was struck by this back in the low-fat craze of the 1990s when Snackwells came out about the same time I was noticing “Fat Free” was splashed across the Skittles bag. Using these short hand labels allows us to fall back into junk food habits but without the guilt of the indulgences. It’s almost worse than when we started. Before it wasn’t that we didn’t know eating mostly junk food was bad it’s just we didn’t want to address it. Now we are eating it thinking we are making ourselves healthier, or more deluding ourselves that we are making ourselves healthier.

I hate the fact that the diet labels are making this sort of behavior exist because as someone that likes exploring various diet lifestyles it helps me seek out some of those things. When I see a friend that’s eating Keto but having something I didn’t think was traditionally Keto I like asking about it. It’s not about calling them out, it’s about learning more about what works or doesn’t work for people on that sort of diet journey for themselves. Yet more often than not all of that really leads to orthrexic behavior, greenwashing by product marketers, and worse of all clique shaming and shitposting.

I stand by the fact I’m never going to go by a particular diet label. I’ve even pulled back from using the term Blue Zones because that has now become very bastardized and is now approaching the greenwashing phase. I called myself a polyvore in a previous post, which is a spin on omnivore but without getting into some paleontological discussion. I try to eat mostly whole foods plant based with animal products mixed in as accents. I often miss that mark, but that’s what I try for. When I miss the mark I don’t have a diet label to cling to as rationalizing why it’s healthy, I just admit I’m indulging. When I’m indulging all the time I admit that I’m over indulging. It’s liberating to have an awareness of what one is eating without worrying about fitting a label. Granted I don’t have a YouTube channel that I have to try to market. That’s liberating too :).