The wellness industry thrives on the fear of death

Eat your greens.
Eat your greens.
Image: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
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Remember when we were normal about food?

I do. As a lanky high school distance runner, I would call my mom on my way home from practice every day and ask what was for dinner. If I got home and dinner wasn’t ready yet, I would microwave white rice, add some soy sauce, and gobble it down as a snack. Then, I would eat a full dinner. Usually, I’d follow it all up with ice cream for dessert.

It was a simple calculation: I had a fast metabolism and was exercising constantly, so I was hungry—and I ate a lot. Then, sometime during university, the calculation got more complicated. I starting reading labels obsessively, eating things like burritos or donuts only when I felt I deserved them, usually after a punishing workout. I listened less to my hunger cues and more to the little notebook where I wrote down everything I had eaten that day, like a never-ending algebra proof.

By the middle of my university years, food took up a stunning amount of my mental energy. It was far more exhausting than running 40 miles a week, which I did at my collegiate peak. While I wasn’t ever diagnosed, I now believe I had orthorexia—an eating disorder where the fixation is not on thinness, but on eating healthy and pure food.

Although “eating disorder” may sound serious, most women I know underwent an eating shift not too different at some point in their lives. The moment where they learned that food was not a neutral actor and they developed, intentionally or not, a “relationship with food.” Indeed, while eating disorders affect a small portion of the population, the number of people with “disordered eating”—which is different from eating disorders only in terms of the intensity of the associated behaviors—in developed nations is growing.

And alongside that, we have wellness and the trend of “clean eating,” a term that—though now out-of-fashion—was the mid-aughts cultural manifestation of the idea that what you put into your body is the ultimate predictor of your quality of life. While orthorexia pre-dated the current explosion of wellness, researchers are studying the link between the condition’s rise and the proliferation of images of clean food and fitness on social media.

Indeed, since its arrival as a concept and social media trope, wellness has grown like a weed in certain crowds. Nowadays, it’s often hard to tell if your friends have medically necessary dietary restrictions or they’re displaying symptoms of socially acceptable eating disorders. We discuss our outer fixations more than our inner anxieties. Food today seems to be less a part of our lives and more our reason for living.

Of course, vegetables and whole grains and fiber are good things. But that’s not what wellness is now about—not at all. For the movement’s devotees, the act of preparing and eating food has become ritualized, performative, and laden with a mixture of shame, guilt, and fear. Indeed, sometimes it seems that those who are the most obsessed with wellness are the most likely to be unwell.

Why is this? How did our culture reach a point where the highest form of aspiration is to successively eliminate more and more things from our diets, our bodies, and our lives? Why have we chosen food—one of the most elemental and pleasurable experiences of life—as our primary method of control? Why are people who are sensible enough to know that a single nutrient or grain won’t save their life still attracted to it? And perhaps most importantly: How the hell can we stop it?

Wellness as privilege

One of the gaping holes in the conversation around wellness is the central role that privilege plays in its appeal. While there may be plenty of Goop takedowns and think-pieces about influencer culture gone rogue, few have stated plainly that wellness is predominantly practiced by very specific set of people. Who are they? They are mostly white, comparatively wealthy women who have the time, money, and bandwidth to worry about longevity and performance over several decades—rather than mere survival today, next week, or next month.

For this group, the markers of prestige and privilege are more narrowly conferred than ever. In advanced economies, you can now easily own a smartphone, a TV, get 2,000 calories a day, and have a closet stuffed with clothes. Which is why the manner in which we acquire our basic needs has become the most powerful marker of distinction—rather than the simple act of having them.

And thus, we don’t just eat food, we fret over and forage and grow and grind and ferment our food. Some intermittently forgo food entirely, as if it’s a competitive sport. And we demonize the cheapest and most easily accessible foods and shame those who favor them—such as that true pariah of wellness: fluffy white bread. When everything comes easily, you transform the most basic acts of survival into manufactured challenges. Nothing else explains why someone would willingly consume mushroom hot cacao mix or an activated charcoal croissant.

The wellness bait and switch

Yet it’s precisely because we haven’t fully framed wellness—and its main tentpoles of food, fitness, and self care—as a mutation of privilege that something has gotten lost. Namely, that the whole industry is a sophisticated bait and switch. The narrative is that wellness is for everyone, that strong is the new skinny, that it’s not about a diet or weight but about being your happiest, truest self. We distinguish our obsession with plant-based diets and ancient grains from the punitive, calorie-obsessed diet culture that came before it—but in reality, it’s simply diet culture 2.0.

After all, the vast majority of influencers are thin white women, hawking products that most people can’t afford, promising outcomes that are either marginal or will never arrive. Though it’s perhaps not as blatant as a model walking down a catwalk in a size zero dress, fat-phobic and white-centric norms are central to wellness imagery (if you don’t believe that, do a stock image or Instagram search for the term.) And yet, virtually no influencers acknowledge the baseline privilege that made them “well”—aka thin, white, and affluent—enough to influence to begin with.

We believe these influencers not because they’ve done anything to earn that trust, but because they look like the ideal we’ve been relentlessly socially conditioned to admire. How else could Belle Gibson—the Australian wellness blogger who faked brain cancer and convinced her followers she had cured it with a preternaturally clean diet—have built a lucrative wellness empire despite being a charlatan of the highest order? It worked because her credibility was conferred not by her content, but her packaging. She looked the part—and that was all she needed.

And sure, the global obesity epidemic does require that our society addresses what we put in our mouths. But this is where wellness’s bait and switch is laid most bare: Following wellness to the letter does nothing to address the structural or societal contributors to obesity or the millions of people in the US alone who have inadequate access to nutrition. That, after all, is not who it’s for.

Indeed, through writing this article, even I am somewhat complicit. Though I’ve managed to loosen the shackles that food had on my brain—to the point where now it is a source of pleasure and nourishment, not stress—I undoubtedly still benefit from the privilege of being naturally thin. This fact makes it markedly easier to come to peace with food in a weight-obsessed society. It’s easy to tell people not to worry about weight—to focus solely on manifesting that glow—when you have a body that capitalist patriarchy doesn’t stigmatize, but rather rewards. This, unsurprisingly, is a position that wellness influencers overwhelmingly find themselves in.

The wellness wheel

About a month ago I was splitting a bottle of wine with a friend who happens to be a nutritionist. The radical non-diet, health-at-every-size approach she uses with her clients often flies in the face of the medical and nutritional establishment. (It’s one thing to say that “health is not about weight” but when you actually mean it, people freak out.)

As we chatted about the anxiety that most people we know have about food, I admitted I still harbor one: sugar. And how could I not? Sugar is crack cocaine, cyanide, and a toxin all at once—at least according to the internet. So perhaps unsurprisingly, I still have this nagging worry I eat too much of it, that it’s inevitably slowly killing me.

She pointed down at the bar menu, where a water ring from the wine bottle had formed. “Imagine that’s a pie chart that represents your whole body’s health,” she said of the ring. “What slice of it do you think is comprised of what you eat?”

My guess—thanks to the reams of articles, posts, and advertising I’ve inadvertently consumed positioning food as a path to salvation—was the overwhelming majority. What if, my friend said, a majority of our wellbeing is determined by non-food related factors like income level, air quality, work environment, family support, emotional well-being, and chronic stress? What if social bonds alone were one of the most powerful predictors of mortality? What if what we put in our mouths was not the main thing we should be focusing on when it comes to health?

The idea struck me hard. Sure, a significant slice of my overall health may be comprised of what I eat (with sugar an even smaller slice of that proverbial pie) but the amount of time I have spent in my life worrying about that slice is entirely disproportionate to its importance. Meanwhile, the amount of structural privilege contained through those other important factors—not least of which: having a job, a secure place to live, a family safety net, access to healthcare, even access to vegetables—goes almost entirely unacknowledged. When was the last time you heard a wellness influencer telling their acolytes to fear social isolation, the dismantling of the social safety net, and poverty more than they should fear sugar or white carbs?

My friend’s back-of-the-menu illustration reminded me of another one I came across a few weeks earlier: a “wellness wheel” from Clarion University, which is intended to help students understand a well-balanced lifestyle. While it may be prosaic at first glance, the wheel’s seven elements, which include emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual, are far more expansive than what the “wellness” establishment has led us to focus on.

Many of the core tenets of holistic health as defined by the wheel—having mental time to explore new intellectual pursuits, living within your financial means, maintaining strong social bonds, managing one’s stress level—seem in direct opposition to the zealously-focused mindset of wellness itself. The wheel reminded me of the original definition of orthorexia, coined by then-alternative medicine practitioner Steven Bratman in 1997, when he observed his clients “had reduced the dimensionality of their human lives by assigning excessive meaning and power to what they put in their mouths.”

And for wellness’ most strident adherents—the “worried well,” as my nutritionist friend calls them—that multi-dimensionality is precisely what a fixation on wellness shrinks. They can’t hear the very factual claim that “sugar is too prevalent in the modern diet” without also hearing: “Eating sugar will kill you.”

And here, I speak from experience: It’s easy to drain a bank account if you will only shop at health food stores and take exercise classes that cost $30 a pop. It’s hard to enjoy vacations in foreign countries or boozy weekends with friends when you need to Google the menu beforehand. And it’s virtually impossible to get lost in passions or pursuits when you’re fixated with staving off death through what you do—and don’t—put in your mouth all day.

Eternal life

There is no doubt that in uncertain times, food is a great mechanism of control. And wellness is appealing because it presents a glowing, Instagrammable solution to a problem that we all share. That problem, quite simply, is the spiritual work of being alive. As British food writer Ruby Tandoh put it in her book Eat Up: Food, Appetite, and Eating What You Want, wellness has captured our attention thanks in part to its close mimicry of religious ritual:

Even the vocabulary of the church of wellness borrows from sermon. Look into diet plans, wellness cookbooks and clean living tutorials, and you find good and evil, miracles, cures, healing, hope, bright new futures and promised salvation. Between every line, seasoning every recipe, is the implied promise of eternal life.

And yet, no cookbook can solve the ambiguity, the risk, the vulnerability of being alive. No layered bowl of superfoods can counter the brutal fact that we could all die tomorrow—and we certainly will all die one day. Yet when our survivalist concerns are not about today, next week, or this month, they become more abstract. Do this, and then this, and then that, wellness tells us, and you could live forever, too.

So, what is true wellness?

So if not that, what does make us well? It’s having strong support groups and community ties, voluntary confrontation of our emotional issues, revisiting past trauma through counseling or therapy, and developing our interior worlds through strengthening our emotional intelligence. This stuff is not only difficult, it requires of a lot of support. You cannot, no matter what a wellness coach tells you, manifest good mental health through sheer force of will.

It’s also expensive and completely inaccessible for many who need it, a fact that our society is paying the price for in the form of increasing rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. Perhaps most damningly, this “inner work” also doesn’t confer any status once you achieve it. You can’t get paid to Instagram not feeling anxious or learning how to be kind to yourself when you’re having a tough time. Mental health does not naturally lend itself to “likes.”

But once you dig into that work, the idea that a diet, or food group, or workout type will save you from your deep, rational sense of existential dread seems less convincing. Holding on to that branch, in the hope that it will save you from being swept away with the tide, begins to seem silly.

Indeed, when you let go, you realize that the only thing that will save you is the simple realization that nothing will save you. And that, it turns out, is the greatest feeling of all.