New Year…Full Stop.

Image Credit: Diana Polekhina

Sophia Finucane explores the ramifications surrounding putting a much needed end to January diet culture:

Happy New Year! As 2022 rolls-in, I think that it is fair to say things have not exactly gone entirely as we all may have planned, what with the pandemic still raging and seemingly everybody’s festive plans being changed or down-right cancelled. I think, for some people, when the personal treats of going out for drinks, to the theatre, to  the cinema, on holidays abroad or ice skating etc. were not available -and some of us were even stuck in one room isolating- the only treats left this Christmas were television and food and drink. Hopefully, due to the unprecedented lack of joy, we have all collectively decided to go a little easier on ourselves in the traditional New Year ‘bounce-back’ period, but it would be naive to think that perhaps the opposite is not the case for some. Increased eating and decreased mobility this Covid Christmas has likely instilled a lot of guilt in many, leading to the idea that this January has to be the most exercise-obsessed, diet culture run affair to date. 

The conversation on the dangers of fad diet culture in the New Year is not new. For years now, self-care has been taken more seriously in print media, TV and internet content than it was in the mainly diet-focussed era of the 2000s. However, I know many of us are outwardly promoting ideas of kindness while still inwardly feeling immense shame and pressure to have a total 180 degree transformation in our eating and drinking. There is nothing wrong with dry January, Veganuary, or taking the change of the calendar as an opportunity to schedule-in more exercise, simply because one wants to feel refreshed and energised. But it goes beyond that, way beyond that, and there has been increasing research and discourse on just how dangerous the popular advertisement of the ‘New Year, New Me’ idea is for those who suffer with any form of eating disorder, however mild, or even just those without buckets of self-assurance and confidence. 

“Don’t be afraid that if you don’t pressure yourself, you won’t exercise, or you’ll only eat chocolate.”

Media is powerful, and recent Twitter discussions on the popular RTÉ show ‘Operation Transformation’ have revealed how the normalised fatphobic language and fad diet techniques promoted have really negatively impacted the lives of some viewers. I cringe knowing that cutting whole food groups and obsessive calorie counting are still promoted as the one-size-fits-all approach for a ‘healthy lifestyle,’ knowing that young people will see this, and recalling the impact it had on me as a child. To clarify, this is not a call for a blanket ban on any discussion of healthy eating on our national broadcaster, but when Ireland spends just 5% of our overall health budget on mental health services, compared to the 12% recommended by the World Health Organisation, and our priorities are clearly not for everyone to have accessible therapy and help with our emotional relationships to consumption, it is not okay to think that everyone can hear the message of Operation Transformation in an equally balanced and un-harmful way.  

If you do want to lose weight for genuinely healthy reasons that take physical and mental health holistically into account, the point of this article is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with that. However, psychologist after psychologist has been interviewed on countless news outlets at this point and repeatedly the message has been that fad diets do not work if the goal is sustainable change, because if they did, there would only be one. Never forget that people “failing” these diets is only making money for the diet industry! However, perhaps weight loss is not the goal, and the general idea is to take January as an opportunity to build muscle, or even just to incorporate more vegetables or protein into your week. Just don’t let those decisions be manipulated by the ads on TV, magazine covers, promoted apps, Tik-Tok and YouTube thumbnails showing obsessively tracked macros and calorie deficits. It’s unfortunately so easy for innocent and very healthy goals to become warped by the absolute saturation of diet culture content that floods in in the New Year. 

So I encourage you, don’t put too much pressure on yourself this January. Not to sound like Marie Kondo and ask you if your protein bar ‘sparks joy,’ but sincerely, a way to tackle this is to just ask yourself whether you are eating/not eating/exercising/not exercising because your body is telling you it wants to do that, or because of a guilty pressure you feel to do so. If eating a salad or going for a run holistically fits into your process of being a content and self-loving individual, DO IT! That is one of the most amazing feelings, and take it from someone who treated exercise as only punishment and food as only an occasional reward for many painful years, when you just sit back and listen to your body, you actually feel like you want to move it. Don’t be afraid that if you don’t pressure yourself, you won’t exercise, or you’ll only eat chocolate.

Having said all this, the winding down of festivities and the promise of spring to come can be a lovely time to help ourselves feel refreshed by making some positive lifestyle changes (IF we genuinely want to). So if you still want to reset, how about some alternatives to focusing on how our bodies look? Some examples of other ‘new year new me’ activities are: 

1. Learn about some new musicians by asking your friends for recommendations

2. Work on your mental health (which is equally important to your physical) if you feel it would be beneficial.

3.  Try a new recipe each week- maybe even using some of the great contributions we have had from writers for this very Food & Drink’s section, as there continue to be amazing dishes from around the world submitted to our ‘Recipes of My Life’ segment!

4. Make a list of films you’d like to watch and try to cross-off one a week…the list goes on.

There are of course also the classics like reading a certain number of books, yoga challenges and work goals, but the most important takeaway from this is please just let’s be kind to ourselves. Times are really rough right now, and all I ask is that we all do what we genuinely feel like doing, and if that is working out or eating healthy, that is great. The bottom line is, the idea of ‘New Year, New Me’ does not promote holistic processes of working out and diet that will last, as it suggests that we should set unrealistic goals in January, peter-off due to fatigue and an inability to sustain them as the year goes on, and then press repeat again next January. Wouldn’t you rather do something that consistently feels instinctual and good? Is challenging without being unsustainably so? Starting January with the mindset of food (that isn’t salad) being a treat and exercise being only ever a guilty punishment is the perfect recipe for a horrible relationship with both for the rest of the year, if not beyond.