I’ve had some form of the following question come up in various ways and decided to do a foundational roadmap blog article for one way of approaching health while also rejecting traditional dieting behaviors that tend to do more mental and emotional harm than good.

The question is typically along the lines of:

What can we do if we come to the conclusion that diets, calories counting, macro counting, weight loss supplements, etc. aren’t conducive to our mental health? How do we approach health – or can we? How can we structure daily food without it becoming unhealthy? Essentially, how can I leave diet culture and still strive for health?

– Ex Beachbody Coach

Quick note: the following is for people who have not had an eating disorder. Treatment differs and should be addressed by a licensed health professional who specializes in eating disorders. 

Helping people leave toxic dieting and wellness culture, MLM-related or not, and build a healthy relationship with food is an important area of practice. While the act of leaving the toxicities of dieting and wellness culture is similar on a foundational level, the MLM aspect can add a whole extra layer of challenge. People leaving health and wellness-related MLMs often have to work through leaving general diet/wellness culture while also working through feelings of grief from false promises, shame, and/or guilt for being part of the business model, and more. 

You may have tried to get on a health kick but found it led to frustration, overwhelm, a poor relationship with food, and/or maybe you felt it took up too much brain space and time. There is quite a bit that we can do to support health that don’t require us to count calories, macros, or participate in other restrictive dietary actions. Getting to this place, and it being sustainable, typically requires a few different skills.

While there is no single correct way to approach this, there are foundational places we can approach to begin the transition from strictly controlled eating to an empowered state around food. Also, there is no time expectation on any of the parts we’ll discuss. Some pieces might take weeks, months, or years for some to work through. Any time it takes is fine and no specific amount of time is better or worse. 

Part 1 – Losing Community/Piece of Identity 

Dieting can be a huge part of someone’s life. Body autonomy is valid for what someone does with their body, and while some people choose to follow this approach for life, others find that dieting consistently leads to stress, frustration, loss of self-esteem, and may ultimately decide to step away with the intention of finding an alternative approach to the health outcomes they were looking for from dieting in the first place.

For many, the first step in leaving diet culture and the toxicities they’ve experienced is to take some time to recognize and grieve the idea that what they’ve spent time on may have caused internal and external harm. 

The very idea of stepping away can feel extremely intimidating, especially considering the idea of not only losing the emotions that starting a new diet can bring, but also the idea of having a significant increase in freedom around food.

Stepping into food freedom (i.e. no more food rules) can feel wild and reckless, but it’s an essential aspect of deconstructing diet mentality.

Also, there’s often a loss of community as many people will find community around specific diets, whether in-person or online. Losing community ties is not a fun thing. And even if you aren’t shunned away, the connection holding you to the community will likely suffer if the community itself is built around a specific way of eating or centered around a specific supplement (like many nutrition-related MLMs are).

A few questions some find helpful to unpack thoughts when deciding to begin this process include:

  • What is good about NOT changing/deconstructing dieting behaviors? 
  • What am I losing if I give up dieting?
  • Is there a community I can be part of that supports this change in approach?
  • Who is someone I can trust to support me through this?

There are many ways to process this piece. One of my favorite activities to help guide through this process is the Tree Activity. This is a great exercise to begin better understanding our relationship with food. Following the prompts gives us a better idea of where we are, why we are the way we are, and what we want in our relationship with food.

  • Step #1 – Draw the Roots; Write a few words that describe how food (and eating) was like at home as a child.
  • Step #2 – Draw the Ground; Write some words that describe how you think about food
  • Step #3 – Draw the Trunk; What do you actually do with food? Why do you eat what you eat?
  • Step #4 – Draw the Limbs; What do you want to do? How do you want to eat?
  • Step #5 – Draw the Leaves; Write down people who have positively impacted your nutrition.
  • Step #6 – Draw a Compost Bin; What are some negative nutrition beliefs you want to throw out or upgrade?
  • Step #7 – Draw a Basket; What are some positive characteristics and/or positive food-habits you possess?
  • Step #8 – Draw Some Flowers; What legacy do you want to leave regarding nutrition and food?

Part 2 – Food Neutrality

One of the next steps is by building and strengthening the idea of “Food Neutrality”.

For many former and chronic dieters there is often a dichotomous way of looking at food, it’s either “good or bad”, “on or off plan”, “healthy or unhealthy”, “clean or dirty”.

In reality, food is a neutral form of energy. Its helpfulness and power can be harnessed and seen in context of the situation. 

Food neutrality hits on the aspect that food is not a moral “good” or “bad” choice, and that food lives on a spectrum of what serves us, based on context. 

While approaching Food Neutrality, we keep in mind the definition of health, which includes not only physical health, but also mental, social, and emotional wellbeing – all equally important. 

The next step in Food Neutrality is seeing potential positives and negatives of how a specific food, or a combination of food, can serve you.

For example, let’s say you were running a half marathon and didn’t have anything to eat the morning of the race. If you had the option of either kale or juice with extra added sugar, the juice is going to be the option that will serve you better in what your goal is, which is to have enough energy to complete the event. In that situation, kale is not going to be a healthy option for you.

It’s also important to remember that food can provide positives not just for physical health, but mental and social wellbeing as well.

Part 3: Self-Compassion

Compassion is fundamental for deconstructing diets; Self-compassion for past experiences, current experiences, and future experiences as you work through learning, building, and strengthening your healthy relationship with food.

Self-compassion is not an easy pass. And it’s not “letting yourself go”.

Identifying 3 parts to Self-Compassion per research by Dr. Kristin Neff:

  • 1) Self-Kindness: Self-kindness is not self-indulgence or self-destructive pleasure seeking behavior. Instead, you do things that truly make you feel better and help sustain you.
  • 2) Common Humanity: You realize it’s not “just you”. Everyone has challenges, makes mistakes, and feels down or inadequate in some way, sometimes.
  • 3) Mindfulness: A state of non-judgmental, conscious awareness and self-observation. Self-compassion helps us regulate feelings. This helps us find less stress and experience less impulsive behavior.

All three of these areas help when moving from dieting to aligning along with actions that still promote health (physical, mental, social, emotional wellbeing) in a sustainable way. 

How do these relate to building and strengthening a healthy relationship with food?

  • 1) Self-Kindness: Self-kindness is not self-indulgence or self-destructive pleasure seeking behavior. Instead, you do things that truly make you feel better and help sustain you. We see this when we choose foods that support our health (physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing) with intention on being kind to our body.
  • 2) Common Humanity: You realize it’s not “just you”. Everyone has challenges, makes mistakes, and feels down or inadequate in some way, sometimes. We see that many others have struggled and worked through the toxicities of dieting and that the journey is not straightforward.
  • 3) Mindfulness: A state of non-judgmental, conscious awareness and self-observation. Self-compassion helps us regulate feelings. This helps us find less stress and experience less impulsive behavior. We see this when we are able to approach food with curiosity and context to assess the best option for us.

With self-compassion, our food choices come from curiosity and context – it’s the opposite of mindless eating.

For more information on self-compassion exercises and Dr. Neff’s work, check out: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/

Part 4 – No Magic Supplement

It can hurt coming to the conclusion that you feel you wasted time and money on false promises and dreams. This happens in and outside of MLM, but MLM adds another layer.

Even though research behind dieting continues to show poor sustainability/long-term results when focused on quick-fix rules and unnecessary dietary restrictions, it can still feel like a bummer and challenge to escape the cycle. 

When desiring to move towards health, outside of MLM and other sketchy diets, it can be helpful to challenge the beliefs you held about the product/diet. Arming yourself with evidence can help in this process. 

Some beliefs we see in [insert any nutrition-related MLM] includes thinking:

  • Their product is the BEST product/beats all other similar products. 
  • Any adverse reaction is from the body detoxing – not an issue with the product. 
  • A lack of effect experienced by the product = not enough time using the product.

And also believing:

  • An excessive price compared to similar non-MLM products is because of quality (versus being overpriced).
  • A proprietary blend is used for product efficacy (this is often used as a way to use less-than-therapeutic-levels needed for individual ingredients).

The truth is that there is not any supplement or fad diet* that is going to help more than basic, foundational, evidence-based practices (that aren’t hiding behind a paywall).

Reminding yourself of this is ONE KEY for getting out of the diet MLM cycle. 

*Note: there are some evidenced-based diets for medical nutrition therapy needs that the diet and wellness industry have exploited and unnecessarily used. 

Part 5 Less Judgy Goals – Adding Things (vs Taking Away)

Remember, you don’t NEED to “work on” your health to be valued. This series is for those with the goal of improving health for various reasons, while also wanting to leave diet/nutrition-related MLMs.

MLM diets /programs often have several rules and restrictions. Some examples might be along the lines of: 

  • No gluten
  • No dairy
  • No coffee
  • No added sugar
  • No artificial sweeteners, etc.
  • Their supplement(s) daily

While there is a variety in rules, there is similarity in that there is unnecessary restrictions & supplement use.

This step in leaving is about adding, versus taking away, foods.

When someone has the goal of health, a good question is “what is health?” for that person and “what does health look like?” for that person.

This is an example of what looks like supporting “health” to this person. This is an example and is in no way indicating that these should be your goals:

Tonya’s 2022 physical well-being outcome goals:

  • Choose foods that support positive energy levels most of the time
  • Choose foods that support physical health most of the time

From her goals of choosing food that support positive energy levels and physical health, we would work to get a little more clarity on breaking down those goals into SMART goals, and from there we might make a plan where she would aim for her meals to include grains/starches, protein, vegetables or fruits, and fat on her plate, at most meals. 

Depending on her desires and levels of readiness, skills, and abilities, along with her current life load, we might plan for all, most, or just one of those meal aspects, and then focus on that for lunches only, dinners only, maybe only on the weekdays, or only on the weekends! There’s no wrong answers in the implementation here.

Based on her energy levels, food availability, food preferences, etc., the individual foods she chooses for grains/starches, protein, vegetables or fruits, and fat can vary. 

Whatever the application might be, the consistent thing is that we’re focusing on adding, rather than taking away, from intake. 

Part 6 The Most Important Piece – Embracing the Imperfection & “Grey” of Health

People often feel like they’ve failed because they “fall off the wagon”. In reality, there is no wagon to fall off from.

Health is messy and perfection isn’t needed.

Embracing the “grey” is where consistency and behavior change happens.

Unfortunately, this isn’t flashy or very exciting, so it doesn’t sell like the quick fixes and fads that MLMs so often sell.

Embracing the grey is a skill. While it can feel scary and out-of-control, it’s one key of sustainability.

As a nutrition practitioner, together, these are the most common foundational areas to be addressed when supporting someone who desires to leave MLM dieting/wellness culture and work on supporting or improving their health for whatever reason at the same time. 

Have you left a nutrition/diet-related MLM? Let me know in the comments what helped you leave.