Tired of Sucking It In: How Health Research Is Biased By Diet Culture

Tired of Sucking It In: How Health Research Is Biased By Diet Culture

Health research is biased by diet culture and it’s not healthy. I mean aren’t you tired of “sucking it in”? I know I sure am. Did you know that sucking in your stomach can actually be detrimental to your health? This process can lead to shallow breathing, slowed metabolism (from getting less oxygen), digestion issues (from constricting our organs), and sore muscles due to bad posture (because of breathing improperly).

Most women I know suck in to portray a smaller version of themself to the mirror. But it goes beyond this because many of us tend to do this even in public. We are so affected by how our midsections look in public because our society is obsessed with thin and flat tummies. It’s why so many women spend money on diets, gym memberships, Spanx, and anything marketed as a quick fix to achieve this look.

I remember when my obsession with flat stomachs began. I had read somewhere that Britney Spears did one thousand sit-ups per day and well who wouldn’t want to look like her? I tried to commit to doing the same but was met with extreme failure. I just did not have that kind of will power, yet I still dreamed of achieving her core. I was so jealous of all the thin girls who had those cute, little ab rolls you get when you sit down and are no more than a size two. I’ve always just had one big lump. The kind of lump that a two-year-old proudly displays with no care in the world. A lump, that I now know is the least important part of who I am.

I spent years examining my body in the mirror. Side view then front view. It was a great day if my stomach looked flat. I would consciously and unconsciously suck in and flex my stomach while observing my body in the mirror. It became a regular thing for me to “hold in” my body while out in public. I’m not going to lie, it’s something I still find myself compelled to do. I think it’s why so many women, myself included, love yoga pants. The compression band provides that secure feeling of “sucking in” but in a less constricting way.

So where does our desire for a flat stomach come from? Society teaches us that a flat stomach makes us more desirable and also that it is a reflection of our health. Health professionals back up this idea with health and wellness studies. But here’s the catch…these studies are almost always funded by companies who profit from our body dissatisfaction (like diet and beauty industry). Yes, that means that health research is biased by diet culture and this culture is hard at work in our society!

Of course, there is some truth behind the science of belly fat (although it’s unknown whether it is completely scientific and unaffected by diet culture). Scientists have determined that there are two types of stomach fat, subcutaneous and visceral. Visceral stomach fat surrounds your organs which is why having a larger percentage of this type of fat can be problematic. Research suggests that visceral fat is linked to medical issues like diabetes, high cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart disease (to name a few). Subcutaneous fat is found directly under your skin (the pinchable stuff).

You cannot tell how much of each type of fat you have by just looking. Rather, it’s something you would need a radiology test to determine. It’s also important to note that the amount of visceral and subcutaneous fat you have is not determined by what you eat or how active you are…it’s genetic. Genetics literally determines where and how much fat your body stores.

It’s easy to hypothesize that fat equals unhealthy because this thinking allows diet culture to sell their products under the guise that they are helping fix your supposed health issues. These ideas are also at the forefront of fat-shaming culture which is the discrimination of people based on their weight and size. We are convinced that we need to fix our outside appearance to be healthy and scientists are paid to focus their research on supporting and maintaining these ideals.

These problematic ideas can also lead to some very biased medical care for people (especially fat people, although that is another story to explore entirely). Diet culture is so embedded in our society that even our medical professionals and scientists are biased because of it. 

The important take away here is that genetics play the biggest role in your physical appearance. Understanding this and also knowing that a lot of research around health is tainted, is crucial to your journey towards self-acceptance. I am not saying that you should never be active or eat whole foods, rather I want you to know that the focus of your health (physical and mental) should be based on more than how much weight you carry in your midsection.

Focus on what your body can do for you and how it feels. If it feels good, then chances are it’s good for you. Your body is smarter than you give it credit for.

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Emily is the founding editor of Happy Daughter, a body positive online community for women. She is a body image expert, who is passionate about promoting positive body image, media awareness, and healthy relationships. Emily is getting ready to release her book, Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body in January 2021.

2 Comments

  1. Dijana Reply

    After 30 years of sel-hate due to my extra kilos (or pounds), I finally aknowledge (I knew it all along but never accepted it), that the point is not beauty, but health. So all I do now, diet-wise, is about being healthier. I didn’t know that sucking in is harmful, I do it all the time. 🙁

    1. Emily Lauren Dick Post author Reply

      I know! We do it unconsciously because of all the self-judging we have been taught to do! The feeling of always being watched and judged has made us this way. All we can do is be conscious of it and strive for balance and a health mentality! 🙂 Kudos for starting your self-love journey!!

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