Ofrenda Magazine: One of the important aspects of your work is that you teach people to separate “diet culture” from nourishment and healthy living. Can you share more?
Hortencia Jiménez: I teach people that healthy living has little to do with dieting—and, in fact, that “diet culture” is dangerous. Christy Harrison defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of health” (7).
Diet culture makes it very difficult for people to nourish their bodies because it focuses on restriction and deprivation. Diet culture constantly tells you what you can eat, how much, and when you should eat. The list of “should nots” is long—and is damaging for the soul and spirit.
Diet culture has also played a central role in vilifying the food choices of working-class communities of color without taking into account the structural conditions and racism. Diet culture places both the responsibility and blame of food choice on individuals while failing to acknowledge the reality that many communities of color are victims of “food apartheid.” They may live in neighborhoods that are considered food deserts: places without grocery stores, “health food” stores, or fresh food options. Diet culture shames and criticizes people for their food choices—buying conventional, processed, packaged, canned, or frozen food—even when they might not have other local options.
Ofrenda Magazine: You’ve also identified the dangers of the “clean eating” movement. What, in your opinion, should readers be aware of?
Hortencia Jiménez: We are told that nourishing our bodies is only possible with “clean foods”—whole foods that are often local and organic, low in carbs, and devoid of food coloring or preservatives. However, we need to be cautious about directly associating nourishment with only “clean eating” because it obscures issues of social class, privilege, food access, and systematic racism. As I mentioned, because of systemic and structural racism, many communities of color are unable to eat local, organic, and sustainable food.
The problem with “clean eating” is not the food itself but the fixation on purity and morality. The fixation on dietary purity is intricately connected to race and white supremacy. Much of the language that is used is focused on strict binaries: clean vs. dirty, real food vs. fake food, whole food vs. processed and packaged food, good food vs. bad food. We need to remember that the moral judgments tied to these binaries have origins in colonialism, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity.
For example, our ancestral foods have historically been racialized and othered. Columbus believed that European food was vital for Europeans’ survival in the Americas, and cultivating European foods was part of the colonization project. The Spanish viewed European food as superior and went to great lengths to have wheat bread, wine, olive oil, lamb, beef, and pork. Medical writers of the time warned of the “dangerous” and “poisonous” nature of Indigenous foods (Earle 603).
These legacies are still present today, which is why it is so important to move away from food binaries that place a moral value on food. The definition of “nourishing food” is often set by white, middle-class standards, and by people who have power and access to food. Demonizing food and shaming people for their food choices needs to stop. I try to help my clients free themselves from guilt they might feel about not being able to adhere to “clean eating” standards.
Demonizing food and shaming people for their food choices needs to stop.
Ofrenda Magazine: Some Indigenous food-sovereignty advocates are encouraging people to eat locally and seasonally—as a way to decolonize. What is your perspective on the Indigenous food movement? Do you also see this as part of “diet culture,” which might also recommend local and seasonal eating?
Hortencia Jiménez: Contrary to the white, middle-class “diet culture” perspective, Indigenous food sovereignty calls us to honor and value our ancestral knowledge and foodways while calling out the racist structures that lead to systemic and structural inequality and the disenfranchisement of communities. It centers discussions of centuries of colonialism and intersecting issues of hunger, environmental degradation, economic and political inequality, violence, poverty, and social and racial justice. All these are issues that the white, middle-class “clean eating” and “farm-to-table” food movements have largely failed to recognize and address. Honoring our sacred relationship to the land, plants, and all living things is part of food sovereignty. It’s about reclaiming the power of food and the land, the right to determine local food systems.
Indigenous food sovereignty embodies the spiritual connection to all relationships. It calls us to decolonize our diets, to participate in traditional food related activities, and build community and coalitions that uphold our Indigehous values and principles and connection to Mother Earth. The challenge in decolonizing our diet and embodying the Indigenous food sovereignty principles is to find a balance between cultivating and eating our ancestral foods on one hand, and consuming modern foods without the shame created by toxic diet culture narratives on the other.
Ofrenda Magazine: What is the best way for people to listen to their bodies? How do you recommend people tune in with their bodies’ natural wisdom when it comes to nourishing themselves? Do you have any particular tips or simple practices that you share with your clients?
Hortencia Jiménez: There are 10 principles of intuitive eating to help individuals heal their relationship with dieting. I call it “undieting.” At the core of intuitive eating is trusting your body and your signals. It’s the mind and body connection, and I would add, spiritual connection to our ancestral foods and inherent wisdom that our ancestors have passed from one generation to the next. I place an emphasis on the latter, as the principles of intuitive eating do not center our ancestral wisdom and connection to the land.
The ten principles are rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food police, feeling your fullness, discovering the satisfaction factor, coping with your feelings without using food, respecting your body, joyful movement, and honoring your health with gentle nutrition.
An important step in the intuitive eating journey is to cultivate compassion, to refrain from criticizing yourself when you make mistakes along the way. Your undieting journey is not meant to be perceived as “pass” or “fail,” and it’s not meant to be perfect or linear. Be gentle with yourself in the process.
Ofrenda Magazine: Is there any other advice you’d like to offer to our readers?
Hortencia Jiménez: I invite you to take a few moments to think about your own food choices, preferences, biases, and perhaps the normalized food rules you have been conditioned to follow. There is no right or wrong way to nourish your body with food. Do what is right for you, and don’t compare yourself with others. Bio-individuality is a concept that involves recognizing that each individual is unique, complex, multi-faceted, dynamic, and with different nutritional needs. The best process to discover your bio-individual needs is to make small changes in your diet. It will take trial and error to figure out which foods make your body feel good and nourished. The sooner you start experimenting with food and breaking away from toxic diet culture food rules, the sooner you’ll start this journey of discovering your bio-individuality and the best way to nourish your body.
I humbly offer the following call to action in your healing journey with food and finding the right nourishment for you:
- I encourage you to unfollow accounts on social media that promote diets and food restriction—any accounts that vilify and place a moral value on food.
- Set boundaries with family around toxic behaviors, such as body image shaming and food shaming.
- Reframe negative talk about food and your body.
- Reflect and work on your own unconscious biases and prejudices around food and bodies.
- Ask yourself, what motivates my food choices?
- Finally, eat what makes your body feel its best. Eat what you truly find satisfying; avoid attaching morality to the foods that you eat.
This article is an excerpt from our upcoming issue, Nourishment. Sign up for our email newsletter, and we'll notify you when it's released!