#287: Walking the Line Between Wellness and Diet Culture

walking the line between wellness and diet culture - Michelle Leottia smiling
At a certain point in Michelle’s health coaching business she realized her work was inadvertently crossing the line into toxic diet culture. And this is true of the entire wellness industry! Listen in for a candid discussion about our responsibility as health coaches.

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Walking the Line Between Wellness & Diet Culture

This may make the health coaching industry uncomfortable.

Yet there’s no denying the intersection of wellness and diet culture.

For many of us, the connection is inadvertent. You think you’re helping women with other health issues, just to realize the one they care most about is their weight.

Here’s an example:

My journey into health coaching started after years of dizziness and fainting episodes. When doctors couldn’t help me, I finally found relief through diet and lifestyle changes. I felt like a new person! And because I wanted to share my experience with others, I became a health coach.

However, many (most) of my clients were more focused on weight loss. The programs I put together to help them learn to cook, have more energy, smoother digestion and better sleep were great…but in the end, they judged success by the pounds they lost. 

I’d celebrate their wins, of course!

But one day I realized…

Maybe my work is part of the problem? After all, just like a weight loss diet, I was helping clients make “better” choices. Eat “clean.” Get “back on the wagon.”

It’s a fine line but suddenly I realized I was hovering over it more than I’d ever intended.

On the other hand…

Some coaches get started based on a weight loss approach. 

Like Katey, whose journey started based on a lifelong quest to lose weight. She eventually lost over a hundred pounds and wanted to help others do the same. 

But she saw that for many, weight loss was a singular goal – their only measure of success. And the personal growth she’d experienced on her journey wasn’t necessarily happening for her clients.

Common ways health coaches perpetuate diet culture

Even unintentionally, health coaches can potentially play into toxic diet culture anytime we work with our clients, post to social media, appear in public, etc:

  • Labeling foods and “good” or “bad”
  • Sharing “before” and “after” photos
  • Sharing what you eat in a day
  • Posting images of the “perfect plate”
  • Bringing our own food, only eating “clean”

While some of these practices may attract clients, be mindful of how they can reinforce unhealthy beliefs and behaviors – for YOU and others.

How can health coaches turn the tide away from diet culture?

  1. Meet women where they are

If clients come with weight loss goals, that’s great. Work with them – and also help them discover the bigger picture of overall wellness. Talk about their sleep, digestion, relationships, career, etc. and emphasize goals/successes in these areas. Ask about their history with weight loss. Be mindful of the impossible pressure placed on women to look “perfect.” Not only does this make you more socially responsible – it makes you more valuable as a coach!

  1. Specialize in a completely different area

Think: Eczema. Lyme disease. A health issue where weight loss is not the primary focus. Finding clients may be slightly more challenging in the beginning. (You can close your eyes, point, and find a woman who wants to lose weight. Finding a more specific niche requires strategic marketing but, in the long run, can be very profitable and rewarding.)

  1. Specialize in the anti-diet movement

Focusing on intuitive eating and retraining thought patterns around food and body image. This approach requires finding very specific clients who want to learn how to NOT lose weight and accept their body.

Spoiler: If you’re offering “intuitive weight loss” you are still selling a diet. And saying “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” is still selling the idea of weight loss. So it’s more of that first approach mentioned above – meeting women where they are.

We support ALL types of health coaches

Whether you are a coach who focuses on weight loss or not, we support you – and we want to help you find clients and make the world a better place. You can get our free Healthy Profit University Blueprint right here.

Full transcript:

Hello there, health coaches. Thank you so much for joining us today. We are going to have a probably somewhat uncomfortable conversation about diet, culture and the wellness industry and us as health coaches. And I only say it's going to be uncomfortable because I remember how I felt when I realized maybe my work is crossing the line, maybe I'm actually perpetuating diet culture inadvertently. And it was an uncomfortable realization that hit me quite a few years into my health coaching practice. Definitely changed some things about how I did business. Now, Katey Caswell is joining me today. Katey is my head coach inside Healthy Profit University and a dear friend and became, because she and I came from different backgrounds. We just came to health coaching in such different ways. We thought this would be a fantastic discussion to have together and with you. So thanks for being here, Katey.

Of course, always great to see you. Michelle.

Before we dive in, you guys, this episode is brought to you by Healthy Profit University. If you're looking to build your health coaching business and you want to learn from coaches who have been in your exact shoes, not like marketing bros or tech heads, get our free Healthy Profit University blueprint at healthcoachpower.com/blueprint.

And Katey, I thought we could start just what I just said. We got into health coaching really in two different ways, so I thought maybe we could just start there. I mean, my whole health coaching journey started because of these fainting episodes that I was experiencing and a lot of dizziness and lightheadedness and just absolute passing out for years. And it was a real journey to figure out what the heck was going on with me. And when I did food, as we know, diet and lifestyle can change everything. It really did for me. And then I wanted to tell everybody about it and I felt so good and I had so much more energy and so much more alive. I became really annoying and I just wanted to evangelize. I think that happens to lots of us. So I was actually, I dunno if I was surprised, but I was like, oh, when I realized that actually a lot of my clients wanted to talk about their weight and for me I was like, oh yeah, I mean that too. But it was certainly not where I was coming from with the whole thing. So that was my story. Will you share yours?

Oh, of course, yes. So for me, it was all about the weight. I mean, I grew up a normal size person, but all the little cues around me told me I was not a normal size person told me that I was big. I just found a pair of pants size seven, size seven DoorDash jeans. Certainly not morbidly obese, but in my head I was so much bigger than all the other girls and I tried everything to not be bigger. I remember in middle school I was eating half a container of half a six ounce container of yogurt for breakfast, half a chocolate chip cookie for lunch and half of whatever my mom put on my plate for dinner and I still felt like I was gaining weight and being really big and people around me were kind of agreeing with me. They would be really quick to buy me out the 77 shakes and figurines and all the 1970s kind of diet foods out there.

So my issues started way back. I didn't know they were issues. I thought everyone thought that way. I moved into college, went to a place called the Diet Center where they're like, eat this many servings of this and this many servings of that. I remember the Diet center lady yelling at me because I'd say, well, yeah, you can go drink on the weekends and then you just got to eat a little less. And she was like, no, that's not healthy. So I finally in my forties lost over a hundred pounds and I was like a convert. I ate very small portions and I was full. I ate very healthy foods, totally eliminated sugar, went to the gym every day, worked out hardcore for over an hour, then found myself health coaching and that was what I thought everybody wanted. The health part of the coaching in my head was, you're healthy if you're smaller. That was the message that the world had served me. That's how I got into health coaching.

You weren't wrong because what I learned has been in 15 years since I became a health coach now was that 99% of the women I ever worked with had that same thought. Whether it was their main reason for working with me or if it was a secondary reason or even tertiary reason, it was always there For almost every single woman, the weight was a big issue. In fact, it could be complicated because a woman could experience so many awesome changes over the course of our coaching program. She has more energy and she's sleeping better, and her relationship with maybe her husband was better, whatever, all her career, she's making decisions with a clear head and yet it would be like, but I didn't lose the weight. And I'm like, oh god. But it's interesting. We'll talk about different ways to approach this as a health coach, but I think we have to for better or for worse, except that that is where most women are coming from. So you certainly weren't alone.

No, I was not alone. Multi-billion dollar industry. Right.

Right. So I would say I was about six years into my practice before any of this dawned on me as being a problem. I thought if I could help someone lose weight and they were happy, then cool. I don't want to say a problem with that. It wasn't what I expected. I didn't see it as problematic though. Actually, I'm curious, for those of you that are here with us, live in the Facebook group now, tell us in the chat, were you in a mindset of like, I'm going to help people lose weight. Did you come into your health journey through a weight loss avenue or was it something else entirely? I know we all have different stories of how we got here, but this is a really common one. Really, really common. So anyway, I was about six years into my practice and I had been running a 21 day detox program very successfully. No surprise looking back, right? Because that word detox, even though first of all, that word is loaded. I know there's lots of reasons we don't like that word anymore, but it was really hot in 2010 and I see now that women were really drawn to it because it has diet undertones to it without saying diet, and it doesn't necessarily have to have those undertones, but for a lot of women it does. I think because the word detox, it's like remove toxins or get rid of the bad stuff. Don't be bad, be good. It is sort of that implication of the reading between the lines. And I didn't know that. Again, I thought I was putting together a program that was going to help women have more energy and see it wasn't that hard to cook real food in their kitchen and save money on takeout.

And what I found was that I was having a lot of repeaters in my program, which was great, but they would say things like, oh, time for another detox. I'm up another five, 10 pounds, time to detox again, Michelle. Or they would say Before this detox starts, I'm going to make sure to pret talk and eat a lot of pizza and drink a lot and eat all the bad things because I know that I'm going to repent for it in a way, I grew up Catholic too, and I don't know how much of this has a religious bent, but just the idea of bad versus good, I'm going to be bad and then I'm going to be good. And I'm like, oh, is that how they're using this program? That's not what I intended. Oh, so your experience was different, Katey, because from the get go you were helping people to lose weight. At what point were you like, huh?

So as health coaches, I think we have a tendency to think everyone else's journey is just like ours and everyone else's solution. If they follow my, this helped me, it will help them, especially as a young health coach. And that's where I was. And through my journey, I actually did gain a lot of insight about my body and about my relationship with food. I don't know that I was focusing on that, but at the end I was like, okay, I'm this whole new person. I'm not just a smaller person and I'm even someone who I could be big again and I'd be good with me. I learned that about myself and I thought everyone would have that same experience. So I've helped a lot of people lose a hundred pounds, and then they were like, great, now I can buy all the clothes. And I'm like, well, how do you feel about you?

And well, if I can keep it off. And I'm like, so I was realizing that not everyone's journey was the same as mine. And some people would get to that place and still have that notion that virtue smaller weight loss is all about how virtuous you are. If you can stick to a program, then you're good. The whole dichotomy between good and bad that you were mentioning, and they were coming to me for approval, and I don't remember ever going to anyone about approval like, yay, I lost whatever weight I lost. I didn't ask anyone for a star on my forehead that I had done a good job. So for me, that's what I had to realize that people were not getting this growth automatically, and it must've been something else other than losing weight that brought me to that place. So that was kind of my big aha moment, that not only could I help people lose weight if they wanted to, I could also help them realize that they didn't have to lose weight and that their personal journey, I hate the word, but that their personal journey didn't necessarily have to coincide with weight loss. They could go together or they didn't have to. You could do them separately. That was my real aha moment where I could really be effective and help people in a variety of things.

So it sounds like if you had a client who said, oh, I was so good this week, whatever, I kept my calories or I did whatever, maybe you started stepping in and saying, oh, let's talk more about how you were good. What does that mean to you? Or something like that, right?

Yes. Yes. And eventually got to the point where I would tell them good, sick, bad words. I don't like good and bad as words to really kind of get them into the mindset of just acceptance that a thing was a thing and it's a data point. So yes, we would definitely have conversations to help scare them away from their pats on the back being they starved themselves or they denied themselves and they went through a whole mishmash of emotions in their head that wound up on the negative side.

Right. So I think that's interesting, and it might be interesting for all of our coaches listening to a first notice where again, it could be completely inadvertently, your work is crossing into toxic diet culture of rewarding someone because they starved themselves this week. No, how are we going to talk about that? In my case, I stopped running my detox, I stopped calling it a detox, and I actually made the program much more simple. It wasn't as extreme. At one point, it was completely vegan, no alcohol, no sugar, no dairy, no gluten. It was very, very strict. And I found that that was, for me, it was sustainable at the time. I'm not vegan now, but at the time I ate like that all the time. It was no big deal. And I thought I could teach others to do the same and feel really great, but for them it was something they did for just a short period of time, and then they would go right back to it wasn't sustainable.

So I was like, how can I make this still give them all the good benefits and also something they could sustain? So I changed my program pretty drastically and I changed the words and how I was talking about the program. So that's a question for everybody listening. How might we course correct a little bit so that we are feeding, we're not feeding into that good versus bad dichotomy. And another way of talking about food that I really leaned into was we're going to experiment. We're going to experiment with this way of eating. Oh, you are thinking of going gluten-free. Let's experiment with that. Oh, you've heard that dairy might be contributing to mucus or sinus infections. Let's see how you feel if you take it out. So it became like we're going to be scientists. And for those of you who have our five day jumpstart kit, you'll see that reflected in our jumpstart kit because we say that we're scientists this week. We're just collecting data points like you said, Katey. So that's an interesting thought Debbie's asking over here, and I wanted to pass this along to Katey. She said, how does one approach health coaching when you're not in a perfect place yourself? She says she's always been thin, healthy, energized, but haven't been in that place in a couple of years. How do you justify helping others when you're not in that place yourself? We get this question all the time, don't we?

Yeah. So I always like to think about professional sports teams. When someone asks me that question, can the coach of the football team put on some pads and do what his players are doing? No, usually no, he can't. Whether he could ever, who knows. But he can't do that now and does look at him and say, Mr. Big Football coach, you shouldn't be doing that because you can't get out there and tackle people. So I think it's interesting that as health coaches, we think we have to be perfect in order to help someone else. And I don't think we do. In fact, I think if we're perfect, it actually discourages people because they don't know if they're ever going to be as perfect as their coach. It can also set up a little bit of that unhealthy, I'm trying, but I'm not getting there. And the feeling of failure even though they're doing better.

So I think if you've been in a place where you've grown, done something about yourself, about a part of you that you didn't love, if you've changed that you're in a place to relate to your client, and that's what our clients need. They need someone who can relate to them. They don't need someone who can tell them their perfect macros, who can show them that they have a perfect body and it is attainable if you only try hard enough. Sometimes people are not going to get to that place no matter how hard they try. So you just need to be human. You just need to relate. You just need to have the ability to help someone see their next step and to see that they can change. I don't think anyone has to be in perfect shape or eating a perfect diet to be able to do that.

And if we waited until we were perfect in all aspects of health...

I can't hear you.

You can't hear me? Can you hear me now?

I wonder if it's just me.

Well, that's a weird problem to have.

Okay, I can hear you now. It must be okay.

I'm sorry about that. What I was saying was if everybody's technology worked perfect all the time, no, no, no. What I was saying was if we waited until we all were in perfect health before we were health coaching, we would have about maybe two and a half health coaches in the world. Because even if you look at a health coach and you say, oh, she's got it together because she's thin, she might be dealing with crippling anxiety on the inside or insomnia or who knows what, she might be hyperthyroid. She might be having all kinds of other problems. So we never have to wait to be perfect. If we did, we never get there. And I like what you said, Katey. I always like to say that I actually, I don't think I was ever really great at helping women lose weight. They would lose weight kind of as a byproduct of what they were doing.

I was helping them with for other reasons. But if I really was like, I'm going to help those person lose weight, I was terrible at it because I've never had to lose weight. I have the skinniest chicken arms that have ever existed in the world, and I'm just like, I don't understand. I cannot relate to that. I can relate a lot to anxiety. I can relate a lot to insomnia. But anyway, my point is you're good to go, Debbie. And Debbie said, what a brilliant analogy referring to the coach. We like that. The sports coach. I mean, we are coaches, right? The sports coach. So we work with so many health coaches inside of our community, and I was thinking of typical instances of how health coaches might be even accidentally perpetuating diet culture even without realizing it. And just some different examples of what we see or even things that I've done myself in the past.

So one would be this idea of good food and bad foods. I literally held a webinar one time that was called What Not To Eat that was back in the what Not to Wear era. And I thought that was very cool and very funny what not to eat. And it really was the eat this, don't eat that paradigm. That's something I would not do today. Something that I see a lot of coaches doing or sharing before and after photos, which can be very motivating, but I think we need to be careful with those especially, I mean there's lots of things. Skin before and after is great. And certainly you might be talking about bloating, but we know that usually those pictures are very much focused around weight loss and cellulite and those really sensitive areas. What do you think about the before and afters, Katey?

See, that's rough. When I lost weight, it was a contest and we had to do before and after pictures. They're out there. My bikini pictures, big and small are out there. And the mind space that I was in, it was helpful for me to finish and to be good. So it wasn't helpful for me to grow as a person, which is what I want to help my clients do. But it was helpful for me to be very dogmatic during the year that I lost weight. And that's what I was finding with the women that I was helping. They were in that dogmatic head space where they were just moving forward with this singular vision and they weren't growing in other areas. So I don't love before and after pictures. What I instead encourage women to do is to have a realistic view of what they look at to stand in front of the mirror and kind of deconstruct themselves rather than going with the image that's in their hard drive of a brain already. And to find things that they find attractive about themselves, even if it's their ear lobe or their eyebrows or the color of their hair. I think if they're focusing on things that they like, that's their before and after because they're focusing on the good things. And then later on they're like, now it's a whole picture. Now it's not just these little pieces that I can focus on.

Oh, I like that exercise. I like that. And I know sometimes showing the before and after pictures, it can be very impressive. It can be an important part of marketing. Women are looking for weight loss, I guess. I'm not saying we should never show them, but what I really love, I've seen this sometimes on Instagram you'll have a very fit coach or influencer, whoever they are, and they'll do photos where they're not posing, where they're not flexing their abs, where they are just standing a normal human being and guess what? Their belly bulges out like this. What happens when you just stand when you're not twisted just a certain way with the lighting just a certain way. And I love that because when the same, if you can do both, you can say, Hey, I'm very fit. Sure, I can help you get fit too.

And here's the reality, I also still have cellulite and that's normal. I also have stretch marks and that's normal. Whatever it is, I love that as fit as I've ever been in my life, not from every angle. It doesn't always look Picture magazine perfect, let's be honest. So I think that's a really lovely way to bring balance to what we're portraying. I even like to even extend that to other things, like not always having a face full of makeup, not always just being willing to show the imperfections as well. Does anything else come to mind for you, Katey, about typical instances how health coaches might be perpetuating diet culture?

I think in Instagram we post the things that we eat.


And generally it's the perfect plate. Look, I have my protein, look, I have my veggies. Look, I have my complex carbs and I'm fantastic. So those perfect plates, I think it just makes people feel like if I don't have a perfect plate, I am nothing. Everyone is, most people are all or nothing. See, I just said everyone, it's not everyone. Most people have that all or nothing mentality either I'm eating that perfect plate all the time and there's a sprig of watercress and the nicely plated, whatever. I don't know. I've got plates that are about this big that I stick my food on, and it is never pretty. So I think two things, it's like this is what I'm eating and this is how I'm eating. I have the thme to plate my food perfectly every time, and you should be doing that too, even though they don't say that. I think that's the implication. I love seeing when health coaches are like got my ice cream at Dairy Queen with my kids, and then maybe later on they are eating a salad, but it's got cheese on it, right? It's not like that perfect, the perfect plate.

And I think that's even a common hashtag what I ate today or something like that, that really does get into look how little I can eat or look how perfectly I can eat. I know sometimes, especially being in the having other health coaches look to me, you're listening to this podcast or you're my Facebook group, you're following me on Instagram and I'll post. I posted recently, here are the cupcakes I made for my son's birthday. I definitely get comments that's not very healthy, like oh, I'm surprised, stuff like that. So I do it more so when I eat pizza, I like to make sure that people see me eating pizza. We all do that, and it's generally not healthy unless you're on some very strict healing regimen for a short period of time. It's always healthier to have sort of that 80 20 rule going on. So that's something to also think about what you're bringing to your life, but also to your public persona and the way you are perceived and what you're putting out there. Again, that balance.


So as we are running a little bit short on time, I wanted to talk about some options that we have as health coaches being that this is an issue and one that I think many of us want to be aware of. So the first is meet women where they are, they want to lose weight. Great. That's bringing them to do something about their health in general. Okay, that's where they are. Meet them there, work with them and help them discover that there is a whole lot more to feeling their best. I like to ask my clients about how their sleep has improved, how their energy levels have improved, how their digestion has improved. So I love that. Just broadening the conversation, even if they come to you for weight loss, I just want to say to be aware in this case that typically women are so conditioned that they will want that weight loss.

Like I said, some may be disappointed if they don't get it, but most will lose at least some weight and they're going to be thrilled and they're going to be surprised and they're going to be delighted by all the other benefits that came with working with you as a health coach, or they're going to have more direction in their life. They're just going to be, like you said, Katey, just a different person all the way around. So I think that is one way of dealing with this reality. Another way of dealing with it is to be the type of coach who avoids the weight loss topic entirely. You can have a practice that specializes in something totally different like eczema or Lyme disease where your messaging is going to be around solving certain symptoms and problems and have nothing to do with weight loss. But with that, I want you to be aware that still many of your clients, if they're women in particular, will also want to lose weight.

And I also want to warn you that it can be harder to sign clients or find the right clients because the vast, vast, vast majority of women are thinking weight loss. And if you're not speaking to that, unfortunately, that's the paradigm that's out there. So it might be harder to connect with clients, but when you connect with the right ones, boom, you can avoid the issue entirely. And then a third option is to specialize in the anti diet movement. We have lots of health coaches in our community working in intuitive eating, working with clients specifically around retraining thought patterns and about food, about their bodies. So that's another way to go if you're really into this. I also want to mention though, I see that it can be hard to find those clients and to find clients who are willing, not only interested in not dieting anymore, but willing to spend a large sum of money to not lose weight. I'm not saying those clients aren't out there, but I do see that it is harder for coaches to find 'em. What do you think about those three options? Katey, did I miss anything?

I think that those are great options and I think you can combine them a little bit. I like approaching women, having women approach me who do want to lose weight, and then using the five why's to really figure out what it is that they want. Do they want weight loss because they equate it with joy? Do they want weight loss? Because, excuse me, they equate it with lack of anxiety because they've been anxious about weight their whole life. So I think you can do numbers one and two kind of at the same time. You can meet someone where they are and help them understand that it's not mandatory to lose weight and introduce them to not the anti-D diet culture. So I guess it's not exactly the first and the second, but it's like a mixture that can help people who don't know that they're done with diets who think they still want to lose weight, or maybe they want to lose weight this week and next week they want to go to party and they want to lose weight this week, and then they want to go on a cruise and have all you can eat and helping them come to terms with who they are, what they want, and recognize that no one's judging them and they shouldn't be judging themselves.

I remember when I first met Shannon and I interviewed Shannon a couple episodes ago. If you guys go back in the archives, Shannon's done very, very well in her health coaching business. And when I first met her, she was like, am I allowed to be a weight loss coach? What she's really good at? And I was like, what do you mean? Are you allowed? Because she was afraid. Is there backlash against that? Is it not okay to say that I help women lose weight? And I was like, yes, of course you can be a weight loss coach because there are women who want that. You can be any kind of coach you want. You can be a coach that helps people remove splinters. The thing is, are you going to find clients with it? Right? And you're definitely going to find clients who want to lose weight.

But what I love what Shannon does, she'll post stuff on Instagram and she'll talk a lot about, it's not about the number on the scale, it's about feeling strong. And she is strong, she lives really heavy and it's very aspirational in a different way. And I'm sure somebody would argue, well, that's still about how your body looks, and that's still about eating the right things and counting the right macros, but our clients exist on this spectrum. So I think that we have to meet them along that spectrum. And just keeping in mind, are we perpetuating the problem or are we help at least inching away from the problem, the unhealthy toxic diet culture patterns. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me today, Katey. Thank you, Michelle. Thanks for having me. And thank you all for listening. It's not like we have the answers all the time. I just want to air it out, want to air this issue out. So we love your comments and your feedback inside of our Health Coach Power Community Facebook group. And this episode has been brought to you by Healthy Profit University, where we help health coaches build profitable businesses, even if you're just starting out, even if you're not tech savvy. And you can get our free Healthy Profit University Blueprint at healthcoachpower.com/blueprint and we'll see you next time. Bye everyone. Bye.