'I was told by wellness culture that the right diet could heal me'
Writer Madelleine Muller talks about living with a chronic illness and when 'food for recovery' goes too far.
In recent years, the intersection of diet and wellness culture has become so pronounced within our health-obsessed society that many of us can’t see the difference. While food modifications and elimination diets are necessary for a portion of the population suffering from digestive conditions, they can do more harm than good when applied more broadly to the general population and those enduring chronic illnesses, contributing to eating disorders, disordered eating behavior, prolonged suffering and more.
In this edition of Dared to Ditch,shares a different perspective for those seeking liberation from dieting culture. She writes about the challenges of navigating chronic illness and trauma in her own newsletter, . Here, she discusses her history with dieting and how when she became chronically ill with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), she went from dieting for weight loss to dieting for health, thinking it would cure her, and found they had similar results.
“I was told by wellness culture that the right diet could heal me. Eating the ‘right’ foods and avoiding ‘bad’ foods (such as grains, legumes, sugar and lots of different fruits and vegetables that, according to a sketchy food intolerance test, I couldn’t tolerate) would cure my illness. This isn’t true for my illness, and the mentality of dieting for health was much the same as dieting for weight loss: Control what you eat, and remove ‘bad foods’. It was an externalised way of eating and very rule-based.”
Madelleine Müller (she/her) is a disabled writer and musician living with severe ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis)—a debilitating neuroimmune illness. She has published essays in Danish national newspapers, where she has written about the stigma facing people living with her illness. Madelleine graduated from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in 2004 and received her MSc in International Development Studies from Roskilde University in 2007. Read her newsletter, The Bed Perspective about navigating chronic illness from a feminist and anti-ableist perspective.
Kristi: When did you quit diets?
Madelleine: Actually, just this year was the final push. It has taken me a long time to truly understand how enmeshed I was in diet culture and fatphobia. It also took me a long time to understand that dieting for health can have similar effects on disordered eating as dieting for weight loss. I’ve been in the process of cleansing my mind from diet culture for a few years, but I made the biggest push this year.
Kristi: Why did you initially decide to stop dieting?
Madelleine: I have lived with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), a neuro-immune illness, since 2011. When it started to turn severe in 2017 I got serious digestive issues. I couldn’t keep food down, because of highly activated mast cells and probably some other stuff related to the neurological and immunological aspects of the illness. I had constant nausea, and constant diarrhea whenever I ate even the smallest amounts. I could only eat two tablespoons worth of food per meal and the only food I could tolerate were chicken and carrots. This lasted for about 2 years.
One day, I looked at myself in the mirror and the first thought that entered my mind was the scariest thought I have ever had: “Wow! You’ve finally reached your ideal body shape.”
I was shocked at the thought. I immediately started crying. All those years of dieting (both for weight loss and for health), not listening to what my body really needed, not allowing my body to simply be what it was, in the quest for what I believed was my ideal body shape and a cured body. But for me to reach that ideal shape I had to become severely ill, not be able to eat more than two tablespoons per meal, have constant nausea and diarrhea and not be able to exercise and build muscle.
This is the price for the type of body western society wants women to have. That’s when I thought “Something is very wrong here!” And I started reading more about fatphobia and anti-diet culture.
After a few years I finally found the right kind of medication for my digestive issues and I was able to eat somewhat normally again (albeit with lots of intolerances and still a lot of pain). I began to put on weight, and for once I welcomed it.
I knew I had to change my idea of what my ideal body looked like. I needed to allow my body to be exactly as it was meant to be. I needed to focus on nourishment, not restriction and on eating more intuitively.
Kristi: How did, and does, having a severe illness change your relationship with food and your body?
Madelleine: When I became chronically ill with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) I went from dieting for weight loss to dieting for health — although dieting for health includes a focus on weight loss, too, just packaged differently.
I was told by wellness culture that the right diet could heal me. Eating the ‘right’ foods and avoiding ‘bad’ foods (such as grains, legumes, sugar and lots of different fruits and vegetables that, according to a sketchy food intolerance test, I couldn’t tolerate) would cure my illness. This isn’t true for my illness, and the mentality of dieting for health was much the same as dieting for weight loss: Control what you eat, and remove ‘bad foods’. It was an externalised way of eating and very rule-based.
And a quick caveat here: I don’t want to confuse wellness diet culture, which broadly states certain food groups make you sick or that certain superfoods can cure you or keep illness away, with actual food intolerances or necessary medical diets to manage illness. I know lots of people who find symptom-relief when eating the foods that are right for them.
But I got obsessed about ‘food for recovery’ and I became frightened of large food groups such as grains. ME is a very misunderstood and stigmatised illness and because the medical world has neglected it and psychologised it (i.e. believed that the cause is psychological, such as hysteria) the responsibility for becoming ill has been placed on the patient. This is not only harmful for patients, but we are left to fend for ourselves in a jungle of pseudo-scientific advice. Wellness culture ideas like ‘you can cure yourself with food’ become so enticing, because they offer control. It’s difficult to remain skeptical when you are in pain, your body is broken and life in ruins and you are offered an easy way out.
The positive side of eating for health was that I discovered which foods I genuinely couldn’t tolerate, but a whole lot of other foods, that were actually fine for my body, and had the potential to nourish my body, were deemed as ‘bad foods’ and thereby removed from my diet.
The idea in wellness culture that you can cure complex illnesses with food turns into a stigma about ill people being unhealthy or “if they just stopped eating white bread they would get much better.” This kind of thinking is incredibly stigmatising and ableist and can cause isolation for many people. I felt ostracised from my yoga community when I became ill because of this stigma.
Kristi: What is your “why” now? What keeps you from not dieting again?
Madelleine: My ‘why’ is looking back at how debilitated my body and mind were when I had my ‘ideal figure’ but was so sick that I couldn’t eat anything more than two tablespoons per day and only tolerating chicken and carrots. Whenever I get any diet or weight loss related thoughts in my head I just picture that girl and I remind myself that I would rather feel healthy and nourished than fit into some narrow mold of what women should look like while paying a price of serious deprivation and malnourishment.
Kristi: What has been the biggest benefit of not dieting?
Madelleine: I actually remember the day I started eating sugar and rice again. It was a year-long process of dealing with my anxious thoughts. I would get anxiety after eating these things and I would feel shame for doing something bad to my body, because I had been indoctrinated with this idea that this food would make me sick and fat (yes, I was very fatphobic). I definitely have had periods where my body couldn’t tolerate sugar or rice very well, but I extended those periods thinking that they were what was making me sick. When I began eating these foods that I had previously restricted, I found that as long as I listen to my body’s limits there is absolutely no problem.
It brought me a ton of joy to be able to eat these foods again — joy is particularly important when bedbound! I was constantly hungry on the restriction diets but now I feel more satiated, more full. It has also become easier for my parents to cook for me (I can’t cook my own food due to my disability) and for us to dine together. I actually feel that my entire nervous system is in a generally more calm state because I’m not constantly hungry or anxious about food.
It was also a relief to let go of all the thoughts around food: “What else should I stop eating to get better?”, “Why am I not getting better, is it something I’m eating?” “Oh no, I shouldn’t be cleaning my plate, then I’ll get fat because I can’t exercise.” And so forth. A lot of shame and anxiety left my mind — and a lot of fatphobia and ableism left my mind too.
Kristi: How does not dieting affect your relationships and social choices?
Madelleine: Living with severe chronic illness and being mostly bedbound is incredibly isolating and I have lost lots of friends and social circles, so I can’t make many social choices and my relationships are very few. One of my friends (who has the same illness as me) is actually the one who introduced me to anti-diet culture and body acceptance so we are on this journey together, which is incredibly helpful.
Kristi: How has not dieting impacted how you view diet culture and anti-fat bias?
Madelleine: Wow, this has been a complete game changer for me.
I live with a very stigmatised illness and I understand what stigma does to the body and mind and I don’t want that for anyone. Quitting diet culture has opened me up to how we stigmatise bodies, especially fat bodies, and the serious consequences this has on mental health, but also on access to resources and services, like health care.
Getting away from the mentality that we can choose how our bodies look and function through the food we eat (or don’t eat) has honestly made me a much more empathetic and compassionate person, towards others, but also towards myself.
I also learnt that diet culture doesn’t just promote and endorse fatphobia (and thereby anti-fat bias and stigma), it is also incredibly ableist, due to the belief that certain foods (or the elimination of some) can cure any illness or the idea that you made yourself sick because of poor food choices.
Kristi: How does how you were raised impact your relationship with food and body image?
Madelleine: I’ve always had a rough relationship with my body ever since I was a young girl. Not because of the way I was raised, but because I was incredibly sensitive to social influences. I have always been the tallest, was the first in my class to develop boobs, and I had cellulite on my thighs and was in no way petite. Growing up in the 80s and 90s girls on TV were tiny, took up very little space and they definitely didn’t have cellulite. I never saw my body type represented in the media. On top of that I was hypermobile, which meant I was great at tricks like the splits, but I couldn’t run very far without my knees hurting. I didn’t build muscle like most young people did.
My body was different — and as most women are taught, I internalised it, it was my fault. My body was wrong. I was wrong. My mom always tried to tell me that I was beautiful and everything, but not seeing my body type represented made too big an impact on me.
In my early 20s I went for a professional massage and the masseuse, during the massage, said to me: “You know you have too much fat on your body!” I was mortified. This was around the time everyone thought Bridget Jones was obese. I had the same body type as her, only taller. So I thought, the masseuse must be right. That too, I internalised. I thought it was my fault, that I wasn’t eating right, that I was exercising too little, Again, my body was wrong. I was doing it all wrong.
I started a diet plan where every calorie was counted. I learnt how to weigh my food, how many calories were in this and that food, I learnt sugar and fat was bad, I learnt bread and pasta was bad and that this and that food was bad. I restricted myself, stopped listening to what my body actually needed and as a consequence I would have days of binging, and of course more weight gain.
I lost a bit of weight during my ‘disciplined’ periods, but the minute I relaxed I put it all on again. Again, I thought I was the problem. That I couldn't control myself, wasn’t disciplined enough and that my body was wrong.
Kristi: How do you handle the societal pressure around dieting, diet talk, body talk etc.? Do you have any tips to share?
Madelleine: As I’m mostly bedbound and completely housebound I don’t have any ‘in real life’ social pressures. But as my social life revolves around social media I’m very adamant to ‘unfollow’ or ‘hide’ anything that smells like diet culture or if I see any hint of fatphobia or ableism. On Youtube I immediately hit the ‘Not interested’ button when I see anything with the words ‘weight loss’ or ‘diet’ or ‘carbs’ or the like. I make sure to keep my feed clean in that way.
Kristi: Do you have any advice or encouragement to share for those who haven’t yet broken free of diets?
Madelleine: For me it helped to understand the research about diets (both for health and weight loss) and how they promote disordered eating and fatphobia. I also read a lot about the consequences on individuals of fat stigma.’s book “Hunger” opened my eyes to these issues.
Share Your Story of Ditching Diets
If you’ve found freedom from dieting, I’d love to share your story so that it may inspire someone else who else is seeking liberation from diet culture. Comment below or reach out at at kristik @ substack.com.
As I mentioned earlier this week, I will introduce paid subscriptions in January. My goal is to provide valuable, useful support and guidance to those of us who have struggled with self-worth and body image issues. It’s my dream to build a community of like-minded people who want to stop measuring their self-worth by their appearance—and maybe even quit diets for good.
Most of the content here on Almost Sated will remain free, however, going paid will allow me to continue doing this work, expand my offerings to subscribers, and provide more community—and accountability—for all of us. It will also allow me to create a welcome, safe space for those who want to have open, frank conversations about the issues most important to them.
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If you want to be part of this community, but cannot afford a subscription, email me at kristik (at) substack.com.