PSA: Dieting Is For The Privileged

I am a single mother, and I have been unemployed for over a year, despite applying for more than 160 jobs. What I thought would be a short-term problem has turned into the worst time in my life. I’ve adjusted my life down repeatedly to the point of barely surviving financially now that my unemployment benefits stopped. I am now one of those government tit-sucking “need machines” that rich people complain about, as I receive food stamps and Medicaid. My relationship with everyone in my life has changed as a result of this situation, including with my friends. I can no longer go to happy hour, can’t buy birthday or wedding presents, check out the new BBQ place or see the latest movie everyone is talking about. I can’t even relate to them and their lives anymore, their Facebook timelines a constant stream of activities for the privileged, from resort vacations to high-end anniversary dinners at Cleveland’s finest restaurants.

While I cobble together income from freelancing, the rest of my week is spent putting out finance-related fires, applying for work, and spending hours waiting at food pantries for handouts. I am depressed and perimenopausal. I’ve gained a lot of weight over the past year, and there’s little I can do about it.

Many of my friends have started diets (sorry — “lifestyle changes”) after complaining about their weight gain online. I’ve chimed in with similar frustration about being fat, only to be told breathlessly how I should try keto or Whole30, or how going “back to basics” with Weight Watchers was amazing.

This will piss some people off but I am here to tell you: Dieting is for the privileged. It’s a 60 BILLION dollar-a-year industry.

I took a look at Whole30. Their suggested first month is an elimination diet that’s basically almost everything I wait in line to receive at food pantries, often for three hours at a stretch. If I eliminated these, I’d have no food:

  • No legumes. 90% of pantry food is beans; dried or canned. It’s also one of the only sources of protein. They’ve had eggs two times in the year I’ve been going, and half the carton was broken the last time. No legumes also means no peanut butter, another rare source of protein, outside of the occasional can of cat-food-quality tuna. The brand name tuna we sometimes get is in vegetable oil. It’s dripping with oil. I use a hand towel to wring it out before I eat it, but it’s still greasy. I used to use paper towels to blot it, but we can’t buy those with food stamps.
  • No grains. Whole30: “This includes wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, quinoa… and all the ways we add (those) into our foods in (bran, germ, starch).” This is like 5 of the other 10% of what’s available at pantries. Without corn products, rice, and bread, there’s little to fill up on.
  • No sugar of any kind. There’s literally no peanut butter at any food pantry that does not have corn syrup in it. So does all the canned soup.
  • No dairy. Another small source of protein, we get boxes of 1% milk for free at the pantries. I won’t give it to my son, who is very skinny and needs whole fat milk, but I consume it. Did you know low-fat milk increases your risk for diabetes, and full-fat dairy lowers it?
  • No baked goods. People are encouraged to take several of these “free” items (unlimited). I don’t like sweets, but choose them sometimes as a treat for my kid. Whole30’s “no” list includes pancakes, waffles, bread, tortillas, biscuits, muffins, brownies, pizza crust, cereal. This is like you’re actually shopping the aisles of my food pantry, though most of it is in dried form — pancake mix, cookie mix, boxes of sugared cereal.

And keto? Grass-fed butter in coffee? Are you fucking kidding me? The only “butter” they have at pantries is Imperial margarine. While I can buy butter with my EBT card, it would be a HUGE investment out of my weekly budget to blow like $8 on butter just for my coffee. Keto also suggests pasta made from beans — insanely expensive to someone on a budget. Avocado oil? I’m lucky if I can afford a goddamned avocado. Some pantries give out produce, but it’s the same week after week: cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, mostly-rotted bags of onions. One of the “extras” at a pantry a couple of weeks ago was a gallon jug of sweet tea. I declined.

Produce pantries require a three-hour wait. Food from the central food bank is trucked in, and the truck is often late so we’re already lined up waiting for it. I bring a blanket in case we have to wait in a parking lot, because I can’t stand for that long. The food has to be taken off the truck pallet by pallet on a forklift, separated into bags sized for a household and once that’s done, they start checking people in by the number you took when you got in line. Five people at a time. Most of these people are elderly. Some are visibly ill or disabled. The woman I sat next to at the last pantry I went to was missing most of her teeth and seemed to be challenged in some way, but maybe she’s just suffering from the anxiety that we all are who have to spend hours each week waiting in line for food that is old and mostly (or even completely) rotted. Soft potatoes with mold on the outside. Onions that are liquid and brown inside. Bagged salads that are visibly slimy. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but it’s a lot of food to cart home and then throw out because it is unusable or unsafe. A couple who seemed very nervous recently asked me for a ride down the street with their bags. I pictured them knifing me and taking my wallet (not that they’d get far on the contents). I said no.

Diets cost a lot of money. Three months of Weight Watchers, without any food, is $65.  Complying with the rules of the Whole30 diet for 30 days would cost you more than $500! Produce and meat are the highest-cost items I buy with my EBT card. The quality and availability of any type of protein or produce from food pantries is close to nothing. Keto is probably the most expensive of all the plans, and can cost as much as $200 for just a few days! On average, households that receive food stamps get about $250 a month. Minimum wage workers, more than 1.5M people, make a little over $260 a week if they work full-time. Imagine spending your entire income just on food! It’s impossible. That’s why more people don’t do it, it isn’t because they are lazy or stupid.

Worse, many dieters base their views on guilt and shame. One site states, “We all know that keto is more expensive than a normal diet, but would you rather stuff yourself full of high wheat, highly processed foods or eat a clean and healthy diet?” This site also suggests tips like shopping online to save money, which is great if you have a credit card. All my cards have been closed due to my financial situation. I can only shop online with my debit card, and if someone were to steal the numbers and clear out what little I have in my account, the repercussions while I wait for reimbursement after a fraudulent claim would be devastating. I’m already in repayment plans for several accounts that require prompt payment on a certain date or I’ll be turned over to collections. The hours on the phone trying to beg for grace periods if bills were paid while I had a zero balance, or bills that are unavoidably late while I wait for a reversal of charges makes me cringe just contemplating it. There is no safety net. There are no other ways for me to pay for things.

I recently saw a Tweet from a personal trainer shaming people for their diets. They said something like, “You can’t outrun a bad diet,” and that most people are “rationalizing” bad food choices. This statement smells so badly of privilege to me, I’m sick to my fat stomach. Yes, I exercise. I am a runner battling chronic injuries I haven’t been able to treat because I didn’t have insurance. Exercise is harder now. My fat chafes. My sports bras are incredibly tight and uncomfortable, and I can’t buy new ones. My workout shorts are too small. I’m not giving up, and I do the best that I can, but for the foreseeable future, this is what I’m dealing with.

I am lucky in my own way. I am a very good home cook, and can take scraps of old, cheap food and make them delicious. But I can’t make food nutritious that isn’t, and I’m tired of feeling bad about what I can’t control. It’s not just about me. There are a lot of people who don’t even have access to the food pantries I do, or who were never taught how to cook, and lack of access to healthy food has a proven negative effect on people’s health and wellbeing. Shaming people who don’t know how to cook, who survive on cheap fast food meals or whatever packaged crap they can afford to buy from a corner store does not show you understand their challenges and circumstances. You don’t know what people are dealing with. You don’t know what it’s like to get a bag of potatoes and have to throw them all away because they are rotted. There is a reason so many poor people are overweight and obese — the food we receive for free simply isn’t healthy, and it’s definitely not diet food.

The next time you feel the urge to post to someone about how great your diet is going, and want to push people to try it, consider your place of privilege. Bragging and shaming have a very fine line separating them when it comes to posting about your success. I want to champion my friends’ successes, but there is a distinct feeling of, “If I can do this, so can you, ask me how!” in a lot of people’s posts about fitness and weight loss. Don’t do that.

Nina McCollum is a writer and actor in Cleveland, Ohio. She likes strong coffee, good food, neat bourbon, dry wine, and guitar-heavy rock and roll. You can follow her rants online at her blog, or on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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