The Archetype Diet
There is a connection between our subconscious thoughts and the way we eat, and it’s important to understand what that connection is, says nutritionist Dana James. James, who has an MS in medical nutrition from Columbia University and studied cognitive behavioral therapy at the Beck Institute, is the author of The Archetype Diet. In it, she identifies four archetypes that she uses to help clients decode emotional triggers and eating patterns and potentially even their body composition. If you’re trying to change your diet or gain or lose weight, she says food is only one part of the equation. What she’s more interested in: how we think about food and how it’s tied to our self-worth.
A Q&A with Dana James
I developed the four female archetypes to help destigmatize body fat. I wanted people to know that body fat wasn’t something to reject. Instead, it can be a way to read potential hormonal imbalances and uncover subconscious thoughts that lead to seemingly self-sabotaging behavior.
Body fat is directed under the influence of hormones—namely insulin, estrogen, and cortisol. And I’ve found that different kinds of diets affect these hormone levels and where and how we store body fat.
Different women also need different vocabulary when they want to initiate and sustain change. You wouldn’t tell a binge eater to eat everything from her plate, just as you wouldn’t advise someone with a history of undereating to eat less food. Yet we do give women the same patronizing behavioral tips: Eat from a small plate, brush your teeth, or chew gum instead of eating. This is rarely an effective means to losing weight because the reason behind why she overeats or skips meals hasn’t been addressed.
The four female archetypes help to close this gap. They are based on functional medicine, nutritional biochemistry, psychology, and Jungian philosophy. At the core of it, where a woman sources her self-worth from elicits certain behaviors—including food behaviors—that can then influence hormones and body-fat distribution.
The female archetypes that I’ve identified in my practice are:
Nurturer: values herself for always being there for others. Her greatest fear is that she won’t be needed. She often deprioritizes herself in favor of other people’s needs, perceived or otherwise. She often rejects help from other people, partially because she believes this is her role and partially because she doesn’t know how to receive. Because she feels good caring for others, she doesn’t notice the toll this lack of self-care is taking on her physical body until she reaches the point of exhaustion. She’ll often find herself reaching for convenience foods because she’s tired and needs to comfort herself. These comfort foods can cause insulin and estrogen to surge, resulting in body fat being stored all over the body and particularly on her upper thighs and upper arms. She’s the archetype most susceptible to estrogen dominance, autoimmune diseases, thyroid issues, and chronic fatigue.
Wonder Woman: sources her self-worth from success and achievement. Her greatest fear is that she’ll become irrelevant. To prevent this, she’ll prioritize her work over other areas of her life so that she is indispensable. She’ll often skip meals, not intentionally but because her schedule is so tight: If a meeting runs over, she’s lost her chance to eat. She’s a reward eater and drinker; putting down that nightly glass of wine is a challenge. Cortisol is her dominant hormone, and this can lead to belly fat, anxiety, food sensitivities, feeling wired and tired, constipation, and fatigue.
Femme Fatale: sources her self-worth from her looks. Her greatest fear is that she’ll be discarded like a broken toy if she’s not pretty enough. To prevent this from happening, she fixates on her physical appearance. She’s constantly on a diet because she believes that a leaner body is better. (It’s not, but that’s her belief.) She tends to have a dysfunctional relationship with food. She often restricts food and can then binge out of frustration. What she needs to develop is a more peaceful relationship with food (and herself). She tends to be far too fearful of many beneficial foods, like fruit and starchy carbs, which support her emotional and physical resilience.
Ethereal: likes to be different. She’s highly imaginative and creative. As a child she learned to retreat into her inner world because she was perceived as the weird girl at school. This introspection made her highly attuned to other people’s emotions. However, she cannot always discern which emotions are hers and which are other people’s. This can cause her to feel depressed, scattered, and emotionally overwhelmed. The Ethereal can get lost in her creative work, often forgetting to eat. She tends to be lean and willowy. She tends to suffer from digestive issues, constipation, bloating, a low mood, an inability to concentrate, and low estrogen.
You can take a quiz on my website to find out your archetype here.
No archetype is better than another. Each archetype operates on a spectrum from being emotionally and physically balanced (the crown) to being chronically out of balance. This is where a woman’s behaviors are driven by her subconscious and it’s showing up on her body, from weight gain to fatigue, hormonal issues, mood imbalances, and digestive upsets. The more she feeds into her archetypal belief that she is worthy because of something she does or how she looks, the more out of balance she becomes. But when she dissolves the belief that she is valuable because of something external, she stops seeking validation from an outside source and her mind has the space to take on the positive attributes of the other archetypes. When she does this, she rises up to the crown to embody a whole woman. She has learned to nourish all aspects of being a woman and knows exactly which traits to draw upon and when. For instance, she might tap into the strength of the Wonder Women when she needs to say no, the compassion of the Nurturer when she’s tempted to judge herself, the seduction of the Femme Fatale when she’s with her partner, and the intuition of the Ethereal when she’s indecisive.
Sometimes women don’t want to be their archetype because, negatively, the Nurturer can be codependent, the Wonder Woman controlling, the Femme Fatale manipulative, and the Ethereal scattered. Yet you can be your archetype and not display these traits; that’s when you’re at the crown. But if you are using these negative traits to get your own way, you want to be honest about why you’re using them instead of drawing on the positive attributes of your archetype.
The archetypes are entirely dependent on how we were raised. We were not born this way. We took experiences from our childhood and believed that we would be loved and accepted more if we were X (insert beautiful, smart, caring, or different). We subconsciously believed that our parental love was conditional and the more we did X, the more love and attention we believed we got. Sometimes this was true, and our parents unwittingly tied our self-worth to an external factor as they encouraged us to become better versions of ourselves. In many instances, however, it was our misinterpretation believing we would be loved more if we did X.
I’ll share one client’s story: When Susie was four years old, her parents separated, and she moved from New York to Europe with her mother. Her father was an alcoholic and gambler, and her mother didn’t want her daughter raised in that environment. Susie and her mother moved in with Susie’s aunt and cousins. Susie loved the connection and extended family. Her mother, healing from her divorce, bonded closely with Susie. Susie felt very loved and safe. Several years later, Susie’s mother met a very wealthy and handsome man. Susie’s mother did not tell Susie for over a year that she was dating this new man. Susie felt the emotional and physical disconnection from her mother, and she didn’t understand why. Susie felt rejected and thought she must have done something wrong. Around the same age, Susie went to visit her father in New York. She got lots of compliments about being a pretty girl from her father and father’s friends. Susie concluded that being pretty was how you got attention. Susie became the Femme Fatale.
In my work with Susie, I pointed out the flaw in her perception. Susie’s wound was because her mother didn’t communicate with her, not because her mother loved her less. I asked Susie to speak to her mother about what happened during these years. Her mother explained that she wanted Susie in a safe home environment and needed to be certain this man was the right partner for her and a supportive father figure for Susie (which he was). Susie’s mother apologized for not sharing what was going on and being unaware of the loss Susie felt. Through repairing this motherly bond, Susie was able to let go of her need to be validated on her looks.
Subconscious beliefs inform our behavior, including food behavior and food choices. These food choices alter the hormones that influence the distribution of body fat. Take Wonder Woman: Her subconscious belief is that she is valuable because she is smart and successful. She erroneously believes that success is linear. The more she works, the more successful she believes she will be. Her stress hormone, cortisol, is in overdrive. She’s often too busy to eat during the day, so she ends up skipping meals and grabbing an energy bar instead. She’s famished by the time she gets home. She pours herself a glass of wine and orders takeout. Finally, a chance to relax. She didn’t eat much during the day, so she justifies a nightly treat—normally dark chocolate. It’s her reward for making it through the day. She wants to sleep, but she’s wired. She answers emails before bed and scrolls through social media (the modern-day slot machine) to make sure she’s not missing out on anything. Her cortisol is still supercharged, and she is storing fat on her belly from excess cortisol. The cortisol rebalancers—sleep, meditation, exercise, and sex—are happening less and less because she can’t switch off. Her belly fat feels resistant to dieting. She’s frustrated, which makes the whole thing worse. And where did it all start? With her belief that she is valuable because she’s successful.
The flow looks like this and can be applied to all four archetypes:
Source of self-worth > Change in behavior > Change in eating behavior > Change in hormones > Change in fat storage
I use a 6-R reprograming process based in functional medicine and cognitive behavioral therapy. 6-R is an acronym for:
- RESTORE your brain through diet, sleep, movement, meditation, and sound currents.
- RECOGNIZE your childhood experiences that have caused you to believe you need to do something or look a certain way to be loved and validated.
- REINTERPRET: Alter your perception of these memories, which were formed through the emotional lens of a child. Dissolve the shame and judgment you have attached to these memories.
- RELEASE: Energetically release the pain attached to these memories through conscious breathing and emotional freedom technique, a modality that uses acupressure and acceptance therapy technique to disperse the emotional residue from these memories.
- REWIRE: Break habits by uncoupling the association between the trigger and the response. Habits are often just coping strategies for the flawed belief that you are valuable because of some external factor. Wonder Woman’s nightly glass of wine is an example of this.
- REVIVE: Cultivate the positive attributes of the other archetypes, which you may have historically deprioritized. This is where you learn to embody the other archetypes and rise up to the crown. By dissolving your insecurities, you can now connect on a deeper, more intimate level with yourself and others. You feel a sense of wholeness and completion. You feel free to be you.
The weight-loss equation is:
Weight change = food + movement + hormones + inflammation + gut microbiome + sleep + medication + genes + unexpressed emotions + shame
The importance of each varies by person. For instance, a woman working the night shift will have more of an issue with sleep than a woman who gets eight hours of sleep per night. A woman who has mastered food and exercise may need to look at unexpressed emotions and shame, whereas a woman who has done the inner work and expected her body to follow her mind independent of what she eats may need to look at her diet and how frequently she exercises. If a woman wants to lose weight, I would suggest that she look at each of these factors and investigate them. Often she’ll need the help of a functional medicine practitioner, naturopath, or therapist to guide her.
There is an art to weight loss and the subtleties make a profound difference. My general guideline is to eat 75 percent plant-based with the remainder as clean animal protein. Portion sizes count when you want to lose weight, even if we don’t want to hear that. But within this general guideline there is huge variability—how much fat, vegetables, and starchy carbs can you eat? Can you eat nut butters and liberally apply avocado to every meal? How much sweet potato can you have? What about grains and legumes? General guidelines are helpful, but that’s all they are. General guidelines aren’t a weight-loss formula, as weight loss is far too complex. To try to simplify it a bit, I created specific diets for each of the archetypes to incorporate the hormonal, inflammatory, and gut microbiome components of the equation. Each archetype’s meal guidelines have subtle differences because the diet is targeting certain imbalances within the archetype’s physical body.
Here are some dietary tips for each of the archetypes:
Nurturer: Follow more of a paleo-style diet but keep red meat and nuts to a minimum as these are too energetically dense for the Nurturer. Instead, protein should come from fish, organic eggs, and hemp seeds. Nuts can be replaced with seeds, such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Avoid soy, dairy, and nut butters. Eat at least one cruciferous vegetable daily to help metabolize estrogen and regulate insulin levels.
Wonder Woman: Follow more of a Mediterranean diet, but limit starchy carbs, like purple potato, brown rice, and chickpeas, to ¼ cup at lunch and dinner. This helps facilitate fat loss for the Wonder Woman by keeping her thyroid hormone activated. Eat bitter vegetables daily to support liver detoxification. Avoid gluten and dairy, as the Wonder Woman’s stress levels make her the most likely of the archetypes to be sensitive to these foods. Grass-fed red meat can be eaten once a week.
Femme Fatale: Like the Wonder Woman, the Femme Fatale can eat a small amount of carbs. Eating ¼ cup of starchy carbs at lunch and dinner will not cause you to gain weight. If you are exercising for more than one hour per day, you’ll also need to refuel with more starchy carbohydrates. Make peace with eating starchy carbohydrates. They are not the devil. In fact, eating a small amount of carbohydrates helps to decrease your cravings and emotionally driven food binges.
Ethereal: You need the most carbohydrates in your diet as they help to increase your naturally low levels of estrogen which can cause hormonal and mood issues. A macrobiotic diet works well for an Ethereal. You can start your day with a carbohydrate-based breakfast, such as overnight-soaked oats or avocado toast. Occasionally eating organic soy and dairy is fine for the Ethereal provided she doesn’t have a food sensitivity to either of these. Nuts and grass-fed red meat can help to support the Ethereal’s low sex hormones.
My hope is to help women understand their body more. And to guide them toward the most supportive eating plan while looking more closely at their nonsupporting thoughts and behaviors.
Dana James is a functional medicine nutritionist, cognitive behavioral therapist, and author of The Archetype Diet: Reclaim Your Self-Worth and Change the Shape of Your Body. She has an MS in medical nutrition from Columbia University and received her training in cognitive behavior therapy from the Beck Institute.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.