What is diet culture?

What is diet culture and why is it so toxic to our health?

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Diet culture is a term that is increasingly becoming more visible lately, but that many are still not very familiar with. But, as a non diet dietitian, I feel like we need to be aware of just what is diet culture, and the ways it can be dangerous to both our physical and mental health. Stick around to learn more about how diet culture permeates our everyday life, how to identify it, and how to fight back. 

What is diet culture
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Diet culture definition

On of the best ways to define diet culture is that by Christy Harrison, Registered Dietitian and tireless crusader against diet culture. She defines diet culture the following way:

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health”.

As an introduction to diet culture, let me tell you a little bit about my own experience with it. I hope this can illustrate some of the ways diet culture operates. 

My own experience with diet culture

I developed an eating disorder early in my life. It started when I was 12, during a gym class in which were weighed, measured and had our skinfold measurements taken. I was told I was above the average for weight and body fat %. That’s when I started to feel like there was something wrong with me.

I’m a Latina, from Puerto Rico, and at the time I was living in the US. Most of the girls at school were slender and tall, and with “normal” fat %. I am petite, with a butt that was “too big” and legs that were “too thick” (“cankles” was a term that horrified and plagued me). At least, according to all the beauty magazines I was suddenly noticing around me.

Diet culture in the media

 I would devour Seventeen magazine and Cosmopolitan, who would tell me I had to look like this or that actress in order for people to like me. So here’s one of the first examples of what diet culture is: it tells you that what you are and look like is not OK, and that you need to “do something” to change that in order to be happy and accepted (which I actually was, before these doubts started to eat at me).

Back then (this was the early to mid 90s), magazines would frequently include diet plans in their issues, and there were also these tiny diet books along with the magazines in the supermarket checkout aisles (anyone else remember those?). It was one of these little books that ultimately sucked me into diet culture.

That summer of ‘91, I started following that little diet book to a tee. I would eat exactly what it told me to: foods that would burn off my body fat, especially the lower body fat I was suddenly super self conscious of. But I still pretty much looked the same, even after weeks of eating celery sticks for snacks. So, another diet culture example: false promises. Diet culture tells you there are certain foods you can and can’t eat in order to achieve a physical ideal. It does not take into account that we’re all different and metabolize food differently as well.

Eating disorders can ensue

I won’t bog you down with details, but all of this eventually led to full blown anorexia nervosa, where for the next two years I would eat very small amounts of food, and some I even banned (I was horrified over the 2 Tic Tacs we had to eat during a Science class experiment about taste buds, or something).

When I look at my pictures from that time, I looked ill and unhappy, which I was. I lost my period for a whole year, my hair was starting to fall out, my skin had a yellowish tinge to it and I would frequently feel dizzy and weak.

Even though I was dangerously underweight, I still felt that my legs were “too thick” and my butt was “too big”. I still didn’t look like my American peers. I felt there must be something wrong with me because I was doing everything the diet books and articles told me to, right? And here’s another example of diet culture at work: making you feel like it’s your fault, that you need to try harder, instead of recognizing that these diets just don’t work.

The problem with diet culture

The problem with diet culture is that it’s actually many problems. As my above example, diet culture can have the following dangerous results:

  • Believing that you’re not enough as you are, that there’s something wrong with you, and you need to fix it because it’s your fault (like, it’s my fault I have genes for my cultural body type?) ?‍♀️
  • Thinking that you won’t be accepted if you don’t look or weigh a certain way
  • Believing that you’ll be happy, healthy, successful, loved and accepted as soon as you have “x” body, which leads to frustration and self hatred when it’s not achieved
  • Developing a problematic relationship with food, such as eating disorders and food preoccupation
  • Weight cycling, which can have many negative health effects
  • Internalizing weight stigma and weight bias
  • Continually searching for outside approval instead of cultivating self love
  • Self esteem and body image issues
  • Normalizing and even encouraging self deprecating talk, especially when it comes to our bodies. Feeling and talking well about our bodies is seen as “conceited” and “stuck up”, as Regina George here demonstrates.

via GIPHY

Another huge problem with diet culture is that it’s everywhere! It’s in magazines, commercials, at the gym, in daily conversations. And we’re sometimes not even consciously aware of it. Plus, you don’t even have to be on a diet to be caught up in diet culture and the diet mentality. Here are some examples of diet culture at work in our everyday lives.

Diet culture examples

As a dietitian, one of the most worrisome effects of diet culture is the conflicted relationship with food that it fosters. When we contemplate the fact that food is just food, that it’s necessary in order to live and that we also have a right to enjoy it (radical thinking, I know!?), then we can see just how screwed up these diet culture messages are. For example:

 Have you ever felt “guilty” after eating a certain food? Do you berate yourself for “pigging out” during a girls night out? Do you find yourself saying things like “I really shouldn’t eat this” or “I’ll ‘be good’ and skip dinner since I had such a huge lunch”? That’s diet culture right there. As I mentioned above, diet culture moralizes foods into “good” and “bad”, which means you’re “good”, “bad” or “guilty” for eating certain foods or amounts of foods. 

Diet culture also uses compensatory behavior around food. For example, “burning off” that cupcake with vigorous exercise, or “rewarding” yourself with a slice of cheesecake for eating only salad all week. 

But let me clear something up first: This is NOT your fault. This is the effect of the toxic and sneaky diet culture we live in.  It’s the effect, as this article discusses, of a “$66 billion” weight loss industry that profits from those who will do anything to pursue their “ideal body”. We’ve been programmed to relate to food and body image this way.

Diet culture normalizes disordered eating and diet behaviors

Therefore, diet culture normalizes disordered eating. It brings about food phobias, guilt and shame around eating and completely ignores the importance of satiety and eating for pleasure. And the problem is we internalize this thinking as if it’s just the way things are, as if it’s normal. Here are some more diet culture examples:

  • Using moralizing food descriptors such as “sinful”, “guilty-pleasure”, “fattening”, “bad for you”, “cheat day foods”, “clean eating”, “clean foods”, etc.
  • Promoting/selling products or programs that promise “spectacular”, “fast” and “easy” weight loss results.
  • Encouraging the restriction of certain foods (for example, foods with gluten) or food groups, without any medical need to do so (such as an allergy or intolerance), in order to lose weight.
  • Marketing over-the-counter dietary supplements and products with the promise of a “fat burning” effect, without sufficient clinical evidence, safety and/or proper regulation.
  • Praising weight loss. This is problematic because (1) it perpetuates the wrong assumption that “thin=good”/”fat=bad” and (2) the reason for the weight loss may be due to a negative experience, such as stress, illness, depression, etc. 
  • Using “fat” in a negative sense. It’s just a descriptor, people, such as short, tall, blonde, brunette, green eyed, curly haired, etc! 
  • Promoting exercise as a tool to try achieve an often unattainable body type rather than something that can empower you or make you feel good.

The dangers of diet culture

Eating disorders diet culture
Eating disorders are a common, and dangerous, result of diet culture

So, as we’ve seen, diet culture permeates our way of thinking and relating to food and our bodies. It’s dangers range from impaired enjoyment of food to life threatening eating disorders. Plus all the emotional torment in between. And all of this just because of the normal, natural and necessary biological function of eating. Think about it. Is it worth going through all that because of some arbitrary and socially constructed ideals? Does a scoop of ice cream really get to determine whether you’re “good” or “bad”? I think it’s time to change this way of thinking, don’t you?

Another important point is this: diet culture doesn’t tell you to “eat healthy” and “do exercise” because of the benefits it can have on our health–it promotes these behaviors as a means to lose weight. And just like I’ve mentioned before, there can be health promoting and health hazardous behaviors throughout the entire weight spectrum. Thus, you can have a person in a larger body who nourishes themself well, honors their hunger and satiety cues and engages in enjoyable physical activity to feel strong. And you can have a person in a thin body who binges on alcohol and neglects their nutrient needs. Health promoting behaviors, not weight or body size, needs to be the priority. 

Toxic relationship with food and our bodies

Other ways diet culture can be toxic and dangerous is because it:

  • Perpetuates harmful, unproven diet and food practices, such as:
    • “Detoxing” for weight loss and health
    • Fad dieting, especially with respect to diets that have no evidence to back up their claims and/or have been developed by people with no health and medical training
    • Self medicating with “natural” products/ supplements that promise weight loss results
  • Fails to recognize that bodies come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, weights, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.
  • Does not recognize that our bodies naturally and constantly change over time, and that it’s not a “failure” on our part
  • Just like a typical rom-com, it fails to inform you what happens after the wedding. Most intentional weight loss is regained over time. In fact, chronic dieting is a surefire way to develop other negative effects such as disordered eating and a slower metabolism
  • Equates our worth to how much we weigh and what we look like. It never takes into account who we are as a whole: our values, traits, characteristics, personalities, quirks, things that make us unique
  • Fosters an unhealthy preoccupation with food. An example of this is the emergence of orthorexia
  • Perpetuates disordered eating and all the negative health hazards related to this

Healing from diet culture

Support is key to dealing with diet culrute
Good support is key to breaking out of the diet mentality

Healing from diet culture is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile. And the more we heal from this toxic way of thinking and behaving, the more we pave the way for others to free themselves from it as well. 

As for me, I eventually did beat my eating disorder. It started when I became scared of all the negative physical symptoms I was experiencing, and gradually allowed myself to start eating again. It was hard, because weight gain naturally occurred. I tried to battle it with “better” and “healthier” diets I would find in magazines, but these were too difficult to maintain and just made me feel repressed and unnatural (a feeling I absolutely loathe!). And anyways, a diet, is a diet, is a diet….

My experiments with food and diets led me to pursue a career in dietetics, and that’s when the real healing began. I started learning about the real role that food has in our lives (cough-keeping us alive-cough). I also learned about how food behaves in the body, how all foods can be good, and how many food and diet related beliefs are just myths. 

I won’t get into details, but it took some time and effort on my part to stop diet related behaviors and thoughts. And while my weight didn’t go to where my 12 year old self would have wanted, I’ve been able to maintain a stable weight that’s right and comfortable for me during the time following. Just by eating intuitively (a concept I didn’t even know of yet). In fact, I just enjoyed two powdered mini doughnuts as I’m writing this. No guilt, no shame!

Do I sometimes struggle with body issues? Of course! But body acceptance is a journey that never really ends; it’s an ongoing call to continue to embrace and appreciate ourselves over and over again! So, if you’re interested, here are some ways to fight back against diet culture and start taking back your power.

Resources for breaking out of diet culture

Educate yourself: This was a real turning point for me. Don’t just take these diet centered messages at face value. Look into what the real evidence behind it is and what its real purposes are (usually to get you to fork over cash). Read books and blogs and listen to podcasts based on the anti diet culture message. Here are some great books, websites and podcasts you can check out:

Be wary of social media: Stop following people on social media who are promoting diet culture and the diet mentality. Especially if they don’t have any health education to back up their advice. Instead, search for and follow those people who promote body acceptance and self love. Here are some of my faves on Instagram:

Seek professional help if this is a difficult issue for you: There are many health professionals nowadays who are understanding the importance of the anti-diet movement, and many offer services to give you the help you need. Eating disorders, body issues and self esteem are extremely complex issues to work through, and you don’t have to go at it alone. Please consult with a healthcare provider, especially those who practice weight neutrality and a non diet approach. I offer 1:1 virtual nutrition coaching in this area, and you can schedule a FREE 15 minute Discovery Call with me to see how I can help you reach food freedom. Just click the button below for more information:

And here are some additional resources that can also help you out: 

And now I would like to hear from you. What do you think about the diet culture we actually live in? Do you think it’s harmful or can there be some purpose to it? Sound off in the comments section below!

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