Why is diet culture toxic?

Why is diet culture toxic?

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Diet culture is all around us. Everywhere we look, there are messages encouraging us to lose weight or change our bodies. But what is wrong with diet culture? And why should we care? In this blog post, I’ll discuss what is diet culture, the problems with diet culture and why is diet culture toxic. I’ll also talk about how we can shift away from diet culture and develop a more positive relationship with food and our bodies. So if you’re interested in learning more, keep reading!

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What is diet culture?

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 effects of diet culture. 

My own experience with dieting

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 percentage. That’s when I started to feel like there was something wrong with me.

 Thinking I had to “fix” myself, I would devour Seventeen magazine and Cosmopolitan. These magazines 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).

That summer of ‘91, I started restricting my food intake in an effort to lose weight. I would only eat the “right” kinds of foods, carefully count calories and cut out pleasurable foods completely. But I still pretty much looked the same, even after weeks of dieting.

Here’s another example of why is diet culture toxic: 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.

Effects of diet culture: Eating disorders

Effects of diet culture
These are some of the most common, and dangerous, effects of diet culture

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 the “thin ideal”. 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 yet another example of why is diet culture toxic: making you feel like it’s your fault, that you need to try harder, instead of recognizing that these diets just don’t work.

How diet culture is harmful?

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

  • 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
  • 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 (1), 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.

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.

How diet culture affects mental health?

As an anti diet dietitian, one of the most worrisome effects of diet culture is the conflicted relationship with food that it fosters. This in turn has a negative effect on mental health.

Diet culture is built on the idea that we should be constantly striving to change our bodies, and that our value as human beings is intrinsically linked to our physical appearance. This can have a seriously damaging effect on our mental health.

For starters, it can lead to body dysmorphia, an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with perceived flaws in one’s appearance. It can also cause anxiety and depression, as well as a whole host of other mental health problems.

And it’s not just individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions who are affected; diet culture can take a toll on anyone.

 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. 

And just who benefits from diet culture? As this article (2) discusses, 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.

Why is diet culture toxic? Diet culture normalizes disordered eating and diet behaviors that can be dangerous to physical and mental health.

Examples of diet culture

Here are some examples around why is diet culture toxic, as it invades our everyday lives.

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 product, fad diets 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.

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?

Diet culture doesn’t tell you to “eat healthy” and “engage in movement” because of the benefits it can have on our health–it promotes these behaviors as a means to lose weight and change our bodies.

How does diet culture affect body image?

Why is diet culture toxic to our sense of self? Because it:

  • 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
  • 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 (3). In fact, chronic dieting is a surefire way to develop other negative effects such as disordered eating and a slower metabolism
  • 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

how to stop diet culture
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 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.

How to avoid 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 toxic diet culture 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: 

Conclusion

To recap: why is diet culture toxic? First, it perpetuates the false notion that thinness equals healthiness. This is simply not true; health comes in all shapes and sizes. Second, diet culture shamefully capitalizes on people’s insecurities, convincing them that they need to buy certain products or use certain services in order to achieve their “ideal” body type. And lastly, diet culture tacitly promotes disordered eating by suggesting that restrictive eating habits are necessary in order to be healthy and happy. It’s time for us to break free from the harmful messaging of diet culture and start living our lives in a way that promotes mental wellness.

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