Doesn’t it seem that everyone around you is on some diet or cleanse or following other means to lose weight? Well, that’s because many of them are. The diet mentality, like diet culture, is just as insidious, sneaky and damaging. From influencers and internet “health gurus” gushing about the Keto Diet to celebrities promoting intermittent fasting, the noise that diet mentality creates is deafening.
In this post, you’ll learn about what diet mentality is, how it can infiltrate our relationship with food and our bodies, and how to ditch it. If you are sick of the false promises of the latest diet fads and tired of following health and wellness trends that don’t work, keep on reading! I think it’s time we wake up and stand up to the diet bully that is literally trying to steal our food.
“Throw out the diet books and articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better weight loss diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating”. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
What is Diet Mentality?
Diet mentality is the belief that dieting is the key to all of your health and happiness. It is based on the common, yet incorrect assumption that intentional weight loss is a worthy goal to strive towards, that thin=good and being in a larger body=bad. A diet mentality also clouds, or completely blocks, your ability to tune into what your body needs, and what it’s telling you every day.
I love how The Nourish Exchange explains it: “The cult of dieting is encouraged by messaging from the women around us (“I shouldn’t eat this, but…”, “I’m going on a cleanse on Monday”, “I feel fat”); praise for losing weight; desire for control in a chaotic situation — and all of this is wrapped up in the notion that our worth as women is dependent on our beauty and our bodies”.
This type of thinking is also what fuels the following disordered eating modalities:
- Moralizing foods into “good” and “bad”
- Food paranoia
- Unhealthy preoccupation with food
- Eating disorders
- Disregard for pleasure during eating
- Disconnection from bodily signals such as hunger and fullness
- Yo-yo dieting and weight cycling
- Poor self image and self esteem
- Negative mental health and well being
Buy it Here: Intuitive Eating
The authors state that “Only when you vow to discard dieting and replace it with a commitment to Intuitive Eating will you be released from the prison of yo-yo weight fluctuations and food obsessions”. But ditching the diet mentality is of course very challenging. That’s why we have to first recognize the damage it’s been doing to us and choose to to heal from this toxic way of relating to food. Then we have to recognize it in everyday life, because just like diet culture, a diet mentality may be operating without us even realizing it. Ultimately, this is an ongoing process that invites us to tune into and trust ourselves, rather than rely on externally imposed regulations.
Recognizing Diet Mentality
You don’t actually have to be on a diet to experience diet thoughts and what the Authors of Intuitive Eating call “pseudo dieting behaviors”. If you feel like you still have to control what to eat, when to eat, or how much to eat, it’s diet mentality at work. Remember though, this is NOT your fault: it’s how we’ve been conditioned and programmed by diet culture.
These thoughts and behaviors are not always easy to spot, but here are some examples to help you in recognizing diet mentality:
- Counting calories and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat)
- Labeling foods as “good” and “clean” or “bad”, “sinful”, “forbidden”
- Eating only “clean”, “healthy” “low calorie”, “low fat”, “clean” type foods
- Doing unproven dieting behaviors such as “detoxing” and “cleanses” for “health purposes”
- Feeling guilty or “bad” after eating foods that diet culture associates with weight gain such as cake, sweets, ice cream, chips, pizza, etc.
- Fear of being judged by what you eat
- Using compensatory behaviors (such as vigorous exercise, skipping meals, restricting food) in order to “burn off” or “pay for” eating a certain food that is seen as “bad”
- Eating only at specific times of the day, such as before 6:00 pm, even though there is “little direct evidence to support or refute” a weight gain effect of calories consumed in the evening, as this article points it out.
- Trying actively to maintain your weight at a specific number by restricting and compensatory behaviors
As Christy Harrison puts it: ” Thinking about how your eating is going to affect your size in any way, shape, or form is diet mentality, and if you let it govern your eating choices, you’re dieting—even if you don’t think of it as dieting, and even if it’s very, very subtle. The diet mentality is crafty like that. “
Also, beware of the recent “wellness” trend. This is nothing more than diet culture an diet mentality in effect. As Abbey Sharp explains: “In today’s age, diet has become a bad word, and has been replaced with the virtuous pursuit of wellness or clean eating. Do not be fooled. This is the same restrictive shit that forces us to distrust our bodies needs, repackaged with a shiny new bow”. #themoreyouknow
Tip: Recognize the diet mentality loop— restrict, indulge, reel guilty and bad about ourselves , restrict again— in order to start breaking from it.
How to Reject Diet Mentality
By now you may be asking, “OK, but how do I get rid of diet mentality?” Well, it’s not a one and done solution; this is a continuous process of re-learning how to relate to food. We need to break with the old, mistaken way of thinking that diets are the magical solution they’re marketed as, and see them for the potential damage they can wreak. If you feel that ditching the diet mentality and building a healthy relationship with food and your body is for YOU, here are some useful steps, derived from the Intuitive Eating book:
Buy it Here: Intuitive Eating Workbook
Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge the damage that dieting causes
As I’ve mentioned before, diets cause more harm than good. In this step towards ditching the diet mentality, it’s important that you take stock of how diet culture and dieting has harmed you. You can ask yourself the following questions to get started:
- What has dieting cost you in your life?
- How has it affected your personal life and your relationships
- How has it impacted your eating behaviors, food preoccupation and relationship to food?
- How has it affected your physical health, mood, mental and emotional health?
- How much time, money and energy have you spent on dieting?
As the authors of Intuitive Eating state: “Recognizing that dieting is the problem will help you break from the cultural myth that diets work”.
Step 2: Be aware of diet mentality traits and thinking
As we’ve seen, diet mentality is very sneaky and we can be engaging in it without even noticing it. That’s why we have to be very aware of not just our thoughts, but the conversations we’re engaging in and the messages we’re constantly receiving. From social media, to our well meaning relatives, start filtering these messages and honoring what YOU really need, not what you’re “supposed” to do. Start rebelling against the misleading diet concepts of:
- Obedience: Ugh, I really dislike this word! Obedience in relationship to eating usually implies mindless compliance and invasion of boundaries (by being told what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat, comments about your weight and body size). And trust me, setting your strong boundaries is vital. “Shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” are at the heart of the obedience trait of diet mentality. And they’re so damaging in every aspect of our life. Unless the “should” is about not harming yourself or others, “shoulds” need to be dropped. Especially when it comes to “should eat this” and “shouldn’t eat that”. Ask yourself, “well why should (or shouldn’t) I?”. No one food or meal is going to make or break you, so what’s the big deal if I feel like eating real chips instead of the “healthier” kale chips today? Standing up against what you should or shouldn’t eat makes way for getting in tune to what YOUR body really needs and for creating a healthy relationship with food. Food guidance may be OK in some cases; being told exactly how to feed your own body isn’t.
- Willpower: As an attempt to counter natural desires and replace them with rules, this diet mentality paradigm is wholly against our inherent body signals, such as hunger and fullness. Trying to “willpower” our normal desire for something sweet is actually counterproductive. It can trigger a binge later on, and even worse, a negative relationship with food. When you let go of trying to control your eating, eating ceases to control you. So no, your last diet didn’t work because you didn’t have enough willpower–it’s because diets don’t work, period.
- Failure: Instead of recognizing that diets don’t work, that we’re all different and don’t function the same way, diet culture and diet mentality make you feel like it’s your fault, that you need to try harder, and that you’re a failure if you don’t “get results”. In the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, the author makes an interesting case on the perception of failure. He states that our own personal values underlie everything we are and do. The values we choose, and the metrics by which those values are assessed (the meaning we give them), are at the heart of whether we feel like we have “failed” or “succeeded”. When these values are unhelpful (for example, being a smaller size), it’s inevitable that we’ll feel as though we’ve failed when we are unable to reach a goal related to that value (losing weight). But can you see what the problem is? It’s not you-it’s the values you’ve chosen, or rather, the values that have been imposed on us by diet culture. Once we see that it’s these faulty values and this system that have failed us, and not the other way around, we can start dismantling this sense of failure. By replacing them with better values (such as respecting your body and yourself), there is no room for failure.
Buy it Here: The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck
You did not fail: The diet and system of dieting failed YOU
Step 3: Get rid of the dieter’s tools
There are certain “tools” that keep the diet mentality hamster wheel rolling. The less we depend on them, the more free we’ll be to enjoy food and respect our bodies. It may be a challenge at first, but these changes (if you choose to undertake them), are meant to be done slowly, at your own pace, and with heaps of self compassion. Here are some of the diet culture tools that need to go:
- The scale: As a dietitian, I’ve always felt uncomfortable weighing people. Heck, I don’t even weigh myself! For one thing, weight is not a reliable predictor of anything. Also, weight can fluctuate due to many things such as water retention, sweating, hormonal cycle, use of certain medications, muscle mass loss, etc. Relying on this number as proof of who you are is downright unsound, and it can actually derail you from taking a more positive approach towards your health. That’s the part I always hated the most when I was asked to weigh people early in my career: the (unnecessary) shame they expressed at the number, the dismay and the unfair feeling of failure. And let me tell you, it’s hard to explain to them that this number doesn’t define them-that’s another toxic effect of how the diet mentality erodes our self worth.
- Fad Diets and Meal Plans: Ugh, another one of my pet peeves! Fad diets are eating plans that promise dramatic weight loss results. Most (if not all) are not based on any proven evidence, do not provide long-term results, and can be dangerous to health. Believe me, if they really worked, fad diets would no longer keep on popping up from time to time to replace the previous ones. Remember the South Beach diet? Exactly. Plus, fad diets are just another way to exert outside forces that try to control our food intake, instead of going within and listening to our bodies.
- Social media: This is a big one. The internet is both a blessing and a curse. We now have access to all this information but we also have access to too much information! In order to untangle ourselves from diet mentality, it’s important to limit our exposure to its messages. For example, you can unfollow some fitness and “wellness” gurus on Instagram who are promoting diet culture and the diet mentality, especially if they don’t have any health education to back up their advice. Or ditch the diet magazines you’re subscribed to. Instead, search for and follow those people who promote body acceptance and self love.
Additional resources for ditching the diet mentality
If you’re interested, here are some ways to fight back against diet mentality and start taking back your power!
- Ditch the Diet by Julie Satterfeal
- Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
- The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy by Caroline Dooner
- Dressing on the side by Jaclyn London
- The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
And now I would like to hear from you. What do you think about the diet mentality we’ve been imposed with? In what other ways do you think it infiltrates our everyday lives? Is there any other strategy you can suggest to fight against this? Sound off in the comments section below!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…