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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 all about the diet mentality. You’ll learn what it is, how it can affect your relationship with food and your body, and how to how to reject the diet mentality. If you are sick of the false diet promises and wellness trends that don’t work, keep on reading!
“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 the 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. It also promotes the anti-fat bias that thin=good and being in a larger body=bad. Diet mentality also clouds, or completely blocks, your ability to tune into what your body needs.
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”.
The diet mentality is also what fuels the following disordered eating traits:
- Moralizing foods into “good” and “bad”
- Anxiety around food
- 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 (1)
- Poor self image and self esteem
- Negative mental health and well being
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. 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, instead of relying on external eating regulations.
The diet mentality at work
You don’t actually have to be on a diet to experience “diet thoughts” (what the authors of Intuitive Eating call “pseudo dieting behaviors”. If you feel like you still have to control what, when, 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 of the diet mentality:
- Counting calories and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) obsessively
- Labeling foods as “good” and “clean” or “bad”, “sinful”, “forbidden”
- Eating only “healthy” “low calorie”, “low fat”, or “clean” type foods
- Engaging in 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 considered “bad”
- Eating only at specific times of the day, such as before 6:00 pm
- Trying actively to maintain your weight at a specific number by restricting and compensatory behaviors
Fellow anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison explains:
” 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. “
Tip: Recognize the diet mentality loop— restrict, indulge, feel guilty, restrict again— in order to start breaking from it.
How to reject the diet mentality
By now you may be asking, “OK, but how do I ditch the 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’re interested in ditching the diet mentality, here are some useful steps, derived from the Intuitive Eating book:
Step 1: Recognize and acknowledge the damage that dieting causes
It’s no question: diets cause more harm than good. In this step, 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
- In which ways has it impacted your eating behaviors, food preoccupation, food choices and relationship to food?
- To what degree has it affected your physical health, mood, mental and emotional health?
- How much time, money and energy have you spent on dieting?
The authors of Intuitive Eating state that:
“Recognizing that dieting is the problem will help you break from the cultural myth that diets work”.
Step 2: Be aware of diet mentality thinking and traits
As you can see, 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:
Ugh, I really dislike this word! Obedience in relationship to eating usually equals mindless compliance and invasion of boundaries. For example, being told what , how much, and 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. 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 helps you get in tune to what YOUR body really needs. This is one of the first steps to 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.
The diet mentality works as an attempt to counter natural desires and replace them with rules. This is wholly against our inherent body signals, such as hunger and fullness.
For example, 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.
On the contrary, 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.
Instead of recognizing 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
- 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 failure. He states that our own personal values are at the heart of everything we are and do. The values we choose, and how we measure them, determine whether we feel like we have “failed” or “succeeded”.
When these values are unhelpful (for example, the value of 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.
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. These changes 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: When I started out as a registered dietitian, I’d 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
- hormonal cycle
- use of certain medications
- muscle mass loss, etc.
Relying on this number as proof of who you are is downright unsound. It can actually derail you from taking a more positive approach towards your health.
- 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 (2), and can be dangerous to health. Believe me, if they really worked, fad diets would no longer keep on popping up. Remember the South Beach diet? Exactly. Plus, fad diets are just outside forces that try to control our food intake. They don’t encourage 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 the “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
It can be hard to let go of the diet mentality, but it’s worth it. Rejecting diets and embracing intuitive eating is a more sustainable way to live. It will also help you develop a better relationship with food. How will you start rejecting the diet mentality today?
And if you need virtual nutrition counseling to learn to eat intuitively, sign up for a free discovery call with me right here.
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…