For many of us – even most of us – dieting, the goal of losing a few pounds or attaining ‘body goals’ has been a regular part of life. Maybe there are times when it’s more frequent – like as we approach summer, or around the holidays and big life celebrations – but it’s something that most of us can relate to or have been involved in. It’s also something that’s totally accepted as normal because we live in a dieting culture.
Each diet or ‘lifestyle’ promises extreme, flashy, and headline-worthy results if you can adopt behaviors that are just as extreme, flashy, and headline-worthy.
Something that’s interesting about the culture we have around dieting is the acceptance that it’s never something we cross off our list – somehow there’s always more to do. As soon as you start one diet, you’ll hear about a new and improved version for you to try next, another program to enroll in, or membership to join. Each diet or ‘lifestyle’ promises extreme, flashy, and headline-worthy results if you can adopt behaviors that are just as extreme, flashy, and headline-worthy.
This is how so many get stuck in the dieting cycle and develop disordered relationships with food. We’re taught how to diet, but not often taught how to eat for enjoyment, satisfaction, and nourishment. If diet culture was an animal, it would be a unicorn telling every single one of us that if we *just* bought enough skincare products, ate the right foods, and exercised for a precise amount of time wearing the correct outfit – we could all be unicorns too.
In other words, diet culture lies.
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships skinniness 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 there is very clear research available 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.
Examples of Diet Culture:
When you start to notice and recognize the vast reach of diet culture, you’ll begin to notice everyday statements and conversations that are fueled by it:
“If I were thinner, then I’d want to go to the gym regularly”
“I used to dance but I’m too ____ to now, maybe if I was ____”
“Oh man, if I ate like that every day I’d be ____”
“They’d like me more if my body was ___”
“Well, in high school I weighed X but haven’t been able to get back to that since.”
A few places you might spot diet culture messages:
- A gym program that sells you a certain look or weight after ‘n’ weeks of their classes.
- Spa treatments that claim to shrink your body.
- Foods advertised as “guilt-free” or “clean.”
- In tag-lines that imply your weight = your worth or happiness.
- In products or supplements that imply health requires exorbitant cost, time, energy, and privilege.
Where diet culture shows up in your head
- Engaging in “Clean eating,” detoxes, cleanses, reboots, restarts, elimination diets (unless prescribed for a specific health condition and monitored by a qualified healthcare provider), gluten-free diets (unless you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity), autoimmune diets, carb restriction, “ancestral” diets, and any fad diet followed for “health” reasons.
- The phrases, “I feel fat,” “guilty pleasures,” “cheat day.” (Especially earning “cheat days” by being “good.”)
- Promising yourself that you’ll compensate for eating “bad/unhealthy” foods by exercising later (or extra).
- Allowing yourself to eat “bad” food if you’ve earned it by exercising or eating “healthy.”
- Giving yourself permission to eat during holidays, vacations, or special occasions with the promise you’ll get “back on the wagon” later.
- Judging people at the grocery store based on what food is in their cart.
- Determining your worth based on the foods you eat — believing you are lesser than or superior to others because of the way you eat.
How to Identify and Move Away From Diet Culture:
- Clean up your social media feeds. Unfollow anyone who makes you feel like you’re not doing enough or who shares diet culture messages. Then follow more non-diet, body-positive accounts including accounts that showcase a diverse range of colors, sizes, genders, and abilities.
- Reject diet culture – change the language you use around food, bodies, and health. Use the check-in “Would I say this to a friend?” before you say or think something to yourself. The voice we hear the most is our own, so we want to speak kindly.
- Find a community and support system. Unlearning diet culture and relearning how to nourish and treat your body from a place of respect is hard work! Luckily, you don’t have to do it alone. After you’ve cleaned up your social media feeds and are starting to recognize diet culture in everyday life, you’ll want to build up a community that can support you along the way.
O’Malley, B., & *, N. (2019, July 10). What is ‘Diet Culture’?: Alissa Rumsey Nutrition: Intuitive Eating Coaching. Retrieved from https://alissarumsey.com/intuitive-eating/what-is-diet-culture/
Recognizing and Resisting Diet Culture. (2019, May 02). Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/recognizing-and-resisting-diet-culture
Harrison, C. (2018, August 10). What Is Diet Culture? Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture
What is diet culture, and why is it ‘in the water’? (2020, March 09). Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.nutritionbycarrie.com/2020/02/what-is-diet-culture.html