understanding the sneaky ways in which diet culture infiltrates our thinking is paramount to being able to shut it down and truly free yourself from it.
Understanding this is paramount for so many reasons but the two most important being that 1) SO many eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors begin by simply “going on a diet” and 2) because understanding the sneaky ways that it infiltrates our society is crucial to being able to stop it from negatively impacting you.
Contrary to what it sounds like, diet culture is so much larger than just the fad diets and diet products we see out there. It’s become such a large force that it’s likely you might not even recognize the many different ways in which it’s a part of your every day life and thinking.
When I refer to “diet culture” what I mean is the system of beliefs that:
- Promotes weight loss, the way you eat and exercise as the single path to health and wellness.
- Has created and continues to hold up “thinness” as the ideal while tearing down any body that doesn’t fit its unrealistic standard.
- Equates the way you eat, exercise or how you look with virtuousness (i.e. you’re ‘good’ if you eat & move a certain way and ‘bad’ if you break from that).
- Believes certain patterns of eating or certain foods are ‘right’ and others are ‘wrong,’ creating a society constantly confused about, obsessed with and anxious over what they should and shouldn’t eat (so as not to sin against the impossible standards of diet culture).
- Neglects the many other important aspects of health and ultimately pulls people away from their passions and purpose in life as they pursue thinness, the ‘perfect’ body and the ‘perfect’ way of eating.
- Normalizes disordered patterns & behaviors (such as constant obsession with and monitoring of weight, food & exercise, causing us to feel we need to ‘get back on track’ if we’ve skipped a workout, eaten something ‘off limits’ or our weight has fluctuated, attaches our worth and value as humans to what we’ve eaten, how we move our bodies and the way we look) and makes us feel wrong or irresponsible if we refuse to participate in them.
Maybe the above opens your eyes to some ways that it has snuck into your thinking. Or maybe you read it and think “well, DUH – those are so obvious.” The tricky thing about diet culture is that it has found ways to morph and change so that it can sneak its messaging in without you even realizing it.
Here are just some of the sneaky way diet culture can pop up in your lives:
Touting that it’s “a lifestyle, not a diet.” This is one of the sneakier ways diet culture has transformed their message to feel gentler or more acceptable. If you see this messaging and the plan includes restricting certain food groups, eating in a formulaic manner, timing your meals by the clock rather than your internal signals, focusing on your weight or weight loss, counting calories/macros/carbs/fat, etc. – it’s a diet. And if it becomes a lifestyle, it can be really harmful both physically and mentally.
Celebrating weight loss or body transformations. We’re so deeply entrenched in the “thinner is better” line thinking that we often don’t even realize the harm in telling someone they “look great!” when they’ve lost weight. It is common place to see before and after pictures from fitness gurus and even our friends and family on social media; and the common reaction to those images is complimenting the individual on their ‘success.’ But here’s the thing: embedded in those celebrations and words of congratulations is the diet culture message “you’re better now because you’re thinner.”
These messages celebrate the thin ideal and glorify the idea that you need to transform your body in some way (whether by losing weight, inches or gaining muscle) in order to be thought of as ‘attractive,’ ‘worthy’ or ‘successful.’ Often we have NO idea what a person has gone through to achieve that transformation. What we may be celebrating when we compliment these transformations is disordered eating or even a full-blown eating disorder. As a society, we need try to move away from commenting on people’s bodies in any way. Let’s work to recognize and commend positive personality traits, expertise in a certain area, charity, artistry, etc. The values and qualities that truly make someone who they are, rather than focusing on the way they look.
Assuming individuals in larger bodies are lazy, unmotivated or don’t care about their health. Do you often look at individuals in larger bodies and assume they’re simply lazy or don’t care about their health? Similar to celebrating weight loss, diet culture loves to push the notion that larger bodied people simply don’t take care of themselves and must be unhappy because they don’t fit the thin ideal and are physically incapable of things their thinner counterparts can do (Ragen Chastain has something to say about that!).
Shows like The Biggest Loser promote the idea that anyone in a larger body must sit around drinking liters of soda downing fast food or candy – and all it takes is for them to get off their bottoms, start dieting and exercising to have a better life (for more on just how false that notion is, check out this Food Psych podcast episode). From a young age it is pounded into our heads by diet culture’s subtle messages that fat is ‘bad’ and thin is ‘good.’ It tells us that in order to be beautiful, worthy and accepted, you must be thin and if you’re not working to be thin, you must be lazy, unmotivated or unconcerned with your health. It takes a lot of educating yourself and exposing yourself to individuals of all shapes and sizes to be begin to undo this thinking and understand that no one body type holds a moral high ground. All bodies are good bodies and capable of whatever it is they want in life, no matter their size or shape.
The ‘For Your Health‘ Claim. Another really sneaky way that diet culture has managed to shift & change is by reframing the focus of their message from directly mentioning ‘weight’ or ‘weight loss’ to making it all about ‘health’ ‘wellness’ or even ‘increased energy.’ Here’s the thing – we know from the research that obsessing over our food intake is not good for our health. The strict and stringent rules of diet culture have created a society so stressed out and anxious over what the ‘right’ thing to eat is, that we’re actually harming our health in the process.
For myself when I struggled, and many others I’ve talked to, this “for your health” notion ultimately creates an eating plan so restrictive that there’s no way to be either mentally or physically healthy while trying to adhere to it. Furthermore, as the restrictions of ‘unhealthy’ foods pile on, our variety, nutrient and energy intake decreases to a severely low level. This not only harms our physical health, but it becomes almost impossible to think about anything other than food, let alone have any sort of well-rounded life. It becomes an obsession and often leads to an eating disorder known as Orthorexia (for more on this, there’s a great Food Psych podcast episode here).
We also know that weight cycling (losing and gaining weight over and over again) which is commonly seen among dieters, negatively impacts our health.
Finally, as often is the case with diet culture, it puts far too much emphasis on what we’re eating in terms of impact on our overall wellbeing and disregards many of the other important determinants of overall health.
Promoting cleanses, detoxes or resets. Please know that our bodies are set up with built-in detoxification systems. Properly functioning lungs, livers and kidneys already do a great job of this and no plan we follow, food, juice, serum, oil etc. that we ingest or don’t ingest will do a better job than these systems. You do not need to “reset” or “detox” from things like sugar or gluten. It is not necessary to “eat clean” in order to keep your health intact. Often these types of diets and eating patterns end up leading to digestive issues, food obsession, anxiety & stress around food, episodes of bingeing and a lack of trust between you and your body. Want more on this? I recommend this article.
Elevating certain foods or nutrients above others. There is no one food that can do everything for you. And in fact, the idea that “more is better” is often not the case when it comes to nutrients. When someone starts promoting certain foods or nutrients as the end all be all to health, be weary. Variety and a wide range of nutrients is key to good health (as is not stressing about our food choices!). Any plan that decreases your opportunity for these variety or causes you to stress about your choices, is not truly health promoting.
Co-Opting Intuitive Eating for profit. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing individuals with influence trying to co-op bits and pieces of the Intuitive Eating message for their own profit.
Brands or people (doctors, dietitians and other medical professionals included!) selling meal plans, formulas, detoxes, cleanses or promoting certain diets for the purposes of weight loss or changing one’s body then turning around and throwing out messages of “listening to your body” and “the importance of not stressing over your food choices” do nothing but confuse individuals working to free themselves from diet culture. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: if you see messaging that includes restricting certain food groups, eating in a formulaic manner or according to a plan, timing your meals by the clock rather than your internal signals, counting calories/macros/carbs/fat, etc. It is not Intuitive Eating and it has the potential to do harm. This is particularly true when the other messaging, products or plans promoted focus on weight loss or ‘achieving a better body.’
As the Intuitive Eating messaging becomes more popular, you have to become an even more vigilant consumer to avoid the confusion that can be created by these individuals. They are simply choosing a few key phrases from the framework to throw into their messaging because it’s currently “in” and capitalizing on that type of messaging can better serve their own bottom line. Don’t let it fool you. There is no way to promote true Intuitive Eating when there is any focus on weight loss or external control of the way you eat.
The “Wellness Diet.” Christy Harrison does such a great job of breaking down this term she coined that I’m going to simply redirect you to her blog post on this concept and how to avoid falling for it.
The bottom line here is that when and if there are messages of restriction, cutting out certain foods or food groups, regulating your eating based on external factors (such as formulas, meal plans, by the clock) rather than listening to your body, categorizing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ demonizing certain foods/nutrients and elevating others, these are diet culture messages; many of which have very little scientific evidence to back up their claims. These are patterns and behaviors that harm your relationship with food and your body and have the potential to create a number of both physical and mental struggles for years to come.
Diet culture doesn’t care about that. Diet culture cares about making money and continuing to grow a $72 billion dollar + industry selling a faulty product that doesn’t work and blaming the consumer for that failure. Learning to recognize diet culture for what it is will help you save precious time, money and energy that you can invest into things that will truly improve your life.
Please note: If you are happily a part of diet culture, I have no judgement. I always advocate for the individual to do what feels best to them. I just want to provide resources, support and information for those who have felt harmed by diet culture so that they can understand they are not alone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please know that there is help available. Eating disorders and disordered eating do no discriminate based on age, gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, race, etc. Anyone who is suffering should seek help immediately.
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