Dismantling Diet Culture: What it is + Why it Hurts Us
Diet culture is everywhere. Recently, while driving, I heard a commercial on the radio for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. It involved two women discussing their lunches at work and went a little something like this…
“No! I can’t have butter – this is punishment kale so I can eat whatever I want for dinner!”
“Don’t worry, this isn’t butter, it’s guilt-free I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!”
I cringed with every word and was quickly reminded of the pervasiveness of diet culture (sometimes I forget as I live in my own bubble).
what is diet culture?
You might be scratching your chin, wondering what the hell I’m even talking talk. For the longest time, I was unfamiliar with the term ‘diet culture’. It can be hard to identify because it creeps into nearly every aspect of our lives.
DEFINITION OF CULTURE (NOUN):
THE CUSTOMARY BELIEFS, SOCIAL FORMS, AND MATERIAL TRAITS OF A RACIAL, RELIGIOUS, OR SOCIAL GROUP.
With this definition in mind, I define diet culture as:
the beliefs that a “healthy” weight is morally superior to being “overweight” or “obese”
the constant fixation on calories, body image, weight loss, portion control, fad diets, fitness programs, clothing size, etc.
categorization of foods as “good”, “bad”, “clean”, etc.
*Side note: using “clean” to describe food especially peeves me! Did you spray it with lysol? Did you wash it after dropping it on the floor?*
where does it show up?
IN EVERYDAY CONVERSATIONS
“I ate sooo bad today, I really should work out even though I’m tired.”
“I’ll just skip dinner to make up for this huge lunch.”
“My New Year’s resolution is to lose 20 pounds by spring break and finally wear that bikini.”
“Okay, I’ll be good. I’ll have the salad, please.”
IN RECIPE TITLES
“Guilt-free Cauliflower Mash”
“7 Skinny Dinners Under 299 Calories”
“Clean Eating Chicken Fried Rice”
“3 Soups that Magically Make you Lose Weight”
Controversial ad in Times Square for appetite suppressant lollipops
Ad for Skinny Pop Popcorn
When searching for ads to feature in this post, I came across this vintage one and felt a bit amused by its absurdity…
But then I quickly realized some of today’s most prominent public figures heavily promote similar products.
IN THE WELLNESS SPHERE
This is controversial and even more difficult to come to terms with. The wellness industry has boomed recently and has been described as another form of diet culture by some.
I have definitely contributed to this in the past and I see many peers and health professionals on Instagram perpetuate the obsession with “healthy” eating.
This can come in many forms: constant cleanses, elimination diets, avoiding certain food groups, choosing “pure” foods while demonizing others (why do potatoes get so much hate?!), adhering to plans like paleo, keto, gluten-free, vegan, etc. because they are believed to be superior. *Side note: adhering to certain eating patterns is essential for various medical/health conditions (i.e. celiac disease or intolerances/allergies).
Many of these are promoted in the name of health and wellness and are considered “lifestyle changes”. There is certainly a fine line between promoting eating patterns that holistically support a person vs. creating fearful and distrusting relationships with food. For more thoughts on this, check out Christy Harrison’s article about her thoughts on what she calls The Wellness Diet.
The obsession with eating for health can become severe and spiral into what is known as orthorexia nervosa. Although this is not yet formally recognized as an eating disorder, it is associated with mental and physical health consequences.
Within Western medicine and even alternative medicine, diet culture is perpetuated.
Students of these disciplines are taught about the dangers of obesity, ways to promote weight loss, and the overly simplistic calories in vs. calories out theory.
This approach creates a bias against people in larger bodies, which often results in a lack of effective healthcare for those populations.
For example, the impact of this public health advertisement is harmful and teaches kids that fat = bad. It strengthens the belief that being fat is dangerous, when in reality, it is not a reliable indicator of health.
In the Ted talk below presented by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, she describes the relationship between 4 healthy habits (fruit + vegetable consumption, not smoking, movement 3x/week, and moderation of alcohol intake) and overall risk of death. Results show that weight plays a small role in risk of death – normal, overweight, and obese participants had the same overall risk when all 4 healthy habits were practiced.
[Explanation of study occurs between 7:27 and 8:48]
how does it hurt us?
Diet culture shifts our focus to our bodies, calories, food choices, meal planning, weight loss, etc. instead of what truly matters. Our relationships, dreams, careers, passions, experiences, and pleasures.
I started my period at just 9 years old, which meant my body changed much earlier than many of my peers. I have never struggled with an eating disorder or severe restriction, yet I can remember many ways in which I was affected by diet culture.
To name a few:
Looking in the mirror as a young girl wishing I could change certain parts of my body
Chatting with friends in 5th and 6th grade about all the foods we ate that day, down to the number of strawberries
Downloading a calorie counting app when I was 14 or 15 and meticulously tracking each morsel of food I ate
Experiencing extreme guilt and feeling powerless when my appetite surged with the birth control pill and I gained around 20 pounds over a year and a half
The problem with diet culture is that it leads us to believe that we will never be enough, never feel fulfilled until we have reached our “goal weight”.
Many people put their lives on hold because they feel uncomfortable and ashamed in the skin their in.
“I’ll go on that beach vacation once I like my arms.”
“I’ll rock that pair of shorts once I get rid of my cellulite.”
“I’ll sign up for a dating app once I weigh xxx pounds.”
Diet culture keeps us distracted. It causes us to devalue and compare ourselves to others.
Not to mention, it’s damaging to our mental and physical health.
First off, diets do not work long-term, which leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame.
Second, research shows that yo-yo dieting (periods of recurring weight loss + gain) is harmful to our physical health.
Disordered eating and eating disorders are prevalent and have “the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.” While there are many factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders, we cannot ignore the pressure of diet culture and the role it plays in triggering these disorders.
how can we dismantle it?
Okay, deep breath.
I know that was a ton of information and it can feel overwhelming. If you’re feeling fired up and ready to take action, remember to take one step at a time.
Ways to dismantle diet culture:
Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad (whether it’s a healthy foodie, fitness guru, or something of the sort)
Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad”. Food is food. We place those moral judgments on them
On the same note, work to separate feelings of guilt, shame, or “being bad” from eating
Challenge diet culture when you see it (kindly question others about their comments, call out fatphobia, listen to stories of people in marginalized bodies)
Explore forms of movement that you enjoy and make you feel good. If you hate running or climbing on the stair master for an hour, try playing tennis, gardening, or hiking
Look into the principles of intuitive eating – a way of eating that honors body signals and cultivates peace with food
Refrain from commenting on others’ bodies (positive or negative). These comments further promote the thin ideal that exists in diet culture. Instead, offer a compliment about their personality, intelligence, kind heart, etc.
Unpacking diet culture conditioning is not a quick process. This is something we have all been born into and it takes time to untangle your beliefs and form new ones.
It’s well worth the work. I no longer think about calories, or feel guilty or superior based on the meal I ate. I find food pleasurable and accept my body for how it is. Although I still think about food a lot (it’s my job and my passion), I’m not logging my meals or recounting my every bite with friends.
Instead, I am able to focus on my relationships, work, dreams, and experiences.
I want that for you, too.