In its most simplistic form, diet culture believes that physical appearance and body shape are more crucial than psychological, physical, and general well-being. It’s the idea that controlling our body, particularly our diet – by limiting what and how much we eat – is normal.
Even though many people pursue slimmer bodies, they fail to recognize the real dangers associated with these so-called diets. Social media is a significant source of information about these diets, and just like any other trend, people try them.
Diet culture is the social expectations that tell us we are a better person and a more worthy person if our bodies are a certain way. And, it’s a shape-shifter: We may believe we’re not subscribing to diet culture, but rather to health and fitness.
But, this is the toxic cycle of rebranding. These days the diet industry has adapted its messaging to be less blatantly about appearance and more about “health and wellness,” claiming that the two concepts are different. But there’s still that widespread error of equating health and thinness as the same. It is important to remember that thinness and health are not the same and that being overweight does not necessarily equate to an unhealthy lifestyle.
It’s almost impossible to keep up with most diets, so falling off them is even more detrimental to someone’s mental health and relationship with food. Furthermore, the relationship between various foods, weight gain and weight loss, and self-satisfaction only creates an atmosphere of insecurity and contempt.
We are scared of food. We are afraid of eating the wrong thing and what society will think of us as a result. Due to diet culture obsession, many using special diets and intense exercise will develop unhealthy habits, which can eventually morph into an eating disorder. This snowballs into other mental health issues that can create life-altering damage if we’re not provided with the right help.
How Dieting Hurts Body Perception and Health
We are pushed into diet culture from a very early age. The majority of people are under pressure to conform to society’s ideal body shape and size. Although many think the spotlight is on women for idolizing unrealistic beauty standards like Barbie’s long legs and slim waist, the thin ideal is everywhere for everyone, including all ages and genders. Thinness is emphasized more than health in diet culture and society. No matter the cost, everyone is expected to conform to its impossible standards. Individuals are encouraged to shrink as much as they can. To take up less space.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the most common ways diet culture harms our minds, bodies, and souls.
- Diet culture confuses size and health.
Weight is often equated with health on social media, but in reality, it’s not that simple. We are not affected by our weight alone, and focusing on weight loss and body size often leads people to turn to unhealthy eating habits in a desperate attempt to fit in.
Diet culture harms us because it promotes messages around food morality or body size that are destructive to our self-respect and self-worth. Additionally, diet culture and weight stigma discourage people with larger bodies from seeking medical care because they fear their healthcare provider will blame their weight for whatever problem they have.
Weight ranges and BMIs are suggested for each demographic based on age, gender, and health, but being within a weight range does not ensure health. It is important to note that proper health is determined by various factors, including nutrition (not diet), physical fitness, stress levels, and mental health.
- Diet culture emphasizes that we should follow external rules about what, when, and how much we eat.
In addition, diet culture normalizes labeling foods as good or bad and treating food as something you either deserve or don’t, depending on your eating and exercise habits. Not only is food labeled, but people may label themselves as good or bad for consuming these foods.
Various ways of eating are promoted, such as “clean” foods, Paleo recipes, low-carb diets, intermittent fasting, and keto. Doing this encourages us to be insanely cautious about everything we eat instead of eating for enjoyment and satisfaction. By restricting certain foods, we cause ourselves to feel shame and guilt whenever we “fall off the wagon” or have a “cheat day.”
Diet culture normalizes deprivation and makes food the enemy. It does more than deprive our bodies of calories; it deprives them of essential nutrients, which can decrease immunity, increase irritability, and decrease focus. In addition, it can normalize disordered eating behavior, such as skipping meals and removing entire food groups. When this occurs, eating disorders can be hidden more easily or even not recognized until they are well established.
- Diet culture suggests that body size determines a person’s worthiness.
A person conditioned to accept diet culture as a way of life may have a poor self-image, engage in negative self-talk, and believe that being thin makes them better than someone else. They may also have an all-or-nothing mentality; those who engage in extreme dieting often encourage their friends and family members to follow the latest trend, unintentionally body shaming those who do not need to lose weight.
Secondly, there is the quality of life costs: the time spent on meal planning and calorie counting, the money spent on diet programs, books, and products, and the relationships that suffer because they may worry about what they’re going to eat at dinnertime rather than focusing on the people around them.
It is part of our human nature to desire connection – to be seen, heard, and loved for who we are. But as a society, we believe that a thin or fit person is more attractive, desirable, and worthy of love. So when people find themselves questioning their worth, they try to find ways to cope. Understanding this concept might be difficult, but it is true: there is no difference between the size of our bodies and the amount of love, dignity, respect, friendship, intimacy, or care we deserve.
When people let go of dieting, the relief is profound. No matter one’s age, it’s a tremendous gift when this epiphany pops up: dieting is robbing the joy of life.
How to Navigate the Pressures of Diet Culture
Social media cannot tell us what is healthy for our bodies and how to lose weight effectively. So, rather than jumping from one unhealthy eating habit to another, it’s necessary to find a healthy way to address the parts of our diets that need to be changed. A simple and smart solution to getting rid of bad eating habits is to consult a nutritionist who can advise and help develop a personal eating plan based on our specific needs.
The pervasive nature of diet culture makes it impossible to avoid altogether, but there are ways to limit exposure and advocate against it.
- Be aware that there is no universal standard for beauty and health.
It’s always a good idea to move our bodies and eat nutritious food, but it’s essential to understand how much of our motivation comes from our culturally accepted aesthetics.
We are all influenced by social norms that shape what we perceive as desirable. So, health is probably not the issue; it’s about American diet culture repeatedly telling us that we need to be thin, or now, as a common trend, “thick”, to fit in.
For example, when we come across a piece of art, we may see a white canvas that has paint thrown all over it in no particular order, or, we might see the pain and anguish of the artist through their use of chaotic paint strokes and colors. They may have the audacity, but no one has the right or the knowledge to distinguish who or what is worthy or not. Beauty is not one particular thing, nor is health. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s important to note who loves us for who we are, rather than how we may appear.
- Practice Body Neutrality
Body neutrality means focusing on what our body can do now, not what we’d like it to look like. Doing this can take our minds off trying to manipulate or control how we look. Rather than becoming obsessed with our appearance, our mindset shifts to focus on accepting our bodies as they are and manifesting gratefulness and appreciation for their capabilities. By practicing body neutrality, we can step away from diet culture and food labeling and honor our body as it is.
- Learn more about what health really is.
A deeper understanding of overall wellness can help us avoid focusing solely on thinness and food restrictions that can harm our health. Additionally, it teaches us how to be healthy in various ways, including multiple body types and eating habits. Rejecting diet culture isn’t about giving up. It’s about finally letting go.
People forget their body’s natural hunger signals by focusing on weight loss and calorie restriction. As a result, many registered dieticians focus on “intuitive eating” – eating in response to satiety and hunger cues, to build a healthier relationship with food.
Intuitive eating can remove the stigma associated with certain food groups, such as carbohydrates.
Counting every calorie, regretting every piece of cake, and giving the scale that much power is not worth it. It’s difficult to free ourselves from diet culture mentality, but it’s possible and necessary. So instead of counting calories this year, try counting memories. The people we’re with and the occasions we’re celebrating will be the things we remember fifty years from now, not the piece of cake we ate.
So eat the carrots, but eat the cookies too.
- Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study, Int J Eat Disord 1999; 6:179.