The term diet culture has a lot of buzz around it of late, but many still ask what it is and why should we be aware of it? It can be tricky to spot because most diet culture is sadly considered the social norm.
What is diet culture?
Diet culture doesn’t simply equate to “being on a diet”, it’s more so being caught up in the culture of dieting. Diet culture is a system of beliefs which places values on the shape and size of your body, worshiping thinness and smaller bodies above health and well-being.
Christy Harrison is an American dietitian, a leader in dismantling diet culture and summarises it beautifully:
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness 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 the research is very clear 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 colour, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”
The diet industry is worth $72 billion dollars and they’re aware that the word “diet” isn’t as popular as it once was – as always, it’s sneaky and has started to re-label “dieting” into “wellness”. If the dieting industry didn’t label this as “wellness” they would stand to lose a lot of money, hence the shift in marketing language. Even dieting company Weight Watchers don’t call themselves that on the TV ads anymore, it’s “My WW” or simply “WW”.
What are examples of diet culture?
- Giving food moral value and calling it “good” or “bad”, this demonises certain foods whilst elevating others. This causes us to be hypervigilant about the food that we eat meaning we are “bad” people when we eat “bad” foods and vice versa
- Engaging in dieting or body-shaming discussions
- Exercising to “burn off” or “earn” food
- Having “cheat meals/days”
- Feeling guilty, embarrassed or ashamed during or after eating
- Engaging in “cleanses” – this is unnecessary as your liver, kidneys and lungs do this for free. Your body doesn’t “need a break”, this would be like saying your heart needed a break from beating
- Labelling food as “guilt-free” – guilt is not an ingredient
- Labelling food as “clean” or following a “clean eating” regime – a dietitians definition of clean is not eating food which is covered in dirt or mould
- Consuming certain foods with the intention of suppressing your appetite e.g. filling up on liquids, nicotine, ‘skinny’ teas etc.
- Restricting or removing certain foods such carbs, gluten, fat, sugar, etc.
- Avoiding social situations to avoid eating
- Feeling unworthy, unattractive or less than in your body
- Worshipping thinness and undertaking actions to make yourself fit the “thin ideal”
- Photos of before and after weight loss
- “What I eat in a day” videos
- Praising weight loss – saying “you look amazing, have you lost weight?” encourages the mentality that they’re only worthy and valued in a smaller body size rather than their personality or who they are as a person
- Saying you’ll “get back on track” or “diet starts Monday”
- Magazine/diets/people saying “hot to get bikini ready”
- Skipping meals or fasting
- Having to “get back to pre-baby weight/body”
This isn’t an exhaustive list, there are so many ways diet culture has stuck it’s claws into all of us. Dieting is the number one risk factor in developing an eating disorder. No one wakes up going “I think I’m going to have an eating disorder today, I love having issues around food” which is why speaking out and rejecting diet culture is so important.
How can I reject diet culture and reduce the harm it has?
- Stop labelling food as good and bad. Food is just food the way a chair is just a chair.
- Don’t comment on someone else’s body, whether you think it’s positive or negative. Compliment someone for their personality or how they make you you feel when you’re around them
- Throw away anything used to help keep you in a dieting mind frame. E.g. scales, calorie counting apps, dieting books, magazines or social media, clothes you will wear when you “lose the weight”
- Focus on the things if your life that are more important than body shape and size
- Check your social media feeds and unfollow any diet related accounts that make you feel bad about yourself and anything #fitspo related
- Speak to a professional psychologist or dietitian who works within a non-diet, Health at Every Size (HAES) space
Simply being aware of what diet culture is the first step in recognising how unhealthy it is for our mental and physical well-being. It’s a slow process to unlearn, and it can be difficult challenging everything we consider “normal” behaviours. We unknowingly receive these messages only a daily basis and unlearning these will take time. Have some self-compassion, empathy and allow yourself to time to process all of your feelings. You can unlearn diet culture and free yourself from its clutches.
Felix & Sage Psychology