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Diet Culture and Why It’s Harmful

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts or follow me on social media, you’ve probably seen me use the term, “diet culture”. In this post, I will define what diet culture is, how to recognize it and explain why it’s harmful.

Diet Culture Definition

Diet culture is a series of beliefs that may include (but not limited to):

  • Lie #1- Thin (or fit) = healthy. This theory is the cornerstone of diet culture. That if ONLY we could all be thin, then everyone would be healthy. And if you don’t fit this image of the thin “ideal”, then there must be something wrong with you. Research has shown that there are metabolically healthy thinner people and metabolically healthy larger people. Weight is not the determining factor in health, your genetics, lifestyle, and behaviors are. The research studies out there that show links between weight and significant health risks often do not control for weight cycling (also known as yo-yo dieting), physical activity, nutrient intake, or socioeconomic status. If they did, you would see that it is our BEHAVIORS that influence our health status, and not the weight itself. These flawed beliefs about certain body types lead to making assumptions about their health, behaviors or lifestyle. This is weight stigma which is a form of discrimination of people who live in larger bodies.
  • Lie #2- The idea that there is a way of eating that is morally superior to other ways of eating. For example, eating “clean”, Paleo, low-carb, intermittent fasting, keto, etc. This encourages us to be hyper-vigilant about everything we eat instead of eating for the enjoyment and satisfaction of eating! Restriction of certain foods or groups of foods only leads to shame and guilt whenever you “fall off the wagon” or have a “cheat day”. External food rules, such as those that are common with the diets previously listed, keep from tuning into our own bodies. Restrict. Binge. Repent. Repeat.
  • Lie #3- The pursuit of weight loss is admirable and a worthy cause. Diet culture tells us that we should put forth all our time, energy, and money into pursuing weight loss. What they fail to tell you is that long-term weight loss is generally not sustainable for more than a few years. Additionally, with each weight loss attempt, your metabolism slows down even further making it more difficult to lose weight again in the future. This often leads to weight cycling, which is a repeated loss and regain of body weight.

Recognizing Diet Culture

Diet culture is sneaky and invasive. It’s everywhere and you’ve likely been immersed in it since you were a small child. Learning to recognize diet culture is the first step in being able to reject it. Listed below are just some of the signs that you should look for:

Immediate Red Flags:

  • Using language like “good/bad” to describe your food or eating habits. “I’m so bad for having this milkshake right now!”
  • Stating that you have to “earn” your meal with exercise.
  • Feeling the need to burn off the calories of something you’ve eaten.
  • Feeling guilt or shame from eating.
  • Feeling compelled to track every morsel of food in a calorie counter.
  • Avoiding eating out or other social events that involve food because you feel you can’t eat anything there. (In the absence of food allergies or certain medical conditions).
  • Feeling anxious about what you should or “shouldn’t” be eating.
  • Beliefs that you need to eliminate a food group (i.e. carbohydrates or fats) or category of foods (i.e. desserts, sugar, “white foods”) in order to be healthy.
  • Believing you need to shrink your body size or weigh less.
  • Buying (or keeping) “skinny jeans” or a dress that is too small in order to “motivate yourself”.
  • Having a “cheat day” or “cheat meal”.
  • Following external rules to decide what to eat or how much. (I.e. no eating after 6 pm)
  • And the list goes on, and on, and on…

Use Caution

Tread carefully around anything that promises, “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.” This can be a form of the Wellness Diet, and a prime example of it is Weight Watchers’ re-branding as WW. I don’t care what they call it, the message and business model remains the same. Their business is built on repeat customers. If Weight Watchers were so effective, they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

I’ve also seen health and wellness professionals co-opting mindful eating or intuitive eating as a weight loss plan or for “weight management”. This is the exact opposite of what Intuitive Eating is intended to be. Is it possible that you may experience changes in your weight while practicing intuitive eating?– yes. But it’s also possible that your weight may stay the same or even go up if you’ve been restricting your food intake for a long time.

Why is Diet Culture Harmful?

Diet culture is harmful because these messages about the morality of food or the size of our body are inevitably damaging to our sense of self-respect and self-worth. Diet culture and weight stigma also often prevents people in larger bodies from seeking prompt medical care because they are afraid that their healthcare provider will blame whatever problem they’re having on their weight. Have a concussion? Maybe you should lose weight. Difficulties conceiving? Maybe you should lose weight. Broke your arm? Weight loss will help with that too. (Insert eye roll here).

Weight stigma and fat-shaming by trusted medical providers often leads to delay in seeking medical care, misdiagnosis, and pressure to diet (hello, weight cycling) which actually leads to increased health risks, thus perpetuating the belief that people in larger bodies are unhealthier than those in smaller bodies.

We buy into our culture that says being thin/fit means you are healthy, attractive, desirable, and worthy of love. This longing for connection is part of what makes us human. Who wouldn’t do what they felt was necessary to feel loved and admired by others? However, let me make this perfectly clear. You are not less worthy of love, dignity, respect, connection, friendship, intimacy, or care based on your body size. Rejecting diet culture isn’t about giving up. It’s about finally letting go.

Join me in becoming a #dietculturedropout!

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