You may have heard the term “diet culture” popping up, but what exactly is it? We are doing a deep dive into what diet culture is, how to spot it in our day to day, the role social media plays in diet culture, why it’s so harmful, and 4 ways to combat it.
It seems as though the term “diet culture” has been thrown around all over the internet, but what exactly is it? While this is a huge topic, it’s important to understand what it is so we can identify it (awareness is the first step to making change!) when it crops up at work, at school, in our communities and in our homes.
With our intuitive eating dietitian lens, we’re bringing you on a deep dive into:
- What is Diet Culture?
- How to Spot Diet Culture
- Social Media and Diet Culture
- How to Break Free!
- The Anti-Diet Culture Movement
If you’re particularly interested in any of the above, just click the link to jump to that section!
Off the top, we often hear these two questions:
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates thinness with health, among other things. There are many ways that it is harmful, including perpetuating weight stigma, fat phobia, and thin privilege. Find out more that here.
Diet culture has infiltrated many parts of our society, including the wedding and fashion industries, our healthcare system, and social media. Because it is so pervasive, it can negatively impact our body image, increase our preoccupation with food, and lead us to feeling like we’re not enough Read more about that here and here.
What is Diet Culture?
So, what is diet culture and why should we pay attention?
When we think about one’s culture, we’re discussing the learned patterns of perception, values, and behaviors that are shared by a group of people. Culture is incredibly important, as identifying with a particular culture fulfills one of our most basic human needs to belong. Aligning with what the majority of our community values and perceives as acceptable or not is a surefire way to cultivate a sense of safety and security. We dive more into the psychology of our human needs here in this blog about calorie counting.
So how does dieting play a role in all of this?
According to Christy Harrison, RD, the definition of diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness and equates thin with being healthy
- Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining a higher status
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others
- Oppresses people who do not match up with the thin ideal or the gold standard of health
Simply put, diet culture is based on the idea that bodies exist in a hierarchy, with smaller and thinner equaling better and healthier. Both of which are completely false, as we discuss in more detail in this post sharing 3 ways to stop yo-yo dieting.
Even though there is a ton of research outlining the harms of dieting and how diets don’t work, diet culture is still so pervasive in our culture today – so why? Aside from creating that sense of safety by agreeing with the masses as discussed above, another reason is the multi-billion-dollar diet industry that brings in more than 72 billion dollars a year. There are systems in place that make a lot of money by convincing individuals to spend their money, time, and energy on pursuing the thin ideal, no matter the cost.
Transform your relationship with food and your body while mastering the foundations of feel-good nutrition by working 1:1 with a Registered Dietitian from our team.
How to Spot Diet Culture
You might be thinking ‘but I’m not on a diet, can I still be impacted by diet culture?’ And the answer is a big YUP. You don’t need to be on a diet to be swept up with diet culture and in turn participating in the perpetuation of these beliefs.
How does diet culture show up and how can we spot it?
Diet culture can show up in obvious ways, including:
The Wedding Industry
There is a lot of money to be made off of brides who feel unworthy and inadequate in terms of the size of their body. From the bridal store not carrying an inclusive range of dress sizes, the seamstress asking if you’re planning to lose weight before the wedding, to the unending body pressures from not only the industry, but close friends and family, for you to look perfect on your big day.
The Fashion Industry
While clothing sizes are all over the map for straight sized women, it’s even worse for folks needing plus-size clothing. In fact, the average sample size for most fashion designers ranges from size 0-2, despite this study showing that adult American women, on average, fall between the sizes of 18-20, with teen girls averaging around a size 12.
Diet culture can also show up in less obvious ways, including:
The Wellness Diet
The Wellness Diet is a term coined by Christy Harrison, RD, which describes the sneaky way that diet culture is showing up in our generation. Diet culture is not as obvious as it was years ago, when brands like Weight Watchers and Slim Fast were popularized on the market.
Nowadays, dieting for weight loss seems to be more taboo, and the dieting industry has caught on to this fact and has instead wrapped up the same faulty diet product in new packaging – aka ‘Wellness.’ Even full-on diets are now refusing to market themselves as diets, and instead are marketing themselves as psychology based programs – looking at you Noom.
This manifestation of dieting can be sneaky and hard to spot, given that the marketing behind this movement is focused on the pursuit of health (meanwhile they all seem to have the goal of weight loss written in the fine print).
So what exactly does The Wellness Diet look like?
It could look like demonizing so-called ‘inflammatory’ foods such as gluten or plant oils, a focus on consuming various “detoxing” and “cleansing” products (which, by the way, are not needed given we already have our detoxifying lungs, liver, and kidneys), cutting out whole food groups, following ‘ancestral’ diets, or becoming obsessed with #cleaneating.
While diet culture may have you believing that this isn’t a diet because it’s all in the name of ‘health’, we need to remember that demonizing certain ways of eating while elevating others and manipulating our intake in order to become smaller is, in fact, a diet.
This one may come as a surprice, but another sneaky way that diet culture manifests is in our healthcare system.
Many doctor’s offices require a patient’s weight regardless of its relevance to the treatment plan. Most doctors are also trained to prescribe weight loss for individuals who are above the ‘normal’ BMI category rather than consider the health behaviors that would actually have much more impact. This advice also comes despite the fact that research shows 95% of people who try to diet for weight loss regain that weight within 2-5 years, with up to ⅔ of those dieters regaining more weight than when they started.
Denial of joint replacement surgeries:
Many of our clients have had knee surgeries denied until they were able to lose weight, due to the higher likelihood of postoperative infections occurring in people in larger bodies, however, studies show that the typical infection risk after surgery is low. On top of this, some surgeons have even recommended bariatric surgery to their patients prior to agreeing to operate on their joints. But do weight loss interventions before surgery improve surgical outcomes? The evidence doesn’t hold up. Some studies have found that weight loss prior to joint replacement surgery was associated with a higher likelihood of infections, while others found no difference in infection rates. Additionally, bariatric surgery is a major surgery that carries significant complications, including a higher risk for malnutrition. Losing weight through dieting or surgical means can contribute to malnutrition which we know is linked to higher rates of surgical complications and infections, not to mention significant negative psychological effects, .
Despite this evidence, unfortunately diet culture still runs deep within our medical system.
Social Media and Diet Culture
While diet culture can be seen almost everywhere, it seems to be most prominent on social media. When looking at the most popular influencers on these platforms, many of them can be described as cis-gendered, white presenting, tall and slim women showcasing their perfect bodies seemingly leading to their perfect lives. This narrow description of what ‘beautiful’ is is what keeps us feeling inadequate, insecure, and in need of the next product to help us achieve this thin ideal.
There are many factors that influence our distorted perception of beauty. In addition to filters, face tune, and photo/video editing software being used, celebrities and influencers are also often not disclosing plastic surgery and other procedures they’ve had done to achieve their look. Additionally, many influencers with genetically thin bodies tend to capitalize on this by selling weight loss products and promising that if we buy it we’ll be able to look just like them.
All this said, social media can be used for good.
While the photos we see across these platforms may leave us feeling less than, some influencers like @Danamercer, are on a mission to expose the ‘perfect’ photos we see for what they really are. Dana sheds light on the power of lighting, angles, poses, photoshop, and other tricks that influencers use to create these unrealistic images.
One of the things we suggest to clients to help improve body image and unhook from the hypnotizing effects of diet culture is to unfollow accounts that make you feel like sh*t and follow more diverse accounts showcasing all different bodies or accounts like Dana’s that can help give a more positive and realistic view.
What are the Harmful Effects of Diet Culture?
We’ve talked a lot about how pervasive diet culture is, now let’s dive into why these beliefs cause harm.
Although body diversity exists, diet culture has created an unjust body hierarchy, which idealizes thinness at the top and perpetuates the belief that only thin bodies are worthy of happiness, success, and respect. Additionally, diet culture continues the message that thinness is a choice and a matter of willpower, despite overwhelming evidence that much of our weight, shape, and size is beyond our control and is impacted by a multitude of factors including our biology, genetics, access to healthcare, access to fresh food and clean water, adverse childhood experiences, education level, income level, and so much more. We talk more about how our biology impacts our weight and why calorie counting doesn’t work here.
Because of this hierarchy, thin privilege exists. This means that because you have a certain characteristic, in this case a thin body size or a ‘normal’ BMI, you reap certain unearned benefits, including fitting into infrastructure (chairs, tables, public transport and spaces), having access to effective health care, and being able to shop and having your size readily available. Acknowledging your thin privilege is one way to point to the systemic oppression people in larger bodies experience in our society, while bringing attention to the fact that equal treatment and dignity should not be privileges, but universal rights.
Diet culture perpetuates fat phobia, which is the fear of fat bodies and the belief that people of higher weights are morally and physically inferior to their thin counterparts. We weren’t born with these beliefs, but rather have learned them from society as well as mass media portraying fat people as rude, lazy, or unlikeable. These negative stereotypes become housed deep in our psyches, which further perpetuates these beliefs. The roots of fat phobia can also be seen stemming from religion, racism, and the patriarchy, which Christy Harrison, RD, explains excellently in her book ‘Anti-Diet.’
This fat phobia contributes to the marginalization of larger bodied people, and studies show people in larger bodies are more likely to be discriminated against when applying for jobs as well as receiving medical care.
Weight stigma refers to discrimination imposed on someone due to their weight and size. Although much of the ‘obesity’ research out there blames negative health outcomes on having ‘too much’ body fat, there is a large body of research that shows that these negative outcomes may actually be due to weight stigma.
It’s been shown that people who internalize and experience weight stigma are more likely to:
- Suffer from anxiety, depression, and poor self esteem
- Have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increase blood pressure, and inflammatory markers
- Engage in risky behaviours, including smoking, substance use, and driving while intoxicated
- Avoid physical activity and healthcare appointments
Studies have shown that these results happen regardless of BMI, meaning that it’s unlikely that the amount of body fat itself is the cause. In other words, someone who lives in a thin body but has internalized the idea that they need to be smaller, may have the same effects as someone in a larger body who has been told and believes that there is something wrong with their body and that they need to lose weight.
This evidence goes directly against the ‘obesity’ research that says these same effects are due to having ‘too much’ body fat.
Normalizes Disordered Eating and Perpetuates Eating Disorders
Diet culture also normalizes disordered eating (including counting calories, cutting out whole food groups, obsessing over intake, compensating for what was eaten through means such as fasting or exercise, or weighing and measuring food). This disordered eating can contribute to the development of eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “35% of “normal” dieters progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to have partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.”
Transform your relationship with food and your body while mastering the foundations of feel-good nutrition by working 1:1 with a Registered Dietitian from our team.
How to Break Free!
If you’ve come to the end of this article and you’re ready to break free from diet culture, here are 4 things you can do:
1. Combat the prevailing societal norms
For combating diet culture in the healthcare system, check out:
- Health At Every Size Health Sheets – these sheets provide weight neutral, evidence based, medical information on a variety of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis. These may be helpful to bring along to your next medical appointment to spark a conversation on different treatment options available to you.
- Ask your doctor to refrain from weighing you unless medically necessary
- Resources to Fight Joint Replacement Denials For Fat Patients – this is an amazing list of resources (articles, experts, and studies) created by fat activist Ragen Chastain
For combating diet culture in general, check out these books:
- Anti-diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison, RD
- More than a Body: Your Body is An Instrument Not An Ornament by Lexie and Lindsay Kite, PhD
- Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
2. Ditch diet culture by embracing intuitive eating
If you want to reject diet culture but don’t know where to start, it can be helpful to educate yourself so you can make an informed decision. Here are some places you can start:
- 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating – What is intuitive eating and is it right for you?
- Why diets don’t work
- 3 Reasons Counting Calories Doesn’t Work (and what to do instead)
- How to have a healthy relationship with food
- How to stop feeling guilty after eating
- How to stop yo-yo dieting
- From food obsession to food freedom
3. Expand your idea of beauty
Through the work of algorithms, social media tends to only show you what you are already searching for. This tends to affirm the perceptions and beliefs you already hold and can contribute to confirmation bias and limit our openness to other points of view. We challenge you to take a step towards diversifying the accounts you follow to increase your awareness and cultivate a larger frame of reference for what is beautiful. The more images of body types, people of different ethnicities, different gender identities, and different abilities your brain sees, the more expanded your view of beauty will become.
4. Surround yourself with like-minded people
Breaking free from diet culture is easier when you can cultivate safety and security with others who are aligned with the anti-diet message. It might be helpful to share this blog post or pose some of these topics with some of your friends to see who might share these same values. Alternatively, you can create your own online support network through joining safe spaces filled with like minded individuals. Within our Make Food Feel Good Community, we encourage questions and discussions among group members and provide ongoing support to empower you in our relationship with food and take a positive approach to nutrition all while fighting the good fight against diet culture!
The Anti-Diet Culture Movement
A final note on the Anti-Diet Culture Movement. Despite what critics want others to believe, this movement is not anti-health or anti-weight loss. Instead, it is a movement that aims to end fat phobia, discrimination, and systematic oppression against individuals in larger bodies. It aims to debunk the persevering diet culture beliefs of the thin ideal and that thinness equals health.
Now Over to You
- Had you heard the term diet culture before?
- Did anything about the research surprise you?
Share with us in the comments below or take a screenshot and share it with us over on Instagram! And if you found this post helpful, pass it along to a friend or family member who could benefit from it too!
Looking for More Support?
If you’re looking for guidance on where to start with healing your relationship to food, fostering trust within yourself and your body, and building confidence in your everyday eating, we’d love to support you! Book in for an initial assessment or schedule a free discovery call to get started or join the waitlist for our next Make Food Feel Good sessions.