HOW TO NAVIGATE OUR TOXIC DIET CULTURE
Maneka Grover, Health Coach talks about diet culture, the harmful effects of dieting, and how we need to make peace with food.

WHAT IS DIET CULTURE?

Diet culture is a set of principles that revolve around the idea that thin bodies are more desirable, valuable, and healthy. Diet culture insists eating a certain way is good or bad and that a person's value increases when eating healthy, or when living in a small body. (1)


Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN a leader in non-diet, weight-inclusive movement refers to diet culture “as a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonises certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of health.” (2)


Companies too are so ingrained in diet culture they convince us that all our dreams will come true once we attain a smaller body and eat in a certain way. We’re constantly being drowned with mainstream media telling us how inadequate we are because of our weight, and that we need to be “saved” by a new diet plan, theory, or “super food.”


This is how so many of us get stuck in the dieting cycle and develop a disordered relationship with food if not an eating disorder. We’re so desperate to fit “social norms” (set by society) and feel accepted that we are willing to sacrifice the well being of our bodies in the name of being “healthy.” We’re taught how to diet but not taught how to eat for enjoyment, satisfaction, or nourishment. (3)


EXAMPLES OF DIET CULTURE

  • The majority of characters in media are thin-bodied portraying smaller bodies as more desirable.
  • I would be happier if I lost ___ kilos.
  • Once I lose ___ kilos I will ___.
  • My friends would like me more if my body was ____.
  • Categorising foods as clean, good, or bad.
  • Exercising to compensate for the food you eat.


Diet culture has encouraged individuals and society into developing weight bias - which is having unfavourable thoughts about people due to their body size or weight. This can lead to weight stigma (discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight), which puts labels on people due to their body size and discriminating against them - which may be harmful to people’s emotional, physical, and mental health.



Diet culture demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others, such as avoiding carbs because they may make you “fat.” You’re forced to become extremely attentive about your eating habits which distracts from pleasure and satisfaction. Praising people for weight loss often means applauding them for disordered behaviours and a destructive relationship with food. Before and after photos of people on their fitness journey are great, but it also reinforces the idea that smaller bodies are better. Multimedia has created a paradigm by worshipping thinner bodies over larger bodies- we believe it’s the better body to have. Sociocultural idealisation of thinness has increased weight stigma (a contender for age and gender stigma) almost everywhere – at work, school, home, airlines and even at the doctor’s office. (4)


Bariatric surgery refers to operations that endorse weight loss. The ads for bariatric surgery make it sound very easy- a magic pill to lose weight and a permanent solution to maintaining the perfect weight. However in reality people are misled. Healthcare professionals convince patients being obese is much more dangerous than the countless health risks bariatric surgery carries including death.


GOOD FOODS VS. BAD FOODS

In efforts to shrink our bodies diet culture gives food a morality. The idea of putting limits on types of food comes from the idea that there are ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods. These labels place judgment on food and by default we place those judgments on ourselves when we eat them. For example if we eat fries, we’ve been ‘bad’ but if we have a salad we’ve been ‘good.’


Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ creates a shame cycle where you start to question your food choices and whether they fit the standard of being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ We then place pressure on ourselves, and feel emotions such as guilt, frustration, and anger when we don’t make the correct choices, or choose the ‘good’ foods.


Decide your food based on nutritional value, hunger cues, food preferences, and taste. It’s okay to enjoy desserts in moderation and the same goes for fruits and vegetables, everything in balance allows for a well-balanced plate and mind.




FULLNESS & HUNGER CUES

Years of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating habits can get you out of touch with your body’s internal cues such as your hunger and fullness signals. (5) Your hunger and fullness cues are there for a reason- they tell you when to start eating and when to stop eating adjusting each day as per your fluctuating energy needs.


Diets make us believe they know the exact amount of calories our body needs, but in actuality our metabolism alters on a daily basis depending on many factors such as hormonal changes, physical activity, stress, how much you eat, and how much you sleep to name a few. Listening to your hunger and fullness cues allows you to respond to your body’s ever changing needs.


Dieting teaches us that we can’t trust our body without counting calories or macros, or following a list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods or we would go out of control. Of course when we do go off a diet we inevitably eat all the foods we’ve been controlling and eat in a way that really does feel out of control. It reinforces our need for rules, even though your “out of control” eating is a predictable outcome of restriction and deprivation.


WHY DIET’S DON’T WORK

Research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years, yet new diets are constantly surfacing such as whole 30, paleo, gluten-free, keto, and low-carb. Companies are constantly repackaging and renaming diets to entice individuals to try them in hopeful attempts to lose weight.


Diets turn out to be more harmful than beneficial for our body; a strong risk factor for developing an eating disorder, a strong predictor of weight gain, and weight cycling which is associated with yo-yo dieting - linked to deteriorating cardiovascular health and premature death. When you’re on a diet you’re restricting your calorie intake from a meal plan however, your body doesn’t know the difference between a famine and a diet. Our bodies are intelligent; fearing a famine by our restricted food intake it automatically slows down our metabolism to conserve calories.



Here is what diet culture looks like: we deprive, we restrict, we eat clean, we eat gluten-free, and we count our macros. The deprivation from your favourite food or any food for that matter intensifies your cravings to consume more. This leads to binge eating and feeling out control with food which results in feelings of guilt and shame. Immediately we blame ourselves for not having better willpower or self-discipline, we simply cannot be trusted with food.


But it’s not our fault, it’s the diet’s fault. We didn’t fail the diet failed us. Why? Because we’re not supposed to be dieting, our bodies are not designed to restrict calories. It wants to be nourished and cared for with food, all foods. Unfortunately many people who go on diets develop an eating disorder or disorder eating habits, which stick with them for a long time comprising their mental health and quality of life.




WHAT IS IT TO BE “HEALTHY”?

Our health isn’t just a result of exercise and nutrition, it’s “profoundly influenced by social determinants of health-elements such as socioeconomic status, race, education, and a host of their sociocultural factors largely or entirely beyond our control.” (6) Our health is negatively affected by the experience of weight stigma and weight cycling. Why do we equate health with weight loss or weight gain? When we see a larger body we inevitably think they are lazy, they don’t care about their health, and/or must have a chronic disease. And we think exactly the opposite for a slimmer person. They must eat healthy, have no chronic diseases, and are committed to exercising everyday. Are we not so much more than our body weight? We’ve let diet culture convince us our weight is equated to our self-worth and well being. For the sake of being “healthy” could we be damaging our health and body?


OVERCOMING DIET CULTURE

Diet culture is a form of oppression. Firstly it makes people believe they are worth less until they’re in a smaller body and secondly it has allowed society to create a culture that makes it acceptable to treat people as less because of their body size. (7)


It’s time we discard diet culture. Ditching diet culture means breaking up with restrictive chronic dieting, fad diets, the idea that you need to be on a diet, or any other type of societal pressures associated with body weight to make room for a healthier relationship with food and body image. (8) We’ve all been exposed to diet culture and fat phobia through mainstream media, it has become all too normal to be on a diet or talk about dieting and weight loss, but we are so much more than our weight and body size.




We don’t need a set of guidelines, judgments, or quick-fix regimes to tell us how to feel good in our bodies. It’s not about how much, when, or how you eat but rather about trusting and respecting your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch authors and registered dieticians of the incredible book Intuitive Eating lists out ways we can start breaking free from diet culture based on their Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating:


  1. Toss out diet books and articles that promise you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently.
  2. Take care of your body with adequate energy and nutritious foods.
  3. Don’t place morality on foods- there are no ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods.
  4. Forget extreme exercise; just get active and think about the difference instead of the calorie burning effect of exercise. (9)


You life beyond diet culture will include variety and balance in your food choices, which include getting your needs met for nutrition, satisfaction, and pleasure.



MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD

The purpose of this article is not to shame or make anyone feel bad about their eating choices but to spread awareness about diet culture and how it makes us think and feel. It’s so discreetly hidden in our culture that we don’t even know we’re applying these thoughts to our choices. To make peace with food even the ‘bad’ ones allow you to gradually regain autonomy over your food choices.



You don’t need to earn your food through exercising, you deserve to eat every single day irrespective of what you ate yesterday. You don’t have to spend all your time thinking about food, calories, or what you’re going to have for your next meal. Allow yourself to free up that mind space to start pursuing your passion projects, reading a book, or starting a new TV show. We need to start trusting our bodies and make food choices from a place of desire, a place of self-care not self-control. Until we continue to restrict our diet, whether it’s cutting out a food group, counting macros, or eliminating sugar your body will continue fluctuating and you won’t find peace with food.


Please do comment or message and let me know what you think of Diet Culture. I would love to discuss any thoughts and ideas you might have, and if you personally feel stuck in Diet Culture we can work together to learn how to let go of that mentality.


For those interested in educating themselves on Diet Culture please refer to these books as starting points:


  • Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating By Christy Harrison
  • Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight By Linda Bacon
  • Just Eat It: How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Get Your Shit Together Around Food By Laura Thomas
  • The F*CK It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy By Caroline Dooner


REFERENCES

  1. Clodfelter-Mason, J. (2019, April 15) Diet Culture: Examples of its Influence in Our Society. Retrieved from https://www.cultivatejoynutrition.com/post/2019/04/04/diet-culture-examples-of-its-influence-in-our-society
  2. Harrison, C. (2019). Anti-diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. New York: Little, Brown Spark.
  3. O'Malley, B. (2019, July 10). What is 'Diet Culture'?: Alissa Rumsey Nutrition: Intuitive Eating Coaching. Retrieved from https://alissarumsey.com/intuitive-eating/what-is-diet-culture/
  4. Weight Stigma. (2019, June 27). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/weight-stigma
  5. Hartley, R. (2019, September 11). How to Use the Hunger Fullness Scale in Intuitive Eating. Retrieved from https://www.rachaelhartleynutrition.com/blog/2015/02/hunger-and-fullness-cues
  6. Harrison, C. (2019). Anti-diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. New York: Little, Brown Spark.
  7. Diet Culture Profits from the Oppression and Shame of People. (2018, March 22). Retrieved from https://afropunk.com/2018/03/diet-culture-profits-oppression-shame-people/
  8. Qureshi, S. (2018, January 30) What Does Ditching Diet Mentality Mean?: Food & Nutrition: Stone Soup. Retrieved from https://foodandnutrition.org/blogs/stone-soup/ditching-diet-mentality-mean/
  9. 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. (2019, December 19). Retrieved from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/