Diet culture is all around us. It is the water we are all swimming in, always present but invisible. Diet culture has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the advertisements we see to the conversations we have with friends and family. It can be difficult to escape its reach, but the impact it has on our health and happiness is undeniable. If you want to know more about it and how to break free from it, keep reading!
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture refers to the set of beliefs and attitudes that prioritize thinness as the ultimate goal for health, worth, and beauty. It is a cultural force that perpetuates the idea that being thin equals being healthy, and that being anything else is a problem that needs to be fixed.
Encourages people to engage in calorie-counting, restrictive diets, and other harmful practices in the pursuit of the thin ideal
Labels foods are "good" or "bad" and ascribes moral value to certain ways of eating
Increases shame & guilt around food
Perceives people with larger bodies as less valuable
Relates people’s worth with their weight and body size
Disconnects people from their inner intuitive cues
This narrow definition of health can have serious consequences on both physical and mental health.
The Harmful Impact of Diet Culture
The pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards can lead to harmful consequences, including:
Disordered eating patterns. Diet culture encourages restrictive eating and the demonization of certain foods, which can lead to disordered eating patterns such as binge eating, purging, and yo-yo dieting.
Body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. The constant emphasis on weight loss and the thin ideal in diet culture can lead to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, especially for individuals who do not fit the cultural norms for beauty and body size.
Distorted relationship with food. Diet culture can lead to a distorted relationship with food, characterized by feelings of guilt and shame around eating, constant thoughts about food, and the inability to listen to one's hunger and fullness cues.
Neglect of other important aspects of health. The focus on weight loss and body size in diet culture can distract individuals from other important aspects of health, such as stress management, sleep, and physical activity.
Perception of exercise as punishment. Diet culture often portrays exercise as a punishment for eating certain foods or for not meeting certain body size goals. For example, diet culture says you should “make up” for having a cookie by jogging for an hour *insert eye roll*. This negative association with exercise can result in a lack of enjoyment in physical activity and a failure to engage in it regularly.
Avoiding social events. Diet culture can result in feelings of isolation and a lack of enjoyment in social activities, since you might start avoiding social events centered around food, and feel shame and guilt around eating in public.
Breaking Free from Diet Culture
Breaking free from diet culture requires taking a step back from the harmful beliefs and practices that have been instilled in us and refocusing on self-care and body neutrality. This process starts with self-compassion by treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a close friend. Remind yourself that diets don't work and your worth isn’t determined by your weight or appearance.
You should start trusting yourself again and rely on your body's hunger and fullness cues rather than following strict dietary rules. And make sure to surround yourself with positive, body-inclusive communities that embrace body diversity and support you regardless of your weight.
Bottom line: Breaking free from diet culture is a challenging but rewarding process. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health, and working with an anti-diet dietitian can help you develop a healthy relationship with food and your body, and finally ditch diet culture, once and for all!
Recognizing and resisting diet culture. National Eating Disorders Association. (2019, May 2). Retrieved February 5, 2023.