Dr. Jessica Aron
Diet Culture: The Villain Hiding in Plain Sight
You are surrounded and may not even realize it!
The new year is upon us and so is diet culture, but what is it, why is it a problem, and how can we defeat it?
Diet culture is a system of practices based on the belief that being thin is morally good, and that being fat is morally bad. What makes diet culture so dangerous? It values weight, shape, and size over health and well-being. It completely misses the point of wellness! Diet culture is the ultimate shape-shifter and many of us fall into its trap everyday.
By now, you have probably heard that diets for weight loss and/or weight control do not work. These days many people do not buy into something labeled as a “diet.” So what we have now is the same pursuit of thinness or fitness disguised in a new uniform: health.
Nowadays diet culture promises health, but look a little closer and it’s still directly associated with weight loss. It says: If you adhere to a structured food and workout plan, then you will lose weight, tone your body, and therefore be healthy. The message is: If you're losing weight, then you're getting healthier!
So what’s the big deal?
Sure, this can seem harmless and even helpful. It appears to be doing the ‘right thing’ by promising health, but don’t be fooled. It’s the SAME diet concept all over again. At its core is a drive for thinness or fitness and falsely equates that with health.
Unfortunately, all a weight-focused approach will do is keep you stuck. Stuck in the same old cycle illustrated in this graphic below:
How many of you recognize this pattern? It comes at a steep cost - the connection to your body’s true hunger/fullness, your relationship with food and your body, your mental health and even your physical health.
Why should I reject diet culture?
For one, it literally gets you nowhere (see above). Also, you cannot achieve true health and wellness through its practices. So, you’ve got to ditch it.
By tuning out diet culture you can greatly improve your physical and mental health. This means tuning into your own body’s hunger and fullness, not some external food or workout plan. Studies of non-diet approaches, such as intuitive eating, show numerous positive outcomes and long-term changes that weight-focused approaches simply could not.
The code of diet culture
Diet culture’s messages have infiltrated our daily lives - our conversations and behaviors, as well as our relationship with food and our bodies. By now, this stuff probably seems normal. So, let’s shine some light on it with this quick graphic because you can't defeat an enemy you don't realize is there.
In conversation and practice, these principles might look like this:
Earning 'cheat days' by being 'good'
Eating 'bad/unhealthy' foods with the promise to exercise later as compensation for it
Feeling unclean, so 'cleansing or detoxing' your body with juices and/or shakes
Being praised by others (or praising yourself) for resisting a food deemed as unhealthy
Allowing yourself to eat a 'bad' food if you’ve earned it by exercising or eating 'healthy'
Giving yourself permission to eat during holidays, vacations, or special occasions with the promise you’ll get ‘back on the wagon’ afterwards
Determining your worth based on the foods you eat - believing you are lesser than or superior to others because of the way you eat
Focusing on the outward appearance of thinness or fitness as a symbol of health.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the pervasive nature of diet culture. It really is everywhere. So, let’s start a conversation about how to create some positive change.
What can I do about it?
The only way to defeat diet culture is to make a conscious choice to reject it. Spoiler alert: this does not mean giving up, letting yourself go, or becoming unhealthy. That’s exactly what diet culture wants you to think! In reality, by rejecting it you begin to actually trust your body so that you can really focus on your health and physical needs.
Here are some ways you can reject diet culture:
Practice intuitive eating
This means rather than listening to external rules about food being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you make your own food decisions. You pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues and learn how to trust your body’s signals.
Set boundaries around diet talk
If someone is trying to engage you in diet talk, set some boundaries. You can change the subject to something else or you can assert your opinion (e.g. I’d rather not label food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ all food is just food to me).
Filter out diet culture messages
When scrolling through social media or overhearing comments made by others, make a conscious choice to label and reject it. For example, ‘That’s diet culture and it’s not for me.’ Bonus points if you unfollow social media accounts or websites that promote diet culture. Then, replace them with body positive ones or those that promote the idea that all foods fit.
Check your beliefs about food and body shape
Pay attention to your thoughts when you see others with larger bodies. Explore the internalized weight stigma that often goes hand-in-hand with diet culture.
Change the conversation
You might be used to talking about your body, the bodies of others, food goals, etc. Find other ways to connect to friends and loved ones. What’s something new you’ve learned? What’s sparking your interest and inspiring you these days?
Just because you are rejecting diet culture doesn’t mean you can’t exercise! There are countless reasons to workout that have nothing to do with weight loss. Get in touch with what feels right for your body. Build a sense of accomplishment, feel your strength, and skip the scale.
Go easy on yourself during this process. You are working to take down a strong force here. You have been living in the diet culture for many years. A new understanding takes time and practice. You’ve got to be gentle with yourself.
When you reject diet culture, you reclaim what is yours. Your body, your choices, and your life. This is how to truly put your health and well-being first. This is how to defeat the enemy. The time is now! How will you start?