Written by: Jessica Berens, RD (she/her)
Regional Nutrition Manager & Dietitian at The Renfrew Center
The term “diet culture” refers to a set of beliefs that value thinness, promote fat loss, demonize certain foods, idealize others, and equate appearance, weight and shape with health and well-being. Diet culture is ingrained in current culture and can be found anywhere from the news to social media and even in conversations between family, friends, and loved ones. A question many people ask is, “if diet culture is so common, why is it seen as a bad thing?”
Diet culture hides under the guise of health, meaning it is portrayed as health-focused yet promotes disordered behaviors, and many times extreme beliefs about food, exercise, and our bodies. We see diet culture promoted in articles about current diet trends, news segments about a celebrity’s “body transformation”, and advertisements for “detox” pills, “fat burning” teas, or juice “cleanses”.
Diet culture also seeps into messaging towards younger generations. Toys and characters are made with societal ideals of the “perfect” body and lack representation of diverse, marginalized groups. Some teachers assign projects that require adolescent and teen students to track their calories over a week and weigh themselves to calculate BMI, sometimes in front of their peers.
Diet culture thrives on one simple premise: your body is the problem, and it needs “fixing”. In creating a dynamic where we feel as if our body needs to constantly change, diet culture also creates a profitable market.
According to Allied Market Research, the weight loss, weight management, and diet industry is valued at $192.2 billion in 2019. Research has shown that diets don’t work in the long term, and the profit margin reflects that. An industry this large and this profitable thrives off the vicious cycle so many are in: believing our bodies aren’t good enough, trying to find a way to “fix” them, starting a new diet failing to maintain the extreme and unsustainable nature of that diet, re-gaining all the weight, blaming our own lack of discipline, and ultimately feeling intense shame and guilt.
This feeling of failure and the belief that we simply did not have enough “will power” starts the cycle all over again. This foundation of diet culture not only keeps us feeling as if our body is the problem, unworthy of love as is and in need of change, but also creates a profitable business in our capitalist society.
Diet culture, food and nutrition
Diet culture is seen most often in the nutrition and fitness industry. Tips such as “eat this, not that” are some of the most common diet culture taglines. Often these tips perpetuate the idea that certain food groups are better than others and we should be reducing options and limiting intake.
For example, a common “this, not that” is about using Greek yogurt instead of mayo. In this example, dietary fat is labeled to be a “bad” thing, something we need to replace in our meals despite the important role dietary fats serve in our bodies. Dietary fats help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), protect our stomach lining from irritants, aid in the building cell membranes and cells walls, and serve as a source of energy for the body.
Tips to “eat this, not that” demonize certain food groups, induce guilt around some foods or key nutrients, and minimize the important role of variety in our nutritional intake.
This black and white thinking of “good versus bad” and “healthy versus unhealthy” plays on the very premise of diet culture, that we are “good” as long as we eat certain foods, stay away from others, and exercise in certain ways. These rigid thoughts can lead to taking a more extreme approach to exercise and restrictive approach to food if the desired outcome, which is typically weight loss, is not achieved.
As mentioned above, when we believe we are “failing” to follow these rigid rules, it keeps us searching for new diet trends and stuck in the diet culture cycle.
How do you know if diet culture thrives in your home environment?
So many want to avoid diet culture in the home, yet it often thrives in our home environment. If conversations revolve around food judgments, the size or shape of your own, your family member’s or others’ bodies, or place value on what we did/didn’t eat, then diet culture is alive and well in your home!
Three Ways to Reduce Diet Culture Talk at Home
Here are three immediate ways you can reduce the presence of diet culture in your home and everyday life.
#1: Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
One way to start changing the black and white thinking related to food is to remember that all foods have a benefit for the body. By focusing on what the food provides, we can start to view all food more neutrally.
For example, a side salad provides our body with fiber, an array of vitamins and minerals, and the dressing on the salad is a dietary fat that helps us to absorb some of the nutrients in the salad greens. A side of fries provides our body with key nutrients too. Fries provide carbohydrates, which is an energy source for the body, and contain B vitamins, vitamin C, and potassium. Both provide functional nutrients for the body and a normal part of variety.
We cannot forget about enjoyment and satiety with food! By removing the labels and judgments we place onto foods such as “good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, should eat, or shouldn’t eat”, we can notice our own preferences for flavors and food combinations. By having enough food at meals and snacks and by eating foods we like, we will not only meet our body’s diverse nutritional needs through variety, but also feel more sustained and satisfied after eating.
#2: Reduce conversations focused on body size and shape
Conversations around body size promote the concept that body shape and size matter as much or more than physical and mental health. These comments often occur automatically. Comments such as “that ___ makes you look fit” or “you look great, have you lost weight?” reinforce the message that our body size matters to those we love or impact our ability to be loved. These comments also focus on thinness, or a smaller body, as the metric for wellness, attractiveness or worth.
We can change this messaging by reducing or eliminating conversations at home related to body size. Avoiding commentary around your own or other’s bodies reduces the emphasis on size and shifts the focus on the topics that are more fundamental and connective to our relationships. Also, try choosing compliments that are focused on the person’s inner qualities and values rather than their body. For example, “that outfit reflects your personality so well!” or “you really light up the room”.
#3: Inform others about diet culture and the impact it has on you
Lastly, to reduce the presence of diet culture in your life, it is important to educate friends, family, and loved ones. One way to start the conversation is to provide an example of how diet culture has impacted you.
For example, “I’m working to challenge diet culture in my life. For me, this looks like talking less judgmentally about food at mealtimes or with my friends. I’m wondering if you notice any influences of diet culture in our relationship/in your life?”. Starting these conversations helps to increase awareness of something that is part of mainstream society. Over time, we can reduce the frequency of diet culture language in our relationships and help redirect any unhelpful or harmful comments and conversations.
Even when we are aware of the negative impacts of diet culture, it can be challenging to dodge its strong societal presence. Diet culture thrives by re-branding itself to sell us the same idea over and over again: something about us is wrong and needs fixing. The more we become aware of the direct impacts of diet culture, the more we will start to notice the subtle ways it remains alive and thriving in our world today.
If we feel like it is impossible to escape, remember starting small can help to remove diet culture’s larger presence in our lives. Aiming to free ourselves from the food judgments, find neutrality and respect for our bodies, and improving upon health versus trying to fit a one-size-fits-all mold takes time and practice. Be compassionate with yourself through the journey and remember diet culture thrives on our humanness, as all humans have insecurities. The diet industry profits off us feeling we are “not enough” or “in need of fixing”, but you are already enough, worthy, and deserve respect just as you are.