What is Diet Culture?
You’ve likely heard the term diet culture online, but do you know how to spot it? I’ll walk you through the definition of diet culture, how to recognize it in your life and how to begin to dismantle it.
These days, we hear the term “diet-culture” discussed all the time in health and nutrition-related news articles, social media posts, day-to-day conversations and more. You have probably heard of it, but may be wondering what exactly it is and why so many people are speaking about it.
Let’s start out by answering question #1: What is diet culture?
What is Diet Culture?
To put it simply, it is a system of beliefs. One that:
Idealizes Thinness and Smaller Bodies
Diet culture idealizes thinness and smaller body sizes above all else and places an emphasis on body weight and body size as important health outcomes.
It also equates smaller body size with not only better health, but moral value. It makes one feel “lesser than” for not measuring up to the ideal body shape/size that one may not ever be meant to achieve.
Heavily encourages the pursuit of weight loss
Diet culture often places more emphasis on weight loss and achieving smaller body sizes over other health outcomes through diet, exercise and lifestyle habits.
This often leads us to attempts at weight loss via dieting, food restriction like limiting calories, eliminating food groups, and other rules that may be disguising themselves as “lifestyle changes”.
Demonizes certain ways of eating and elevates others.
Not only does diet culture place value on smaller body sizes, it also elevates certain ways of eating over others. Think keto diet, paleo, whole 30 and more. This may lead us to unnecessarily obsess over food choices or feel guilty when we eat something less than ideal.
That being said, it is is not necessarily a diet. “Clean eating” and other patterns that tend to restrict particular foods all come from the same system of beliefs.
Thrives on individual feelings of insecurity and guilt.
Not a size 2? Can’t seem to lose the last 5 pounds? Don’t have a small waist and a big butt? Diet culture, backed by the diet industry, thrives on you feeling bad about yourself. When you feel bad about your body, you’re more likely to buy in when the next new diet, program, or supplement rolls around.
Has recently begun to disguise itself as “wellness” online.
As more on more people catch on to the the multi-billion dollar diet industry, diet culture has had to disguise itself in a new way. This disguise is often wellness industry.
In the wellness industry, instead of idealizing a specific size (while it ultimately still does that) the new vibe may consist of the same old concepts (diet patterns, food restriction, demonizing foods, expensive products) This time, it’s done in the name “health” and “wellness” rather than just weight loss.
Ultimately oppresses individuals who don’t fit the mold.
Diet culture puts anyone who doesn’t fit within its idea of health, wellness, and body size at a disadvantage. More often than not, this leads to the oppression of folks in the BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled communities and can be harmful to both their mental and physical health.
How to Spot Diet Culture in The Wellness Industry
A recent article in the New York Times titled Smash the Wellness Industry written by Jessica Knoll called out diet culture in the wellness industry and went viral. Rightfully so.
The author discussed the damaging pressure we face to change our bodies and improve our “health” in order to achieve total purity and wellness – which is ultimately disguised as weight loss.
The article highlighted the lengths we go to for wellness like cleanses, clean eating, fasting, replacing carbs with cauliflower. Coincidentally, these all happen to be ways to cut calories, too. Knoll notes the fact that these practices, often disguised as “wellness” habits, are more unhealthy for us than if we just ate normally and stopped trying to micromanage our bodies, skin, gut health, and inflammation.
Diet culture ultimately steals so much from us – our health, happiness, time and money. It leaves us constantly feeling like we’re not thin enough, not beautiful enough, not trying hard enough, not “healthy” enough, and not happy enough. It’s sneaky and comes in many forms like advertising, social media, entertainment and yes, even healthcare providers.
How to Ditch Diet Culture:
Everyone experiences diet culture differently. I challenge you to reflect on where it appears in your life, become more mindful of it, and start to weed it out. Especially if you notice that it’s impacting your body image and relationship with food, or even just making you feel less than the badass that you are.
Reading magazines that talk about slimming down for summer? Stop, or at least skip the article.
Following a fitness page that posts frequent weight loss “transformation” photos? Unfollow.
Remove Yourself From Diet Talk:
Coworkers or friends talking about their latest diet? Change the subject.
Still have diet thoughts and behaviours of your own? I don’t blame you. Diet culture is everywhere. It may not be easy, but reminding yourself that you and your health are not defined by your size or how you look helps.
Seek Non-Diet Information:
You’re allowed to take interest in your health and wellbeing without participating in this system of beliefs. I encourage you to engage with non-diet platforms online, whether it be healthcare professionals, body-positive influencers, websites, etc.
Pick up a book! If you want to learn more about how to dismantle diet culture and live your best life without it, I recommend checking out these books:
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD & Elyse Resch, MS, RD
Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, PhD
The F*ck it Diet by Caroline Dooner
Also, if you’re into podcasts, I recommend tuning in to Food Psych by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN. You can also check out my podcast, No BS Nutrition.
Finally – stay tuned! I’ve got something exciting launching soon to help you tackle diet culture on your own and start eating and living without rules, restriction or obsession over food and your body. Make sure you’re in the loop by subscribing to my newsletter here.
If you’re looking for more non-diet information – follow along on Instagram or Twitter, and check out my Introduction to Intuitive Eating post.
Let’s ditch diet culture together – once and for all!
Did you find this definition of diet culture helpful? How does it show up in your life? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to chat.