Dismantling Diet Culture

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What exactly is Diet Culture?I talk to my clients a lot about Diet Culture but what does this term really mean? The short answer is our system of deep cultural beliefs and norms that equate body weight, shape and size to health and moral virtue.
The long answer and probably the most comprehensive definition I’ve seen is from anti-diet, weight inclusive dietitian, Christy Harrison. In her book, Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating and often in her podcast, Food Psych Podcast, she references diet culture as: 
“A system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin ‘ideal’.
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health’, which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”

How Does It Show Up?It’s sneaky but you don’t have to look too hard to spot these beliefs that impact us all. Once you recognize it, you realize how much Diet Culture influences our daily lives. It’s in the inflexible all-or-nothing rules, the should and shouldn’t statements and the perfectionism with food, body and health. 
Listen carefully to those around you. Look carefully around you… subtle and obvious messages are in the magazines you or your children read, the shows you watch, commercials aired or the people you follow. Diet Culture promises that when we are thinner, life will be better because we’ll finally fit into certain clothes, make friends, find love, move faster, be stronger or look prettier. In other words, we’ll be acceptable, will fit in, be worthy, loveable, desirable, smarter, healthier and ultimately, happier. 
Here are some Diet Culture messages that show up everyday:

  • Eating with a group and someone makes comments about the amount of food they’re consuming.
  • Friends discussing what they should/shouldn’t eat based on a new diet or lifestyle trend
  • Weight loss challenges at work- they send the message that we need fixed; that something is wrong with our bodies. 
  • Fitness instructors who encourage participants to “burn off” what you ate last weekend or are planning to eat for the holidays. This perpetuates the belief that exercise should be used for the purpose of weight loss or to punish ourselves when we eat something out of enjoyment or outside certain “rules.” 
  • Magazines, blogs, social media and influencers marketing numerous diets, superfood lists, toxic food lists, cleanses, detoxes, or “lifestyles” 
  • Cartoons, movies, TV shows portrayal of larger bodied characters as lazy, messy or foolish. 

Diet Culture has trained us to ignore our body’s internal cues of hunger, eat for pleasure or satisfaction and reinforced the idea that exercise is a way to earn, punish or compensate for the food we eat. It tells us that we’re not good enough just as we are and that we are to blame if our body does not meet cultural norms for the thin ideal. It teaches us ways to control and shrink our bodies by restricting food, over-exercising and ignoring our body’s wisdom. It creates fear and internalized stress by showing up in food anxieties, decreased self esteem, obsession around food and exercise, negative body image and social isolation. It takes away our autonomy by teaching us to rely on something or someone else rather than our intuition.  
Stepping away from this mentality is counter culture and challenging. We’re ALL a part of it so there’s no shame in getting triggered, swayed, convinced or manipulated. Rejecting Diet Culture is an ongoing process…  one that requires time, patience and intention. 
This month I encourage you to examine your food and diet thoughts. Do these beliefs influence your decisions? Do they include points to count, foods to eliminate, groups to avoid, rigid schedules to incorporate and rules to adhere to? When you “give in,” “treat yourself,” “cheat,” or rest, how does it make you feel? If your answer is weak, lazy or not good enough or undeserving, that’s using shame, fear and guilt as a motivator for change which means the behavior will likely fade. When we use compassion and intuition, change is sustainable.  

Angela Veri Babuschak, MA, RDN, LDN