Updated: Nov 28
Diet culture has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives through family, media and even the medical system. Dieting, weight loss and chasing a thin body have become commonplace in our world and a frequent topic of conversation. But, while we thought we were chasing health by buying into these ideas and conversations, we were doing deep-rooted damage to ourselves and our society.
Before we dive in, you might be reading this thinking, ‘ok, yes, I’ve heard this term, diet culture, before, but what are you even talking about?’ Don’t worry. We will talk about what diet culture is and how it impacts us so deeply before we get into understanding how you can start rejecting it.
Rejecting diet culture is the first step of the Intuitive Eating Practice because we need to let go of certain beliefs before learning new ones. Diet culture has caused trauma and damage to many people, often being passed down through generations and perpetuated by society, the media and the medical system. Think about any time or place you’ve received a comment about your body, how you look, or whether your weight has changed. You’ve likely been party to a conversation about counting calories or the newest weight loss craze.
It’s grown with us and adapted. As the world has changed, so has diet culture. Recognizing it and its effects will help us change our lives, mindsets, and perspectives, letting us finally hear our bodies when they speak and regain body trust.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture, by definition, is a set of beliefs that idealizes thinness, equating it to health, beauty and social status. It is so much a part of our culture that it can be hard to tell fiction from fact. We have been taught that dieting, restricting food, and following strict food rules are healthy. We have equated thinness to moral virtue –you are good if you are thin. We constantly make New Year’s resolutions to get back in the gym, eat healthier, or fit into a smaller size. We compare ourselves to other people, thinking about ways that we can look more like them, all at the expense of mental and physical health.
Diet culture has gone way beyond our food and how we eat. It dictates how we exercise, our self-talk, how we manage our health and how we view each other. Most traditional fitness programs focus on shedding pounds and toning and trimming away the fat. It’s turned exercise into a punishment for what we eat and less about the functional benefits (physical and psychological) that it’s meant to provide.
Also, the medical system often bases diagnoses and treatments on an individual’s weight, sometimes without looking into other causes. The number on the scale is considered the most important indicator of health, and judgements are often made on the shape or size of a person’s body before anything else. Weight stigma – this is the discrimination of people based on weight – can impact a person in nearly every aspect of life and have deep impacts on a person’s mental health.
The Evolution of Diet Culture
Diet culture has so easily wrapped itself into our lives because it is always evolving and changing. Every time you think we’ve caught it, it shows up in a new way, as a new trend or quick fix. If you find yourself looking at a new trend or reading about a new fad or cleanse and thinking, ‘This is too good to be true,’ it probably is, and you should take it with a grain of salt.
There is always a new diet in the news promising big things! Calorie counting started as a method of weight management in 1910 and has popped up many times since. In the ’20s, we believed in the cigarette and grapefruit diet. The 30’s brought around the cabbage soup diet…yum. The Atkins diet started in 1972 but peaked in the 90’s - 2000’s. Currently, we see diet culture emerging in things like the keto diet, the paleo diet, the Whole30 diet, 75 hard, intermittent fasting, and so much more. I could go on for a while. All this in the pursuit of “health” but mostly a thin body.
Women’s bodies have been a topic of trendy news for ages, and the goalposts are always moving. Dictated by fashion and media, we are forever chasing a body that is usually impossible to achieve (hello, empty promises of diet culture). Like having a tiny waist and round backside. Thigh gaps are in, and hip dips are out. Big chests don’t often go out of style, but they are expected to come with a flat stomach. Being toned and fit but not too bulky because that’s ‘unattractive.’ It’s all impossible, and what’s trendy will change next week.
The health and fitness industries are having to get clever now. It is more widely known that diets are unhealthy, so companies have to disguise it. Like Noom - ‘it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle’ and BeachBody rebranding to BODI – with their “Health Esteem” category and focus on body positivity. But it doesn’t matter what they call themselves. They are what they are, which is a corporation that wants you to believe that your body is not enough and that you should pay them to “fix” it.
The Effects of Diet Culture
The common thread here, which many people ignore, is the cost of these programs. There is an immense toll, mentally and physically, on dieting behaviors - and a question that I feel is important to ask yourself is whether those effects are worth the (likely empty) promises and outcomes that these programs like to advertise.
The studies show that dieting has done nothing beneficial to our health or minds. Physically, the act of weight cycling (losing weight and regaining it repeatedly) or yo-yo dieting (going on and off of diets) is worse for us than carrying the weight would have even been. Restricting our foods and forcing our bodies to be hungry will physically change how your body holds onto fat because it wants to keep you alive. Not to mention the effects of malnutrition that your diet might have also caused.
Mentally, though, the effects run deep and last for years, if not a lifetime. Because diet culture is ingrained into us for most of our lives. We start focusing on body image, food, physical fitness and the way others perceive us much earlier than we are capable of dealing with it. Poor body image can lead to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem, leading young people to self-isolate and possibly self-harm.
95% of those who diet end up regaining the weight they lost within two years… calorie restricted diets are very unsuccessful at maintaining weight loss.
Dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with accelerated weight gain and increased risk of becoming overweight
Over 50% of teenage girls and 33% of teenage boys are using restrictive measures to lose weight at any given time
40-60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or becoming ‘too fat’
In 2016, at least 1 million Canadians were living with an eating disorder in one of their many forms.
These are serious mental health disorders, which are treatable when caught but often lead to severe illness and possibly death. They are missed too often because the pursuit of a thin body is considered good and healthy.
Where Diet Culture Shows Up
As you can see there are not many places free of diet culture these days, it has been passed down in our families, and it shows up in entertainment and advertisements. It finds its way into schools and our workplaces and it’s commonplace in our medical system.
It can be seen in the way our grandparents and parents talk about their bodies and food. Coming up in casual conversation. “Are you sure you should eat that?” “Oh I couldn’t have another, I would have to run a mile.” Things that sound really innocent at first but when the messages start piling up, overheard by little ears, they are internalized. Some kids as young as 8 have said that they think about their body and weight on a consistent basis. The diet mentality is a learned belief, and something that has been pushed on us, it is not an innate belief that we are born with. In fact, infants and children are the most intuitive eaters out there!
This carries on into schools and workplaces, churches and social functions. It pops up in every aspect of the media as we judge celebrities, athletes and even politicians on the size of their bodies and how their clothing fits.
And on the topic of clothing–the fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits. Clothing sizes are never consistent and rarely inclusive. On inclusion, you can see weight stigma and a lack of compassion in infrastructure and modes of transportation like buses and planes. People in larger bodies are only fed one message: that they don’t fit.
Ways to Reject Diet Culture
Once you recognize diet culture for what it is and how it shows up in your life, you can begin rejecting and stepping away from it. But let me emphasize here that it really starts with bringing awareness to all of the places where diet culture pops up in life, and I’ll let you know now that it will be more than you initially think.
Rejecting the diet mentality has been more about not letting it get under my skin rather than completely deleting it from my life. It’s not possible to get away from diet culture 100%. It will always be around. So we need to learn how to manage it daily so that it doesn’t become a big deal and send you down a spiral of restriction and quick fixes.
You might feel a little lost once you stop following a strict diet. This is where Intuitive eating can come into play. Intuitive Eating is NOT a diet; it’s not a checklist to complete or a set of new rules to follow. It is more of a mindset around food that encourages compassion and self-awareness to guide your choices. It is not a quick fix, and it is not ‘’putting weight loss on the backburner’ (this is something that you might hear from others when talking about Intuitive Eating, which I’ll explore in a different post). It is healing your relationship with food and your body so that you can build trust with your body, develop body respect, find joy in food, AND feel good in your body.
This is possible for you too inside my 1:1 Intuitive Eating and Body Image Coaching Program. Inside my coaching I empower my clients, just like you, to take Intuitive Eating beyond the kitchen so that you can unlock the ability to stop second guessing every meal, discover self compassion, and finally begin to feel at home in your body.
When the feeling of guilt comes up after overeating, when you are experiencing negative self-talk every time you step in front of the mirror, or when you are faced with the temptation of starting a new diet every monday, my program is unique because it is founded on support and accountability. You will have me there with you every step of the way. I understand you because I was you.
If you are curious about implementing this in your life, I invite you to join me. Your first step starts with filling out an application so we can chat and figure out if my coaching is the best fit for you.
To get you started, here are a few ways that you can clear that “diet culture junk” out of your life:
Clean out your social feed – any trainers, influencers or media personalities that make you feel bad about your body or what you eat - unfollow, block and delete, anyone who posts before and after photos. Absolutely will not be seen in my feeds!
Start to Recognize Diet Culture - in your self-talk, in TV and movies, and in advertisements, and bring more awareness to it. See how frequently it pops up and how you feel during those conversations. Slowly try to reduce the number of times a day that diet culture surfaces in your life.
Educate yourself on health, nutrition and physical fitness – find notable sources that teach an anti-diet form of fitness and scientific journals that will not be based on trends. The more you know, the less power anyone has over you. Seek nutrition advice from Registered Dietitians, even better if they are Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors!
Stop moralizing health, food, and fitness levels – you are not good or bad for your health status, what you ate, or how much you worked out today. When you think something is either good or bad, stop and ask yourself why it is that way. Foods do not hold moral value… more on all of this when we talk about the 4th principle of Intuitive Eating - Challenge the Food Police.
Eat – When you want to eat, when you can eat, when you feel like eating, when you feel sad or bored and that makes you want to eat, or because you are out with your friends celebrating and the food looks good. Don’t eat if you are allergic, it smells off, you don’t like it, or you don’t want to. (mostly just saying don’t worry about the food so much, just enjoy it!)
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Diet culture is all around us, and it is hard to get away from, but rejecting it may be the first step on your road to healing, happiness, and empowerment. Rejecting the message that idealizes an impossible body and focuses on aesthetics over health will help you better connect with your body and learn to embrace your Intuition. It’s less about cutting it out of your life completely and more about learning to deal with its presence, modifying how you react and choosing trust & respect. You can take some small actions today, like not moralizing health, learning more about how your body works and the effects of food and fitness, and unfollowing harmful media sources that make you feel less than others. Reject diet culture and feel full again. Your first step in doing so starts here, I can’t wait to see your name in my inbox and begin the journey towards finally feeling at home, and empowered in your body again.