Diet culture may seem like a way to hold people accountable for their health. But, it often has the opposite effect — harming people physically and mentally. Rejecting toxic diet culture will help you think about body image in a more positive and healthy manner.
What is Toxic Diet Culture?
There are many definitions of diet culture. Simply put, diet culture values thinness and equates it to health, beauty, and overall goodness.
Diet culture is misleading. It relies on the idea that if you do all of the right things, you can become thin, which is ideal. It’s simply not true. Even if everyone ate the same foods and did the same activities, various body types would exist.
Diet culture is harmful. Restrictions can be physically and emotionally dangerous. Strict food regimens may lead to a loss of control, like binge eating. Not everyone who participates in restrictive eating will develop an eating disorder, but some will.
Emotionally, diet culture creates intense shame for people whose bodies don’t meet the right standards.
Diet culture is everywhere. It’s not just the beliefs and insecurities. It also shows up in marketing and the $70 billion diet business. It’s seemingly impossible to escape these messages. You have to learn to identify them for what they are to overcome toxic diet culture.
The Tenets of Diet Culture
The core tenets of diet culture revolve around how your body looks. They’re also about how you strive to achieve the ideal body type. Further explanation of the tenets follows.
- Worth Based on Size – Diet culture relies heavily on the idea that there is a perfect body shape and size. This ideal may look more like a Barbie doll than an average woman. But it’s difficult to say what it looks like because it changes. The ideal size changes so frequently that no one person can have all of the components of what society deems a perfect body.
- Non-Ideal People are Less Valuable – Those whose bodies don’t fit the ideal are somehow less than. This concept disproportionately affects women, femmes, trans people, people with larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities. It harms their physical and mental health.
- Thin Privilege – Like most privilege concepts, thin privilege doesn’t mean you’ve never had body-image issues, or you’ve never experienced body-shaming (Yes, people also get thin-shamed.). Thin privilege means you have greater access to resources and face less discrimination because of your build. People with larger bodies face bias. It’s difficult for people with average or larger bodies to exist. It is difficult to find clothes that fit or spaces that fit, like airplane seats, for example.
- Food Shaming – When you judge what’s on another person’s plate or in their grocery cart, that is food shaming. Typically, food shaming is related to the moral belief that guides our food and nutrition ideas. It pops up when we say things like, “I could never eat two scoops of ice cream,” as someone strolls past you with their double-scoop. Of course, it’s essential to eat nutritious foods. But most foods can be enjoyed when you’ve developed an intentional relationship with food.
- Food Restrictions – The majority of diets restrict your intake of certain foods. There’s paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, etc. These diets require eliminating food groups, only eating certain foods, or eating within a shorter window of time. By saying that people should not eat certain foods, these diets imply there are good and bad foods. The truth is that food does not contain morality in its ingredient list. When you label something good or bad, you teach yourself to feel shame, guilt, or praise accordingly. These feelings take a toll on your relationship with yourself, your body, and your relationship with food.
- Exercise as Punishment or Reward – Diet culture makes you believe that physical activity is a form of punishment or prevention. How many times have you forced yourself to go for a longer run to burn off the bad meal you ate? By conditioning yourself to believe your meal was bad, you teach yourself that movement is punishment. On the other hand, you may use exercise as a way to treat yourself to a no-no food later. You may think, “If I work out twice, I can have my favorite dessert.” Linking exercise to your food choices makes physical activity unenjoyable. If you choose to participate in physical activity, it should be because you enjoy it. You should use exercise to reach personal goals unrelated to your weight, like increasing heart health or lessening stress.
Implications for Eating Disorders
Diet culture and eating disorders are linked. Being bombarded with the ideal image makes people think they are lesser if they don’t accomplish it or aspire to.
Diet culture influences eating disorders by:
- Increasing and normalizing limiting food intake and excessive exercise
- Maintaining that health is directly related to size.
- Encouraging body image issues. Negative feelings about your body motivate you to change your behavior to lose weight.
- Strengthening traits like fear of failure, rigorous or strict thinking, and perfectionism.
- Preserving negative thoughts about weight (fat-shaming, weight bias, weight stigma).
How to Reject Diet Culture
Instead of subscribing to diet culture, it’s essential to keep your overall well-being at the forefront. To reject diet culture, you have to teach your brain and body to see your value. You have to feel this regardless of your body type or what others may think of it.
Think of Health at Every Size
Anti-diet means anti-diet culture. It’s pushing back against a system created to diminish and shame those who do not meet western and white beauty standards. Anti-diet culture is not anti-health or anti-medical nutrition therapy. This cultural shift is about rejecting the idea of an ideal body size or type.
As Lindo Bacon wrote in the book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, your well-being and habits are more important than your weight.
To reject diet culture, Bacon recommends adopting the following principles in your life:
- Acceptance – Accept your body’s size and appreciate your body. This acceptance means empowering yourself by loving and appreciating the body you have.
- Trust – Trust yourself and your body to keep you healthy. Support your body by paying attention to its hunger, fullness, and appetite signals.
- Balance – Adopt balanced lifestyle habits. Look for purpose and meaning in your life and work to develop and nurture connections. Find joy in physical activity. Eat to nourish your body.
- Understanding – Understand and embrace size diversity. People come in various shapes and sizes. Appreciate yourself and others for your unique attractiveness.
Embrace Intuitive Eating
Registered dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch identified the concept of intuitive eating in 1995. Intuitive eating is about paying attention to your body to meet its physical and psychological needs.
Intuitive eating has 10 core principles:
- Reject Diet Mentality – Reject the toxic diet culture, leaving it and all of its ideas in the past.
- Honor Your Hunger – Feed your body with adequate nutrients for energy, including carbs. If you are hungry, you’re more likely to overeat. Trust yourself with food so you can respond to what your body needs when it needs it.
- Make Peace with Food – Permit yourself to eat what you want when you want. Forget about making any food off-limits.
- Challenge the Food Police – Fight back against thoughts of yourself as good or bad, depending on what you eat.
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor – Learn how to make eating pleasurable and satisfying. Don’t surround eating with judgment, shame, or guilt.
- Feel Your Fullness – Pay attention to your body’s signals that it’s full and stop eating. Understand that you can eat again when your body needs more fuel.
- Be Kind to Yourself – Recognize that food restriction can create a loss of control. Find ways to resolve your anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger, etc., instead of eating. Remember that food won’t fix your feelings.
- Respect Your Body – Respect the way your body is built. It’s part of your genetic blueprint that you cannot change. Learn to love yourself.
- Get Active and Feel – Use exercise for the joy of movement, not for punishment. Embrace the positive feelings you get from exercise.
- Honor Your Health – Make healthy and delicious food choices. You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy.
With intuitive eating, people learn to turn to their internal cues. Internal cues help you decide when, how, and what to eat. By listening to yourself, you can destigmatize food choices. You can decide what you want, and what your body needs when you’re hungry.
Consider Movement As Care
Diet culture has influenced how we think about exercise — it’s punishment. We feel dread as we lace up our sneakers. But, physical activity should bring you joy. Exercise makes you strong and is an excellent way to manage your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. You should think of exercise as being about health, not shape or size.
Exercise and other vigorous activities are good for your mind and body. Movement can positively impact your mood, stress levels, and self-esteem. It also can lessen the effects of depression or anxiety. When depression and anxiety are better controlled, it reduces the urge to eat emotionally. Furthermore, adults who participate in daily physical activity decrease their risk of dementia by up to 30%.
Let All Counseling Help
Diet culture is damaging to all aspects of your health. While it may be difficult, it is critical to your well-being to learn how to reject diet culture and embrace happiness. All Counseling wants you to find help to combat your thoughts around eating, food, and exercise.
Intuitive Eating. 2021. 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating | Intuitive Eating. [online] Available at: https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/ [Accessed 4 June 2021].
Intuitive Eating. 2021. Definition of Intuitive Eating | Intuitive Eating. [online] Available at: https://www.intuitiveeating.org/definition-of-intuitive-eating/ [Accessed 4 June 2021].
Lindobacon.com. 2021. [online] Available at: https://lindobacon.com/HAESbook/pdf_files/HAES_Manifesto.pdf [Accessed 4 June 2021].
The Original Intuitive Eating Pros. (2019, December 20). 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/