Thanks for Nothing, Diet Culture

Photo by Lisa Fotios on

It’s 5:00 pm, and you have a party or social gathering you’re going to tonight. I know many introverts are thinking, “okay lady, not me”, but stay with me. As I was saying, you’re getting ready for a party, and you start feeling anxious about what kind of food might be there. You begin making a plan, “I’ll stick with a few bites of fruit salad, and hopefully they’ll have veggies and hummus there too. I’ll avoid the dessert table altogether. I’ll make it through this.”

You can feel your shoulders tightening with anxiety about how the night may play out related to food. What if you eat too much and hate yourself later on? Did you restrict your eating enough earlier in the day to “earn” a few more bites at this party? Maybe if you overdo it, you can just exercise significantly more tomorrow to cancel it out. 

There are a few ways this could play out. At the end of the night, you might feel guilty and angry with yourself for not sticking with your plan. Or you could feel proud of yourself for sticking with veggies and dip, but now you are craving desserts or something more substantial. So, you eat a whole sleeve or box of Oreos when you get home.

Alternatively, you could have genuinely enjoyed all the foods you wanted to try feel adequately full and satisfied, physically, mentally, and emotionally even if you ate more than you had planned. Raise your hand if you are well acquainted with option three after most social events.

Diet Culture is a Real Bummer

Many people are all too familiar with the first two scenarios and are less familiar with the last. We have been taught to be “good” by restricting our food and exercising to outdo the calories we consume. We have been taught that smaller bodies are better, and that we must do whatever it takes to stay small. Lastly, we have been taught that we need to have relentless control over our intake at all times and that we lack will power if we don’t.

You can thank diet culture for perpetrating anxiety, guilt, anger, and more negative emotions surrounding food and how you feel about your body. Diet culture, like any deeply-ingrained, pervasive norm in a society, can be tricky to define and diffuse. 

I think about diet culture as beliefs and attitudes that assign thinner or leaner bodies with a higher status than larger bodies. Diet culture makes us so anxious about food and the body size, that it partially or completely negates the pleasure that delicious foods naturally bring. It encourages people to be diligent and uptight about all food choices, and feel shame if they stray away from their food rules even a little.

Diet culture is also what allows people to freely comment on and criticize weight or food choices. Their intentions may be genuine, but they could be inadvertently encouraging disordered eating behavior by complimenting someone’s weight loss. Diet culture is so deep that comments like, “Have you seen so-and-so from high school? They have put on a lot of weight.” are a standard talking point at many social gatherings. 

It’s pretty sick when you think about it. People actually enjoy talking about other people’s weight gain, and they spend much more time being critical of that rather talking about their accomplishments or accolades. Weight gain in other people feels much more exciting to discuss, apparently.

It can go the opposite way too, by the way. Family members may comment that someone is too skinny and they need to eat more while shoving a plate piled high in their face. I like to think this is well-intentioned too, but just as harmful as any other comment about body size.

Diet Culture Lies

We have been taught to manipulate our bodies and chase an ideal body because we are sold on the idea that we will be content when we get there. Does the phrase, “I’d be so happy if I could just fit into ____ size jeans again.” sound familiar to you? Even if you get there, who is to say that you won’t decide a smaller size jean will actually make you more content with your body and your whole entire life this time? 

One study in the UK found that weight loss didn’t make its participants as happy as they, and the researchers, might have thought. Participants who were considered overweight or obese that lost weight over a four year period were actually, on average, more depressed than those who maintained or even gained weight.1

I have to throw out the standard disclaimer that this is just one study, and just because you lose some weight doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably be depressed for the rest of your days. Correlation also doesn’t equal causation, so we can’t say that weight loss caused depression. That would be a poor interpretation of a scientific study.

Perhaps the people who lost weight ended up more depressed because they found it difficult to maintain the weight loss, and that ended up being more stressful than they originally thought. They also spent so much time and effort getting to that point, thinking it would make them happy, but it didn’t. That is depressing.

Changing Your Outside Doesn’t Change Your Inside

Humans, in general, are highly skilled at finding something new to be self-conscious about as soon as one insecurity is seemingly resolved. Those are deeply-rooted emotional issues that won’t necessarily be fixed by a change in outside appearance. Adding stringent food rules to achieve a perfect body is just a little more unnecessary gas to throw on that emotional fire. 

Eternal contentment and confidence are the incredibly high stakes that many of us put on every single food choice, disguised by the belief that we want to look a certain way. It’s no wonder we have an iron grip on personal food and diet rules. That iron grip is unsustainable, leading us to feel exhausted after just a week or two of following it flawlessly.

As a dietitian, of course I understand that many just want to be healthier in general, and aren’t outwardly concerned about weight or looking a specific way. That is commendable, eating nutritious foods, and getting adequate physical activity are wonderful ways to enhance your quality of life. But losing weight, especially with the harmful means that many use, doesn’t automatically mean improved health.

Dietitians exist to help people use nutrition to prevent and manage many diseases, so I get that angle too. But please take a long, hard look at your lifestyle and make sure you aren’t going down the slippery slope that diet culture has built and wants to push you down. 

In We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer, he points out that about 97% of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. He states that Thanksgiving is just something we do, simple as that. The vast majority of us don’t debate about whether or not we will celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s a cultural norm that most Americans follow because it’s something they have always done.

I see diet culture as a similar phenomenon. We are involved in diet culture thoughts and actions because we have been doing it as a country for as long as we can remember. It’s time for us to contemplate the diet culture messages we absorb and convey, and take diet culture from something we have always done to something we look back on and shake our heads in disbelief.

As Always, A Book Recommendation

Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison is an awesome book for learning all about what the heck diet culture is and how it steals our lives from us. I first began learning about diet culture from Christy Harrison’s podcast Food Psych, and her work has changed my life for the better.

For people who don’t yet know a whole lot about diet culture, this book is is a fantastic place to start. Harrison talks about her own experiences with disordered eating, and how it eventually led her to her career. Check it out!

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