What is Diet Culture and How Do We Defeat It?

Photo by Alisha Mishra on Pexels.com

An Introduction

For those of you that have been following along on this blog’s journey from the start, you know that we have been talking about different studies that show calorie restriction and dieting doesn’t work in the long term. We have discussed how focused people are on weight loss and getting a “better” body. This is all thanks to diet culture.

I wanted to take a few steps back to discuss and define diet culture in more depth so that we can all be on the same page. Diet culture is all around us, and the more you know about it, the easier it is to identify and dismantle it. And dismantling diet culture is what this entire blog is about.

You know what? Same.

What is Diet Culture?

The way I like to define diet culture is simply a set of beliefs and norms that places a higher value on ____ bodies. You can fill in the blank with smaller, muscular, hourglass-shaped, whatever. The main feature of diet culture is that it makes us think that certain bodies are better, whether it’s in the name of health or self-worth, and that we are fully in control of our outward appearance.

And having a body type that fits within whatever parameters are set becomes a status thing. We start associating small with good, large with bad, just like we associate apples with good and cookies with bad. If a person’s body doesn’t fit within the “ideal”, our culture places shame and guilt upon them.

Why yes, yes I do want cookie!

Because such values have been placed on select body types, we go to extreme lengths to shrink ourselves, bulk ourselves up, or get implants to enhance our curves. We buy products, diets, and exercise plans from the $72 billion weight loss industry1, and when one thing doesn’t work, we blame ourselves for not trying hard enough and go onto the next one.

We have been conditioned to view obesity as an epidemic, and that everyone in larger bodies will get horrible diseases because they’re too lazy to take care of themselves. It’s a scare tactic that makes us fear gaining weight, especially since people in larger bodies are typically treated so poorly due to weight stigma. We want to avoid that negative treatment and the feeling that we are less-than, so we do everything we can to stay small or get smaller.

Diet culture is the set of norms and attitudes that make people feel free to comment on someone’s weight or what is on their plate. It makes us discuss our latest diets all the time and feel the need to “compliment” someone on their weight loss, even though it may have been due to disordered eating or other illnesses.

In summary, diet culture is the way of life that makes us obsess about weight and health and go to extreme lengths to make our bodies look a certain way. It’s pervasive, persistent, and pernicious, and we have to fight back.

Where Can Diet Culture Be Found?

If you want to find diet culture out in the wild, you don’t have to go very far to spot its natural habitat.

Want to find diet culture? No binoculars needed.

Turn on your TV to a new episode of The Biggest Loser, open your newspaper to an article about the “obesity epidemic”, visit the doctor and receive a lecture that your weight is the root cause of the rash on your hand. Go to a family reunion and hear comments about your cousin’s change in weight status, see magazines advertising about how to lose 40 pounds in 2 weeks at the grocery store, and open up your Instagram to find people with six packs and body fat percentages close to zero pushing supplements.

If you sit and think about all the places where diet culture shows up, it can start to feel like an ocean enveloping you and your entire life. Diet culture runs deep in our country and in many parts of the world. In fact, when I studied abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there were scales outside of many 7-11’s (there are like 30 of these on each block), so you could weigh yourself wherever and whenever. People were obsessed with staying small there too.

Time to get out those anti-diet water wings

Once people become more aware of what diet culture is and where to find it, it’s difficult to think of places that don’t have at least some diet culture messaging. Many restaurants, for example, have a “healthier choices” or “under 500 calories” menu, and chain restaurants are required to list the calorie content of their menu items.

This requirement was put into place because of the “obesity epidemic” that has supposedly swept our nation. The idea was that putting calorie amounts on menus would help people make “healthier” choices.

I’d argue that it steers people toward sadder choices, like a dressing and crouton free salad in favor of fewer calories, and they end up not feeling satisfied or content. Or, the meal comes with a side of guilt if a person does pick something else and they can see the high calorie estimate.

Guilt and discontentment are not helpful feelings after a meal out with friends or family. It can ruin the entire experience, and there doesn’t seem to be evidence that adding calorie amounts has actually helped curb the “obesity epidemic”.

Here, you can see that diet culture invades our local and federal policies too. The truth of the matter is that diet culture is lurking everywhere. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Diet culture is coming for you. What are you going to do about it?

Who is Impacted by Diet Culture?

If you have gone through life completely untouched by diet culture, I offer you a genuine congratulations with a hint of doubt. In the same way that everyone has trauma of some form, I believe everyone has been impacted by diet culture in one way or another.

Many thin people go through life either worrying about gaining weight or wishing they had a larger butt and more curves. Many fat people go through life trying to lose weight and wishing they could be thin while being stigmatized and judged harshly just because of the body they have.

Man exclaiming "everyone"
Who has been impacted by diet culture?

Anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and felt less-than because of the body they saw has been impacted by diet culture. Anyone who believes that they have to earn their food from exercise has been impacted by diet culture. Anyone who has ever thought, consciously or subconsciously, that their life would be better or that they would be more worthy of love if their body looked different has been impacted by diet culture.

If you still think you have come away untouched by diet culture, please share your secret with the rest of us so that we can get rid of this bullcrap once and for all.

When Does Diet Culture Start Affecting Us?

Someday, I hope I can answer this question with “never, we got rid of diet culture years ago.” I can dream, can’t I?

Diet culture goes for the young, plain and simple. Most of us grow up hearing our parents or family friends talk about how they’re trying to lose weight, or we watch them go through periodic bouts of restriction. Maybe they skip the cake at our birthday party or they turn down an invitation out to a restaurant because they’re watching their figure.

Or maybe they don’t skip the cake, they just ask for a tiny sliver

We are socialized to think this is normal behavior, that hunger is to be ignored so we can stay smaller and be more worthy of praise than those in larger bodies.

If we are in a larger body as a kid, our parents may put us on diets or restrict our desserts, setting us up for one unhealthy relationship with food for years to come. Many kids grow up in homes where they are shamed if they don’t clean their plate or if they eat “too much”. Some parents don’t allow desserts or any kind in the home, and the kids who can’t have sweets once in awhile will go wild with desserts at a friend’s house, since these delicacies aren’t always available.

As kids, we have an innate sense of intuitive eating. I would always stop when I was full, and I was often more focused on chatting than eating as a kid. Somewhere along the line, that changed, as I tried to restrict my food like I saw everyone else doing.

Schools are hotbeds for weight-based bullying, which has incredibly harmful mental and physical effects on kids that often stay with them through adulthood.

Additionally, schools can unknowingly push the diet culture agenda in physical education, health class, the cafeteria, and anywhere else if they aren’t careful. We learned about the obesity epidemic, watched Supersize Me, and discussed other potentially fat-phobic topics when I was in middle and high school. Teachers, and people in general, do the best they can with what they know and have access to, but lessons of this nature can be incredibly harmful for kids in bodies of all sizes.

Why Does Diet Culture Exist?

To keep it plain and simple: money and social status.

As far as money goes, a culture that makes its people want to be whatever they are not is a lucrative business model. People who are deemed overweight are encouraged to go to extreme measures to lose weight so they can become thin and “healthy”.

People who are thin are often ridiculed because they have no curves or they aren’t masculine enough, and they are encouraged to bulk up. Women who have prominent muscles are shamed for being too masculine, and I have heard people say it’s “gross” and “unattractive” for women to have muscle. Although Dad Bods are deemed attractive in society, men still deal with plenty of body image issues too, and they also deserve support.

Trying to fit into diet culture’s standards is a game with no winner, aside from the diet industry who makes billions of dollars off of the insecurities we carry with us. They make tons of money off of our fears of being not enough this or too much that, and businesses thrive from us never being happy with how we look.

If the diet industry were honest

Money isn’t the only reason diet culture exists, however. Social status is another rung on the diet culture ladder, and this involves a hierarchy about body shape and size, as well as food and diet morality. Whether we can admit it or not, we all want at least some approval and social status, whether in our workplaces, schools, social circles, and even our families. Diet culture works further define social status.

We have been taught to view certain body types as better, and those who don’t fit that standard are viewed as unworthy of social status and are seen as lazy, unmotivated, or undesirable. How many times have you personally looked down on a person for what they are eating or their supposed lack of motivation to shrink their body? How many times have you thought of certain foods as bad, or amoral, and others as good, or moral?

Diet culture also has deep racist roots, and you can learn more about them by reading the book Fearing the Black Body (affiliate) by Sabrina Strings, or listening to the Food Psych podcast episode with Monique Melton. This ties in directly with the social status aspect of diet culture, and it’s important to know where many of our social norms and attitudes have emerged from.

Yikes. Okay, What Do We Do About It?

Diet culture wants us to believe there is a silver bullet for weight loss and health, like coconut oil or apple cider vinegar. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for health, and there is no silver bullet for dismantling diet culture, either.

Becoming informed about diet culture is an awesome first step. And hey, you’re here learning about diet culture, so you’re already a lot further than most people in this sense. Check out the other articles on my blog that dive into diet culture topics to increase your awareness on the subject, and take a look at my resources page for a whole host of book suggestions.

After your investigation, take time to really sit with and reflect on the truly messed up nature of diet culture. Think about where you see it in your everyday life, and think about what it has taken away from you and the people you love. I find that journaling is a helpful exercise in this sense, and I have some handy prompts in my post Spreading Ourselves Thin.

Aside from gaining knowledge, it’s critical to have conversations, both with yourself and others, about the perils of diet culture. This has to be done with care, of course. But when someone uses fat-phobic language or decides to gossip about another person’s weight try to speak up about it. There is a fantastic resource on AlissaRumsey.com about How to Respond to Diet Talk. I’d highly recommend you check it out.

I’m more outspoken about these topics on the internet, but my introvert self still struggles to do this in public, even with the handy tips and phrases I have found. It’s hard. On the days where I feel more courageous, I’ll drop some knowledge about weight bias or evidence behind Health at Every Size.

Other times, I’ll simply say, “surely there are things much more interesting to talk about than diets”, and it seems to make people stop and think about what they’re doing. At least for a little bit. Most of the time, it goes in one ear and out the other, but it at least annoys people enough so that they don’t talk that way in my presence going forward.

Sometimes all I can muster is to not give diet culture any light when it comes out of the shadows, meaning I don’t laugh at diet culture-y jokes or respond to fat-phobic comments. Not laughing or responding to diet talk often brings an icy chill over the conversation and makes things awkward, but I’m learning not to care. Discouraging diet culture is more important than my comfort.

If you’re really brave, you can confront the people making diet culture comments and ask why they feel the need to say these things and talk about these topics. You can take the time to educate them on all you have learned about the perils of diet culture, and you can give them book and article recommendations so that they too can learn about it.

Or, you can at least post about these resources so your social media followers have a chance to check them out too. Unfortunately, we can’t force anti-diet education down people’s throats, but we can provide an opportunity for them to learn.

Tackling diet culture is tricky business, and there is no easy answer. There are hundreds of other small ways to bring it down, but again, you’re here learning about it, and that’s the first step.

As Always, A Book Recommendation

The F*ck It Diet (affiliate) by Caroline Dooner is one refreshing read. I had seen this book come up in all kinds of reddit posts about great anti-diet books, so I was super pumped to finally read it. Caroline Dooner brings a fresh perspective and sense of humor on the tough subject of chronic dieting and compulsive exercise.

She shares her own experiences, which are entirely relatable, and it’s clear how much she cares about spreading this body positive, anti-diet message. Her book is full of helpful personal anecdotes, client stories, and journal prompts that are imperative to ridding your own life of diet culture’s messaging. On top of all that, she even has a few Harry Potter references sprinkled among the pages.

I really enjoyed reading this book because its tone is less like a textbook and more like a vulnerable personal essay, which are always more fun and heart-warming to read. TFID has plenty of evidence-based stuff within the pages, but it really is a joy to read.

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  1. The $72 Billion Weight Loss & Diet Control Market in the United States

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5 thoughts on “What is Diet Culture and How Do We Defeat It?

  1. This was a lovely and interesting read. Diet culture is something I have been thinking a lot lately, both because of other people’s attitudes towards me gaining weight and also because of me realizing I had preconceived notions about bigger bodies myself. So I’m working on deconstructing them. I’m excited to start following your blog.

    1. Hey, thanks for checking out my blog! I’m glad that this is something you’re contemplating. I wish more people were working to deconstruction their preconceived notions like you are, as I think the world would be a much better place with more self-awareness on matters like this.

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