Do you ever get frustrated by diet culture and trying to keep up with the ever-changing and contradictory information about food and nutrition? Carbs are good. Carbs are evil? Fat is good. Fat is evil? Eat certain foods. Don’t eat certain foods? It can often be overwhelming!
Everyone claims to be an expert on nutrition and how to lose weight. But we’re breaking down the myth of thinness always being an indication of health. We propose that a healthy lifestyle may begin with recognizing and dismantling diet culture.
Now, as a warning, I will be using the word “fat person” and “skinny person” or “thin person” throughout this article. My usage of these terms is meant not to hold negative or accusatory connotations but instead to use descriptors common to public perception.
What Is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs, structures, and institutions that value weight loss over health. Where do you see it? In the ads on your social media, your workplace, and even in your home. We’ve ingrained it in our culture at every turn. Let me be clear: diet culture is a problem for everyone, no matter what size. It’s particularly harmful to those at risk for, currently struggling with, or recovering from eating disorders.
Recognizing the Signs of Diet Culture
According to Ragen Chastain with the National Eating Disorder Association, these are some aspects of diet culture to be watchful of:
- Conflating size and health. There are healthy and unhealthy people of every shape and size. What’s important is that people of all sizes have access to ethical, evidence-based care.
- Encouraging following pre-set rules about what, when, and how much to eat. Food has plenty of valid and appropriate cultural uses, including nourishment, celebration, and the occasional emotional eating. Manipulation of body size is not one of them.
- Equating moral/good/worthy with the size of someone’s body. All bodies are good bodies. Marilyn Wann once said, “The only thing anyone can diagnose by looking at a fat person is their own level of prejudice toward fat people.”
- Suggesting exercise as punishment or prevention of being fat instead of recreation, fun, or achieving personal goals. Participation in exercise is not an indicator of worth. When it comes to movement, we should work hard to ensure everyone has access to the information on their options. Then, we should mind our own business.
- Viewing fat people as less valuable and more risk-able. Fat people should receive the same level of evidence-based interventions as thin people. It’s never appropriate to risk a fat person’s health in an effort to turn them into a thin person.
How Diet Culture Promotes Disordered Eating
The primary tactic used by companies and programs is taking what medical professionals consider disordered habits and making them acceptable for those who are overweight. This includes how much we eat, how often we exercise, and what role we allow food to take in our lives.
The role of food can be changed when we develop unhealthy neural connections between the food we’re putting in our bodies and what it should do for us. For example, one program I recently researched had labeled their expensive pre-packaged snacks and meals as “fuelings.” So, in essence, this program is re-framing your food as simply “fuel.”
Food was meant to be enjoyed until you’re satisfied and full. Food has flavors, textures, colors, and shapes. It’s an integral part of culture and heritage. While food is “fuel” in that it gives our body energy and nutrients, it’s so much more than the gas you put in your tank. This is just what one company did. You can find many companies with similar tactics.
When we twist food into something it shouldn’t be, or it becomes the enemy to be defeated, the disorder begins. Everything about diet culture morphs the way we think about food, ourselves, and our inherent worth.
Food is not the enemy, but our toxic diet culture is the enemy. Food is an ally. Health is the goal.
What Is HAES?
HAES stands for Health at Every Size and is an approach to dietary behavior change that offers an alternative to traditional diet programs. It also suggests that the press may have exaggerated the health risks associated with being overweight and obese.
The major premise of HAES is that healthy behaviors should be an individual’s main focus instead of weight loss. These behaviors include a balanced, healthy diet (without restricting intake), healthy exercise, the right amount of sleep, managing stress, finding joy in life, and intuitive eating. The goal is to accept where one’s body lands in terms of shape and size when all of these factors are in place.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is the opposite of a traditional diet. It’s a non-diet in which you become the expert of your own body and its signals. The end goal is a healthy attitude toward body image and food. The main idea is that you should eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. While that sounds simple enough, I can break it down further.
Some of the intuitive eating principles to follow each day include listening to and honoring your body and making peace with food. Training your brain and emotions towards health can sometimes be harder than training your behaviors. But it’s far more effective. Research intuitive eating, and you may find your perspective shifting on food, yourself, and our cultural norms.
The Evidence Points Toward Balance
The overwhelming message diet culture encourages is that obesity causes illnesses like high blood pressure and hypertension. However, further medical research challenges that correlation. It seems that “weight cycling,” or the diet cycle of weight loss and weight gain, could also be the culprit of these chronic issues.
One study conducted with obese individuals determined that weight cycling was strongly positively associated with incident hypertension. Another study showed that obese women who had dieted had high blood pressure, and those who had never been on a diet had normal blood pressure.
Dismantling Diet Culture and Building Strong Minds and Bodies
While there’s so much more work to be done in breaking down the myths ingrained in our culture, we can start with education. What we want is a place where health is our goal, and we celebrate our bodies.
If you’re looking for more information on diet culture, you might like Christy Harrison’s website, podcast (Food Psych), or book Anti-Diet. As one of the main proponents leading the movement against diet culture, she has amazing resources for helping individuals make peace with food.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact a helpline like NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association). Contact a registered dietitian, nutritionist, a rehab clinic, or a therapist for immediate help.
All bodies are good bodies. What is bad? A culture that measures worth in body weight. Do you have any tips for fighting diet culture? Share this article with others who can encourage you and join the movement!