important: this post should not be viewed as mental health advice, if you are struggling and need support, I have made a short list of services that provide mental health support in the UK
content warning: eating disorders
this was written with the intent of helping someone improve their relationship with food and their body. many of my friends are currently struggling with body image and food, and although I’m by no means a professional, I wanted to try to help them. I’m also writing something I wish my younger self could have read. I think this would have helped me make peace with my body and mind, and learn to take care of myself much sooner. diet culture has deeply impacted my life and I’m still healing, and I hope that I’m able to provide you with some tools to help you work towards making peace with food and your body too. I want to raise awareness of how the toxicity of diet culture affects all aspects of our lives, as it’s so deeply ingrained in society that it’s almost impossible to notice.
join me in destroying diet culture? >:)
looking back at when I began researching this topic, I was so naïve. my first blog post was going to be about the toxic diet culture on tiktok, but I soon found out that there was so much, much more to it than just tiktok. I began researching the diet industry as a whole, and realised that I was way out of my depth. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I felt like I had made a huge discovery (but after reading many books, articles & listening to podcasts on this topic I realised that I was not the pioneer I thought I was)
I knew that the impact of the diet industry on our lives was big, but I didn’t realise the extent of this. it’s everywhere, it’s all around us. it’s so deeply embedded in our society and daily lives that it just seems normal. I read an article which gave some examples of things that we’ve all seen or experienced, that most of us probably couldn’t recognise as products of diet culture. they may seem harmless at first glance, but they’re all rooted in diet culture.
the more I researched diet culture, the angrier I felt. how has the diet industry been able to pervade all aspects of our lives? it’s almost impossible to escape diet culture when it’s everywhere. I’d like to make it clear that it’s the diet industry itself that I’m angry at, not those who are influenced by diet culture. if you want to lose weight you have every right to, it’s your body and only you can decide what you want to do with it – this post is not meant to shame or attack anyone who wants to lose weight. again, I’m not a nutritionist or an expert of any sort, just another sad, sad victim of diet culture 😡
what is diet culture?
Christy Harrison (2018), an anti-diet dietitian and host of the podcast ‘food psych’, (an excellent podcast btw, I’d highly recommend it) defines ‘diet culture’ as a system of beliefs that:
worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue
promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status
demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices
oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health”, which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans people, people in larger bodies, people of colour, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health
in other words, it’s a culture that judges a person’s worth by their weight, and reinforces the idea that in order to be ‘healthy’ you must be thin.
you do not need to be “on a diet” to experience the culture of dieting, in fact it’s very hard to not be impacted by it. diet culture often leads to weight stigma and bias, “our culture’s version of health is laced with fatphobia, racism, ableism, and ageism—because with very few exceptions, the bodies that are held up as supposed “pictures of health” are all thin, white, able-bodied, and young.” (Harrison, 2017). anyone who does not fit in this ideal are oppressed by diet culture.
everyday examples of diet culture
- a friend commenting on your eating habits
ex: “you have so much self control”, “you’re still hungry?”, “I could never eat all of that”, “do you know how many calories are in that?”, “treat yourself to some cake! you’ve earned it” (scream)
- labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
ex: wholemeal bread = good, white bread = bad). another example of this is people who say that they’re being ~naughty~ (vomit) by eating dessert
- the entire concept of cheat days & cheat meals, and CLEAN eating (I’m begging you to stop)
- promoting a certain diet such as intermittent fasting, keto, paleo, juice cleanses…. etc etc
- influencers promoting ‘weight loss products’ such as ‘detox teas’, gummy bears, shakes, skinny coffee
- a family member commenting on your weight/ body size
parents have a significant impact on the development of body dissatisfaction (see Abramovitz & Birch cited below, discussed the effects that mothers have on their young daughters perception of dieting)
- new mothers feeling pressured to ‘bounce back’ after giving birth
- exercising to ‘burn off’ what you ate and feeling guilty for not working out
- food packages marketing them as ‘guilt free’
(we shouldn’t feel guilty about eating any food! unless you’re a cannibal then, maybe…. well…. *cricket noises*)
- feeling the need to lose weight for the summer
(brits please do NOT feel pressured to lose weight for june 21!!)
- at university: the normalisation of skipping meals, especially when drinking
- poor representation in movies & tv shows
ex: the storyline of characters who have larger bodies usually revolves around their body size: either as a personality trait, a struggle/ insecurity, or before they have a makeover and magically gain confidence
- fat stigma in health care
ex: doctors and other health professionals dismiss people’s health concerns, claiming that they just need to lose weight – this often results in delaying healthcare visits (this article discusses this and other issues in detail and it’s a very good article!!)
diet culture makes us believe that we’re not good enough as we are. we’re told that we should constantly be thriving to change our bodies, to ‘work on ourselves’, and there will always be something to change about ourselves. but there’s one thing that the diet industry doesn’t want us to know:
diets do not work
listen!! a little while ago, I would’ve fought myself too. but hear me out.
there’s endless advice about weight loss, so-called experts who all claim to know the secret to your dream body. but these experts have many opposing secrets that it makes it confusing and overwhelming. we don’t know what to believe.
its simple: eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, but avoid carbs. avoid fat but don’t eat low-fat products because they’re riddled with sugar. avoid sugar because your insulin will spike but definitely do not consume sweeteners because they’re even worse. exercise every day but not too much because you’ll get hungry which is bad. track every single calorie that you consume and burn, but don’t be too obsessive. intermittent fasting is key, wait no don’t skip breakfast because it’s the most important meal of the day and remember to eat every two hours or you’ll completely destroy your metabolism forever!!
and when none of these work, we feel like failures. we feel frustrated because if these worked for all those other people, why don’t they work for us?? we blame ourselves: we must work harder to become more disciplined. maybe we’ll try another diet, and the cycle continues. there’s so much advice out there that we feel hopeless and we continue to hate our beautifully unique bodies because we don’t look the way society tells us that we should look. but it’s not our fault, this is the impact of diet culture.
diets may work short term but 95% of those who diet fail in the long term, and one third of dieters regain more weight than they lost. (Natacha Océane explains this really well, and included lots of citations in the description of the video). evidence shows that intentional weight loss efforts cause long term weight gain for up to two-thirds of people (Harrison, 2019). the diet industry makes us believe that we can be the ones to beat those odds, we just need to try hard enough. reading this, you might even believe you’re built different – the diet industry sells us the idea that we’re different, we will succeed. we all believe that we will be that 5%. however, research shows that 35% of dieters will progress into disordered eating, and one study found that by the time dieters turn fifteen, they’re eight times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder as non-dieters (Resch and Tribole, 2020).
more side effects of dieting include:
- increased binged eating and cravings
- premature death and heart disease
- high chance of disordered eating
- increased feelings of deprivation
- decreased metabolism (see: the biggest loser study)
- weight cycling (ironically, dieting is a predictor of weight gain)
- feelings of failure, lower self-esteem, and social anxiety
- loss of confidence and self trust
- food obsession (see: the minnesota starvation experiment)
(Resch and Tribole, 2020)
the diet industry knows all of this – they profit from our insecurities. it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that benefits when we hate hate our bodies. think about it: if we all loved our bodies, how would they make money?
(I recreated this diagram from the Intuitive Eating book by Resch and Tribole, credits to them)
incase no one has told you this, your food binges are NOT your fault! you do not lack willpower, you’re not weak. binge eating is a very common side effect of dieting, in fact one study found that post-dieting binges occur in 49 percent of all people who end a diet (Resch and Tribole, 2020).
I know I can relate to this. I spent years stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of binge eating and restricting, I felt humiliated, shameful and alone. at eighteen years old, I think I had tried every single diet out there (except for paleo. I just… no). you name it: intermittent fasting, keto, HCLF vegan, OMAD, carb cycling, cleanses, various mono diets (that I will NOT disclose… it’s too embarrassing), clean eating, calorie counting – I had done them all. still, I couldn’t break the cycle. I blamed myself for not having enough willpower or self-control, for never being good enough. but now I realise that the issue was never me. the issue was never my body nor my mind, it was diet culture.
diet culture tells us that the answer to all of our diet issues is another diet, when dieting is the issue in the first place.
the truth is, diets set us up for failure. the deprivation that comes with dieting, increases cravings and binge eating. studies on both humans and rats show that they overeat after chronic food restriction. “food restriction stimulates the brain to launch a cascade of cravings to eat more, because the body on a cellular level is trying to survive the self-imposed famine….cravings run rampant as soon as we’re restricted from any kind of substance—whether it is clothing, fresh air, scenery, or especially food.” (Resch and Tribole, 2020).
we’re human, we always want what we can’t have. if you were to tell someone they can eat everything except for one thing, they’re probably going to want to eat that one thing the most, simply because they can’t have it. they would obsess over it and crave it, whereas if they were ‘allowed’ to eat it, perhaps they’d have no interest in it.
Resch and Tribole (2020) discuss many different types of binge eating, including the ‘last supper effect’. this is when even before starting a new diet, we fear the future deprivation and we panic and eat every food that will be forbidden. we truly believe that it’s the final goodbye, we won’t be able to eat it again so we have to get it while we still can, even if we’re not hungry.
to anyone struggling with binge eating, or with food at all, I would really encourage you to read ‘Intuitive Eating’, I wish I found it sooner!! it helped me realise that I wasn’t the problem, it’s all very common. you don’t need to live like this forever.
continued in the next post… reject diet culture, embrace your body
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pathways from dieting to weight regain, to obesity and to the metabolic syndrome: an overview – Dulloo & Montani (2015)
‘five-year-old girls’ ideas about dieting are predicted by their mothers’ dieting’ – Abramovitz & Birch (2000)
‘fat, black and unapologetic: body positive activism beyond white, neoliberal rights discourses’ – Anna Johansson (2021)
‘the commodification of the body positive movement on instagram’ – Jessica Cwynar- Horta (2016)
‘the beauty myth’ by Naomi Wolf
‘intuitive eating: a revolutionary program that works’ by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole