Debunking Diet Culture

A fork and knife sit on a plate, with a tape measure wrapped around them.

The New Year’s Trap

January is meant to usher in a fresh start, but it seems stuck on a perpetual loop, playing the same tired track year after year. It is nearly impossible to avoid the month’s barrage of messaging taking aim at our waistlines and metabolism, reducing our worth to our outer appearance and the number on the scale. We’re aggressively encouraged to “fix” ourselves with detoxes, cleanses, and 30-day transformation workout plans. We’re told that efforts toward “self-improvement” should be strictly in the pursuit of a “new” body—one that requires constant vigilance, control, and scrutiny to ensure it doesn’t slip back into a previous year’s iteration.  

Even a social media feed that has been meticulously curated to block out triggering diet content can be rife with more subtle manifestations of this new year’s trap. We see it in the buzzy weight loss ads that co-opt anti-diet rhetoric and put the program’s restrictive calorie budgets and promises of weight loss in the fine print. It is embedded in an influencer’s “What I Eat in a Day” video featuring a bevy of “clean meals,” conspicuously lacking in certain food groups. Maybe you find it in your inbox, where a well-meaning coworker has invited you to participate in a workplace New Year’s weight loss challenge.

It should come as no surprise that, for those that choose to make them, the most popular New Year’s resolutions are focused on weight loss and body manipulation. In a 2022 survey, 52% of individuals reported following a diet or eating pattern in the past year, up from 39% in 2021 (IFIC). Notably, the most commonly selected diet responses in the survey were “clean eating” and “mindful eating,” indicating the insidious, shape-shifting power of the diet industry in reframing its messaging to stay relevant to modern dieters. 

Today, the diet industry is valued at $70+ billion. It has a lot to gain in capitalizing on our insecurities and the all-too-common desire to lose weight, particularly throughout the month of January. What these ads fail to disclose are the serious downsides of dieting. The reality is that diets are designed to fail. While individuals may experience temporary weight loss, countless studies show that roughly 95% of dieters regain lost weight within five years. Additionally, a porous boundary exists between dieting and eating disorders. Dieting can irrevocably harm one’s relationship with food and body, and is known to be the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder (NEDA). 

With this industry working against us, how can we hope to resist its influence? It starts by unpacking diet culture at large.

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture refers to any program, mentality, or system of beliefs that equates thinness and particular body shapes with “health” and morality. It promotes weight loss as the only way to attain health and gain social status. It encourages us to spend time, money, and significant energy on attempts to “hack” our bodies, often at great cost to our physical and mental well-being. Diet culture elevates certain foods while demonizing others with labels that leave no room for nuance, such as “pure” and “real” or “toxic” and “junk.”

Diet culture completely disregards social determinants of health, as well as systems of oppression like ableism, racism, and anti-fatness—all of which can significantly impact one’s health and well-being. Health is viewed solely as an individual responsibility, implying that you alone can turn things around if you just change how you eat and move. It ignores the many systemic factors in all our lives that contribute to the full picture of our health.

This paradigm bestows a sense of moral superiority and greater social capital on those who are “disciplined” and “controlled” enough to “achieve” the ideal thin, youthful body. It makes assumptions about health and well-being, assuming status, character, education level, beauty, and deservedness of healthcare based on body size alone.

Where Does Diet Culture Come From?

The origins of diet culture started centuries ago, driven by ancient Greek ideas about the “correct” way to eat and the “right” size to be, the basis of which implied that eating anything other than the “correct” diet made people “less than” fully human.

We see these Hellenic ideas expanded within racist attitudes about body size as the transatlantic slave trade brought African people into Europe. White Europeans stigmatized larger-bodied African women, in particular, as a way of creating a racial and social hierarchy. Fatphobia became central to this, transforming fat from its historical connotation of wealth and health into a sign of racial inferiority, moral failure, and a lack of self-control. 

Early modern colonialism reflects many of the same attempts to validate race and create social distinctions through food and body. Christopher Columbus and his fellow conquistadors developed the belief that food played a part in creating the physical distinctions between Europeans and the indigenous people they encountered. The colonizers believed themselves to be instruments of divine design, possessing cultural superiority over the “uncivilized” indigenous groups. As such, they lorded their customs and deemed their European food as the “right” food to eat, convinced that if the indigenous people dropped their “bad” local foods and adopted a European diet, they too could acquire “superior” European characteristics.

In the 1800s, these beliefs were reinforced by racial hierarchy theories from predominantly white men of Northern European descent (including Charles Darwin). Such theories erroneously categorized people as “civilized” and “savage” and fatness as a marker of “savagery.” Women of all ethnicities were thought to be at greater “risk” of fatness, laying the groundwork for the racist beauty ideals to come.

Around this time, Presbyterian clergyman and renowned speaker Sylvester Graham advocated for a bland diet and thinner bodies as a way to ensure “purity,” “morality,” and “self-control,” ultimately linking enjoyment of food to a dangerous form of decadence. 

While this is by no means a comprehensive history, these instances provide important context for understanding the basis of our contemporary diet culture. Diet culture continues to evolve into elusive iterations, and its language can be opaque and slippery. This is why it is so essential that we learn about its origins and keep them top of mind. Though the faces of modern-day diets might look different, they are a part of this same racist, sexist, classist system that weaponizes physical features, body size, and food choices to enforce social status, uphold racism, define morality, and assert dominance. 

As an extension of the patriarchy, diet culture disproportionately harms women, transgender individuals, communities of color, people with disabilities, and those in larger bodies—all of whom face greater stigmatization for not fitting into the narrow white, thin ideal of “health.”

For a deeper exploration of the roots of diet culture, we suggest checking out Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings, PhD, and Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD.

How to Spot Diet Culture

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be actively dieting to be a part of diet culture. In fact, simply existing in Western culture in the 21st century qualifies you as a participant. By and large, Western culture is synonymous with diet culture. 

Diet culture can be both explicit and implicit. As mentioned above, it is especially explicit in the wake of the New Year—“New Year, New You” weight loss ads echo diet culture’s refrain that your body is not good enough the way it is. It is implicit in the incredibly normalized way that our society talks about food. For instance, referring to a cookie as a “treat” or “indulgence” elevates the cookie, implying a moral connotation that it is not something that should be eaten often. Someone on the receiving end of this messaging may internalize the label, believing themselves to be “bad” for “indulging.” Diet culture can make people fearful of food and anxious about losing control, disconnecting them from their most basic autonomy and agency around food. 

Here is a helpful list of ways to recognize the shapeshifting nature of modern diet culture, inspired by registered dietitian nutritionist Christy Harrison:

If a plan, program, or lifestyle change does any of the following, diet culture is at play:

  • Advertises weight loss pills and shakes, especially in replacement of daily meals
  • Encourages you to exercise for the purpose of weight loss or body shaping
  • Idealizes certain body types and looks over others
  • Recommends cutting out certain foods without a legitimate medical diagnosis
  • Depicts certain foods, macronutrients, or food groups as “good” and “bad”
  • Promotes portion control or counting calories instead of listening to your body
  • Blames BMI or weight for health conditions
  • Encourages detoxes and cleanses
  • Recommends you manipulate your eating to shrink your body 
  • Markets weight loss as a way to “feel more confident”
  • Sets rules about what, when, how, and how much you should eat (the exception to this is when you’re following a meal plan in eating disorder treatment)
  • Causes anxiety and obsession about food and health
  • Shows before and after photos that put the smaller body on a pedestal and shame the larger body

Moving Beyond Diet Culture

Diet culture is inherently traumatic for all of us. The multibillion-dollar diet industry titans work hard to profit from our trauma, kindling a fixation with thinness that can only be “achieved” through the use of their products or services, despite mountains of evidence that confirm it can never be a truly fruitful pursuit. Diet culture makes us feel like we’re the ones who failed when it really is a losing game from the start.

It can be incredibly difficult to get out of the paradigm of diet culture when it seems to be woven into the very fibers of our society. How can you tune out diet culture in your everyday life and get back to focusing on the things that matter to you?

1. Practice self-compassion through positive internal dialogue

The way you talk to yourself in the presence of diet culture can make the difference between shaking off the messages and getting sucked in. The shift away from diet culture is internal first. If you’ve dieted in the past or been around others preaching about their diets, there is a chance you hold negative thoughts about your appearance. Treating yourself with kindness, affirming your inherent worth, and reframing your relationship with your body are radical acts in the face of a system designed to be oppressive and punishing. What’s more, self-compassion interventions are associated with lower levels of disordered eating behaviors (Kelly & Tasca, 2016). It is going to take time and practice to escape diet culture’s grips. Try to notice when the diet culture voice is coming up for you and gently let it go.

2. Set boundaries

Nipping diet talk in the bud may start with putting a moratorium on diet talk with your family, or unfollowing friends on social media who constantly post about their diet results. Diet culture disconnects us from our own needs, so asking for and acting upon what we need is a powerful rebellion against it. If appropriate, you might  consider sharing the ways you have been harmed by diet culture. Another option could be simply changing the subject or leaving the room. Remember that diet culture beliefs are often deeply ingrained and diet talk can be reflexive, so it may take time and reminders for the boundary to be enforced. 

Perhaps a personal boundary could be taking a social media break or working toward using social media less. We know that algorithms tend to push users toward harmful content that promotes eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. Keep yourself free of diet culture distractions.

3. Remind yourself who benefits from diet culture

We know that diet culture interventions are not sustainable or health-promoting over the long term. Companies that promote diet culture do not care about your well-being, your happiness, or your health. Their business is to turn a profit. Use this awareness to guide your own choices and muster compassion for those around you who may be caught up in the diet cycle. The more we empower ourselves with the knowledge of diet culture’s harms, the more empowered we become to shift the narrative for ourselves, and as a collective.

Consider what diet culture has taken from you, distracted you from, or caused you to miss out on. How has it shaped the way you view yourself and others? Freedom from diet culture and reconnection to your values is no easy feat, but it is such a worthwhile endeavor.

Diet culture is especially difficult to reject if you are struggling with an eating disorder. The Emily Program is here for you. To learn more, call 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form.

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