How “Health” and “Wellness” Have Been Co-opted by the Diet Industry

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A common symptom of many eating disorders is a preoccupation with food and body size, and this symptom can be exacerbated by the toxicity of diet culture. Diet and weight loss have grown to be an over $70 billion industry—yet according to studies, 95% of diets fail. As it has become increasingly common knowledge that diets don’t work, the diet industry has reworked its language to disguise diets as being about “health” and “wellness.” Trying to determine if something is pro-diet culture or not can be tricky. To truly promote health and create a culture that is more supportive of those with eating disorders, we need to learn to identify diet culture and actively resist it. 

What is Diet Culture?

If you’re not familiar with the term “diet culture,” that is not uncommon. Diet culture is so entrenched in our everyday lives that it’s hard to even spot it. Diet culture is the belief that if we want to be more desirable, worthy, and good, then we should make our bodies smaller by dieting. Diet culture is dangerous and harms people of all sizes, including by perpetuating disordered eating and making eating disorder recovery all the more challenging. Even if you are not on a diet, you can still be caught up in the culture of dieting. Some people need to be on diets for medical reasons, such as diagnosed celiac disease or diabetes, but even those who have a reason for dieting other than weight loss can get caught up in a diet culture mindset. Many people don’t even realize that in pursuing “health” and “wellness,” they are living their life according to rules created by diet culture. 

How Diet Culture Has Morphed Over Time

The diet industry has needed to reframe its messaging as more people have learned that diets don’t work. In 2007, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles published an analysis of more than 30 long-term diet studies. The paper’s lead author, Traci Mann, stated in a news release at the time, “Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.” The booming business that is the diet industry has realized that it must somehow get Millenials on the diet train, and that, along with everyone finding out diets don’t work, has led to “The Wellness Diet.” 

“The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about ‘wellness’ but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like,” says Christy Harrison in her article, “How to Avoid Falling for The Wellness Diet.” In this reshaping of dieting, it’s not solely about weight loss, although thinness is considered an essential aspect of what makes someone healthy in these diets. The Wellness Diet still labels certain foods as “good” and “bad” and intends for you to feel shame if you eat food in the “bad” category. “Clean eating,” detoxes, and cleanses, as well as elimination diets prescribed for the general population, are all part of The Wellness Diet. It’s pertinent to know that detox diets and cleanses are not something that anyone’s body needs, as our liver, kidneys, and lungs do that for us already. 

The False Equation of Thin Equals Healthy

Weight stigma, which refers to negative attitudes, beliefs, or assumptions about others based on body weight or size, is so firmly entrenched in our culture that even healthcare professionals can find themselves misdiagnosing people in larger bodies. More weight-inclusive approaches, such as Health at Every Size (HAES), promote a holistic version of health that is not defined by size, ability, illnesses, or any other trait. HAES is rooted in the belief that regardless of size, everyone is able to reach health and find joy in the process. HAES also encourages people to remember that individuals can be healthy across a wide range of weights and that we should be striving for person-centric care and equalizing access to proper care. If providers can look past an individual’s weight and pay more attention to the signs of an eating disorder, this could help diagnose so many people who need help.

How Diets Affect the Development of Eating Disorders

Diet culture is dangerous for people of all sizes, and particularly dangerous to those predisposed for, currently suffering with, or recovering from eating disorders. According to NEDA, those who engage in moderate dieting are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder and those who engage in extreme dieting are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. The reason for this increased risk is that most diets involve restrictive behaviors. “Engaging in extreme restriction can result in malnutrition and starvation, which, at a neurobiological level, could trigger an eating disorder,” said The Emily Program’s Chief Medical Officer Mark Warren. If you feel that your dieting has gotten out of control, it is important that you reach out for help. The sooner you ask for help, the better the outcome will be. 

If you are struggling with food or body image, The Emily Program is here for you. You can start your road to recovery by calling our admissions team at 1-888-364-5977 or by completing our online form.

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