What is Diet Culture? (And Why We Should Reject it)

In my job working with eating disorders and in my personal life, I seem to reference diet culture on a daily basis. When I address diet culture in a negative light I usually get hit with, “Diet culture… but aren’t you a dietitian?”

Yes, I am a dietitian. But I firmly do not support diet culture.

So if I’m a dietitian who doesn’t support diet culture, what is diet culture anyway?

Christy Harrison is a dietitian who does intensive work regarding diet culture, weight inclusivity, and health at every size. Many other dietitians, including myself and my colleagues, use her definition of diet culture as it encapsulates the different dimensions that make it up. Christy defines diet culture as a “system of beliefs that:

Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

Demonizes 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, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”

Overall, diet culture gives moral value to specific body types and ‘health-related’ habits. It praises people who go to extremes to fit a certain mold of body type, and attacks those who ‘fail’ or are unable to do so.

Image comparing what eating your birthday cake looks like in diet culture vs non-diet culture. In diet culture people take compensatory actions when eating their birthday cake. In non-diet culture, they enjoy their birthday cake as is and do not engage in compensatory actions.

You’re probably thinking “But shouldn’t I want to pursue health? Isn’t weight loss included in pursuing health?”

Let’s answer the latter part first.

No. Diet culture tells you that weight loss is required to pursue health. That’s part of the problem. For decades (maybe even longer than the last century) we’ve been taught that pursuit of weight loss is necessary to improve health. But we don’t talk about why that goal is problematic for most people.

First, sustained weight loss is unlikely in most of the population.

Research shows that groups of people who intentionally lost weight in a 9-12 month period, will regain almost all of the weight within 2-5 years. (1) Diet culture would blame these folks on lack of motivation, lack of willpower, and lack of self-discipline.

However as someone with a degree in nutrition, I would highly disagree. Caloric restriction leads to deprivation. As your body gets smaller than it’s set point, it will no longer needs as much energy to function, so your metabolism slows down. Your body senses that it’s starving, and wants to protect you from future famine. So it shifts it’s gears to preserve energy stores, making you tired and hungry. Ever lost weight and felt super hungry all the time? It’s not just you thinking you have no willpower, that’s normal. This is your body’s natural response to try to prevent your from starvation. It thinks you are in a famine and starving, and wants to preserve your energy, and likely gain the weight back (2).

Some of you will say “But I lost x amount of pounds and kept it off for x amount of years just through diet and exercise.” I don’t doubt that. Some dieters bodies allow them to keep off the weight simply with diet and exercise, but that is not a reality for most individuals and we need to stop blaming them for it.

Image that says, "How to spot damaging diet advice: It would be considered 'unhealthy' if practiced by a person with a low BMI."

Second, of course I encourage you to pursue health!

I’m a dietitian! Pursuit of health is kind of like… the whole point of my job. The problem with “pursuit of health” within diet culture is that we are forced to believe that:

  1. Health cannot be pursued without weight loss (which we learned above is unachievable long-term for a majority of people. So if you fail at losing weight, you automatically are seen as someone who can not pursue health. Meaning that you cannot pursue health like everyone else unless you change your body first).
  2. Pursuit of health must be your top priority 100% of the time, 24/7. Any decision you make that challenges that priority destroys all your progress and ultimately destroys your self worth as an individual.
  3. You are only pursuing health if you are trying to manipulate your body to look like a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied person with a BMI of 20 and the skin, hair, and body composition of a 17 year old.
  4. There is no other reason to exercise or eat other than to pursue better health.
  5. Blames people for being born with or developing chronic illnesses.

If you haven’t seen them yet, what’s the problem with the four statements above? They aren’t healthy. They add intense stress, lead to social isolation, destroy your self-image and self-esteem, and discount the psychological factors that surround health. Ultimately, they oppress people and prevent them from actually pursuing health. They take away from what’s actually important–which is feeling good.

I’m not just talking about emotions here. I’m talking about the bigger picture: mental, physical, financial, and temporal sustainability.

What physical activity can you stick to because you enjoy it, it motivates you, it helps relieve stress, it moves your body in a way your body can move, and it fits into your life schedule!

What combinations of food satisfy your hunger, are psychologically enjoyable, give you the proper amount of energy for your life and structure, and are you capable of cooking and/or buying?

Diet culture doesn’t allow us to consider these factors. It gives us an incredibly narrow, descriptive standard and says: “Here, if you don’t have the money, time, and physical ability to do these things, you cannot pursue health.”

In addition, I believe in pursuit of health, but think that looks different for everyone. Some people, actually most people, have a chronic condition of some sort. They deserve to be treated with respect rather than blamed. They deserve to be able to take care of themselves without feeling that they are less than everyone else because their pursuit of health may not look as optimal as it does for other people.

People in Larger Bodies Do Not Have Access to Pursuit of Health

We talked about how it is unlikely that people in larger bodies are able to keep weight off, but there is also a huge part of the equation in their oppression and prevention from pursuing health. Simply, we do not currently have or promote resources and research that supports people in larger bodies. This is another reason why our society tells people they must lose weight.

What do I mean by not having or promoting resources and research to support people in larger bodies?

  • There is limited access, if any, to comfortable clothes for physical activity.
  • Most, if not all gym equipment does not support larger bodies, preventing them from being able to safely use it.
  • There is tons of outward shame in gyms geared toward people in larger bodies, including constant reminders to lose weight
  • There is constant outward judgment toward people in larger bodies when they engage in physical activity in public. (If you don’t believe me, ask a person in a larger body of their experiences).
  • Doctors turn patients away, telling them to lose weight first before seeking treatment and procedures. (Rather than supporting funding and research to create equipment and procedures to support these people… who make up MOST of the American population).

I know some of you reading this will say, “Okay, whatever. If they want to be healthy they should get over those obstacles.” But you clearly don’t understand the constant oppression, ridicule and self-hatred many of these folks have endured their entire lives. You are not entitled to tell them how they should feel. You’re just part of the problem.

How Do We Pursue Health Without Diet Culture?

If you’ve lived with diet culture your entire life, I’m sure the idea of living without it is impossible. But I’m here to tell you that it is. Here are some of the first steps you can take to live without diet culture:

1. Find movement that you enjoy

This may seem hard or impossible if you’ve always exercised to change your body. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if you moved your body 3-5 days a week the way your body wants to be moved. This could look like different things from person to person. One person may want to go to a dance class every night after work with their friends. While another person might spend their entire weekend hiking with their dog. Yet another choses to do a different form of movement on every day of the week. What does enjoyable movement look like for you? Do that. If you don’t know yet, experiment.

“When I was a personal trainer my only clients that were successful were the ones who focused on how exercising made them feel and not the weight that they were losing.”

Bre Stricker, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist

2. Find food from all food groups that you enjoy, can afford, and can prepare

Notice I didn’t say “cook”. If you don’t already know, I heavily promote learning to cook, but some of us just can’t all the time. Even though I love to cook, to be honest I really only have time to cook two to three days a week. Learn what you’re capable of financially and temporally and work around that.

Learn what foods you enjoy from every food group. This includes starches/carbohydrates, protein, fats, vegetables, fruits, and dairy (or calcium fortified foods). Learn how to eat them the way you enjoy. (I always talk about how I hated kale for 23 years until I learned how to massage it).

Image that says, "Allow yourself to enjoy your food and you'll never look back."

3. Find a supportive squad

Surround yourself with people who love and support you. People who build you up instead of putting you down. People who want to go on this journey with you. Keep those people close to you.

4. Find health professionals that respect you

I can’t tell you how important this is. My primary care doctor of 24 1/2 years left our last appointment asking me, “What are you going to look for in your next primary care doctor?” and when I didn’t know how to respond he said, “Look for someone who listens to you.”

Having physicians, therapists, dietitians, and other professionals who listen, respect, and care for you is so important. Find providers who are willing to learn rather than dismiss. From personal experience, although it was exhausting, it was so relieving it to finally find a provider who listened to me, sent me to the proper physician who was able to actually diagnose and treat me after years of dismissiveness which lead to worsened prognosis. I’ve found that some of the best providers are those that work with a team.

Want to find Health at Every Size (HAES) practitioners? You can search the registry of practitioners who have signed the HAES pledge here https://haescommunity.com/search/ .

5. Do some work

If you want to break free from diet culture, learn how to by diving deep into resources to do so. There are some incredible resources out there to help you in your journey.

Intuitive Eating book cover by Evelyn Tribote and Elyse Resch

First is the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This book walks you through the steps to learning how to ditch dieting forever and nourish yourself stress-free. This book has made a huge impact on my clients lives, and I frequently refer to it as “The Bible”. Click here to find Intuitive Eating on Amazon.

The Intuitive Eating Workbook cover by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

To follow the Intuitive Eating book is The Intuitive Eating Workbook. This workbook gives you several worksheets and activities to walk you through lessons learned in the. This workbook helps you examine how diet culture as impacted your life, and how you can move forward. Click here to find The Intuitive Eating Workbook on amazon.

Health At Every Size book cover by Linda Bacon

Last but not least is Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. The revolutionary book that has pushed the movement to promote the pursuit of health for all bodies. Linda Bacon is a professor and researcher with a PhD in physiology with degrees in psychology and exercise physiology. Linda has lead research on weight stigma, and has done extensive work for advocate for marginalized bodies. This book is perfect for any person, including health professionals, and the best part is: it’s based on science. Click here to find Health at Every Size on Amazon.

In addition to these books, there are some amazing body positive/Health at Every Size podcasts by dietitians. If you’d like to read some of my recommendations, check out my post 6 Body Positive Podcasts by Dietitians.

Already read these books and need some support in learning how to eat mindfully? Check out my Mindful Eating Workbook, that helps guide you through tune in to your hunger and fullness cues.

Still Have Questions? After Reading “What is Diet Culture?”

Feel free to leave a comment or email me at thatcertaintouch@gmail.com

Resources

  1. Mann, T., PhD. (2018, May). Why do dieters regain weight? Retrieved July 24, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/05/calorie-deprivation
  2. Bacon, L., PhD. (2008). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.
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Author: Stephanie

As a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, I'm on a mission to help you enjoy eating a balanced diet by cooking with #thatcertaintouch .

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