Is diet culture toxic?
For decades the weight loss and diet industry has dined out on our debilitating desire to diet. From calorie trackers to strict food rules to the latest fad diet involving eating only when stark naked under the light of a gibbous moon; the dieting mentality has been a staple in pretty much every glossy magazine since they started printing in color.
But are diets good for you? Do diets even work? Or is the diet mentality dangerous and serial dieting an eating disorder of its own?
This article aims to explore, and provide some resources to help you escape the toxic diet culture…if you need to.
How Did the Dieting Mentality Start?
In the good ol’ days, ‘diet’ meant the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats. Prehistorically speaking, food was a scarce resource. So the idea of telling a caveman or woman to cut down on calories would probably have been met with a swift club to the head.
But at some point in the last couple of hundred years ‘diet’ developed a different meaning. It now became defined as some kind of nutritional restriction or set of food rules for a temporary time period, more often than not with the goal to lose excess body weight.
The first popular diet was the ‘Banting’, named after William Banting. In his wonderfully titled 1863 pamphlet ‘Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public ‘, he outlined the details of a low-carbohydrate, low-calorie diet that led to his dramatic personal weight loss.
And it’s a trend that caught on.
150 years later, according to one study, 49.1% of Americans said they had tried to lose weight in the past 12 months.
Apologies for restating the obvious, but that’s almost half the population!
And the idea that you could, or worse, should, just flip a switch, get into a diet mindset, go for a jog, and watch the pounds disappear seeped so insidiously into the modern mentality that the diet is now seen as a kind of quick-fix cure, rather than a part of a long-lasting preventative healthy lifestyle.
Diet Culture in 2021
Diet Culture Definition: a set of beliefs that values physical appearance over health and well-being and places importance on weight loss, thinness and restricting calories.
If you’ve been packing on the pandemic pounds, you’ve probably been subjected to some diet culture messages. The infamous COVID weight gain shaming known as ‘The Quarantine 15’ (a spin on the ‘freshman 15’ that refers to college freshmen gaining an average of 15 pounds), is a typical example of how deeply ingrained the diet mentality is in our collective psyche.
In a society that worships thinness, we’ve developed a weight stigma that actively or otherwise shames any larger body size, to the point that the word “fat” is almost exclusively reserved for negative connotations.
Not only that but anyone having the audacity to celebrate body positivity, body diversity, and body acceptance is left open to uncondemned ridicule. That’s the world we live in.
But there’s a difference between having a healthy relationship with food and being a thin person. While eating habits certainly contribute to body shape, not everyone who has a thin body is healthy, and not everyone who is healthy is thin. That’s a myth of diet culture.
8 Reasons Why Diet Culture Is Bad
1. Body shaming and negative body image
Diet Culture actively promotes discrimination. The bullying of ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ people is socially accepted, but weight-based discrimination affects lives.
There’s a stigma to obesity that leads to people of a fat body type being regularly discriminated against in employment settings, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.
2. The diet mentality messes with the body’s natural intuitive eating wisdom
It leads to binge eating, poor food choices, and disordered eating. (Intuitive eating is basically the opposite of dieting – with no impositions on what or when to eat.)
Intuitive Eating Definition: a philosophy of eating that recognizes your body’s hunger signals. It’s knowing the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger and trusting the body to know when to eat and when to stop.
3. Diets don’t work
Up to 98% of people regain all the weight lost within five years, and up to two-thirds of people end up regaining more.
The diet industry is worth upwards of $75 BILLION per year. If you think that there aren’t vested interests there, you’re wrong. If there were diets that worked out there, the industry wouldn’t be this big.
Think about it – if everybody lost weight or stayed happy and healthy then where are the repeat customers?
4. Diet culture discounts genetic factors
Bodyweight is the product of genetic effects, epigenetic effects (heritable traits), and the environment. But there seems to be this idea, that with enough willpower and the right diet you can be any weight you want…it’s not realistic.
5. Calorie counting can become an obsession
Do you really want to have to measure everything? Yourself on the scales, food portion size, miles traveled, steps taken. Basic living shouldn’t require constant calculation.
6. There’s a bigger cultural problem
The most poverty-hit communities are most prone to obesity. How can we expect people to maintain a healthy weight when there’s no access to affordable fresh food? Many communities in low-income areas live in so-called ‘food deserts’ where they can’t even get hold of fruit and vegetables.
7. Dieting itself could be considered an eating disorder
If you were to see a dietitian and tell them that you were severely restricting your caloric intake, that you were scared to gain a few pounds, that you apply food restrictions or seek out certain foods in an attempt to affect your weight, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to diagnose an eating disorder.
In fact, a 2008 study found that three-quarters of American Women aged 30-40 across all racial and ethnic groups reported disordered eating behaviors.
So eating disorders are actually the ‘orders’ or the norm!
8. Yo-yo dieting
The worst part is that the diet mentality is a self-perpetuating cycle. If you do have some initial success, then you’ll naturally use confirmation bias to support the system. But the mad part is that, unlike any other walk of life, when diets don’t work…we don’t blame the diet. We try another one.
Yo-Yo Dieting Definition: the habitual bouncing from one food restriction program to another.
Imagine if your car broke down 95% of the time, but you didn’t blame the mechanic, you didn’t blame the machine – you blamed yourself. That’s what the diet industry has cruelly (but begrudgingly brilliantly) managed to pull off – complete freedom of accountability.
How Do We Fix This?
At the very best dieting is like papering over the cracks, a temporary fix for a problem that shouldn’t exist.
Why do you want to diet? Is it for health, or is it to lose weight? If it’s to lose weight, why do you want to lose weight? What do you like more? Your eating habits or some ideal body image that’s been imposed on you?
If it’s for health, what’s been stopping you from making changes to your eating habits in the past? Is a diet really going to help you, or do you need long-term lifestyle changes?
( Remember: Always consult with a health professional before making significant changes to your diet.)
Everyone has different feelings and goals when it comes to their health and bodies – whatever you want to do, just make sure you’re doing it for your own reasons, not someone else’s.
And, truth be told – you can only see long-term results when you make long-term changes – that’s the difference between diet and ‘a diet’.
So before you diet, ask yourself if it’s really your body that needs to change, or is it your mind?