We live in a world that is obsessed with diets and manipulating our bodies in the pursuit of weight loss. Obsessed.
Our world is obsessed with thinness.
- Why do we all live in mortal fear of “gaining weight,” getting fat,” or “being fat?”
- Why is our value as a human being supposedly determined by our body weight?
- Why do we live in a world that aims to erase body diversity?
These are important questions to ponder as we learn to make peace with food and our bodies — whether we are recovering from an eating disorder, recovering from chronic dieting or other disordered eating.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs and social behaviors that values body weight above health and well-being.
Diet culture means we have been programmed to think the only way to achieve good health, well-being and social status is by making our bodies smaller – or what we call the “thin” ideal.
Weight-stigma – the belief that large bodies are inherently “less-than,” lazy, or “wrong,” is a driving force behind diet culture.
The longer you have been swimming in diet culture, the more invisible it becomes and the harder it is to undo. Diet culture essentially normalizes the pursuit of thinness. (You can read more about this in a previous article I wrote, (What is weight stigma and why is it important).
Our obsession with health fuels the $66 billion dollar diet industry
While we spend considerable time and money in the pursuit of “health,” the $66 billion diet industry is designed to make us feel bad about ourselves because THEY KNOW THAT DIETS DON’T WORK.
Diet refers to any method designed to manipulate our body weight, such as Weight Watchers, Paleo, Low Carb, Hi Protein, even bariatric surgery.
We have a considerable body of research telling us that most people are unable to maintain their weight loss over time (1) despite taking extreme weight loss measures.
We feel increasingly bad about ourselves for gaining back the weight, then naturally turn to another diet to make ourselves feel better. This is called the yo-yo diet effect.
Diet culture causes us to fear food, obsess over number on the scale and over calories, feel tremendous guilt about our choices, and for some, even develop eating disorders as we strive to lose weight.
Where does diet culture show up?
Diet culture creates a black and white dichotomy where food choices are “good” or “bad,” which in turn makes us feel good or bad. It is full of strict rules such as no carbs, no food after 7 PM, only organic foods, etc.
Some sneaky examples of diet culture showing up are when people eliminate whole food groups in the name of “wellness,” such as no carb living, a “paleo” lifestyle or practicing “clean eating.”
These are just diets disguised as “lifestyle change” and they have much more to do with manipulating our body shape and size than on living a healthy lifestyle.
When asked what diet culture means to them, here are just a sampling of responses from clients I have worked with:
- Being constantly praised for weight loss (including by medical professionals) even though I was mentally and physically still recovering from anorexia.
- Thinking there is something terribly wrong with me; thinking my body needs fixing or that I take up too much space.
- Believing I was unworthy because of my body shape.
- Having had my mother put me on a diet when I was 5, leading to a lifetime of serious eating disorder behaviors.
- Being taught that I will never find love if my body is too large.
- Being told what, how much and when to eat.
- Learning that my body is not to be trusted with knowing hunger, fullness and satisfaction.
- Letting the number on the scale dictate my absolute worth and happiness.
- Knowing it’s expected that you will bond with other women over calories, diets & diet talk.
How can we challenge diet mentality?
Diet mentality is full of food rules, judgment, and guilt.
Because of this many people believe they will be happy if only they could change their bodies: their weight, shape, size, and/or looks.
Judgements and shame around our bodies, however, is a learned behavior.
We grow up internalizing these negative messages from our culture as well as our families of origin.
The good news is that we are fully able to challenge diet culture.
We can change the narrative to get off the diet roller coaster and adopt a more nurturing and compassionate way of being IN our bodies.
We can acknowledge that bodies are meant to exist in all shapes and sizes and that body diversity is a real thing.
HOW DO WE MAKE THESE CHANGES AND CHALLENGE DIET CULTURE AND MENTALITY?
Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size ® approaches help to counter diet mentality.
Giving up diets and adopting intuitive eating is a way to counter harmful diet culture messages.
When you let go of diets and the unobtainable pursuit of weight loss, you can start to value your health and well-being by focusing on health-promoting behaviors.
This is called a Health at Every Size ® philosophy.
How can you learn how to do this?
Letting go of diets is a challenging process that takes time and patience.
Intuitive eating is one method and it is the polar opposite of diets. It’s a way of eating that is based on our body’s internal cues, compassion, and body trust.
The journey of becoming an intuitive eater begins with taking the stance that diets do not work.
Once we fully conceptualize how diet culture is rooted in lies and false promises, we can begin to trust our bodies again.
A good way to start can be just noticing actions and feelings and thoughts around our food and food choices.
It will be helpful to start understanding your patterns and pay attention to what you’re consuming, as well as how it makes you feel so you can start making adjustments.
- Notice when you feel hungry. For some, this feels like a clear signal from your stomach; for others, this feels like a dull ache, headache, or feeling of emptiness. Some people, especially those recovering from an eating disorder, really struggle with this step.
- Pay attention to the smell, taste and textures of the various foods you eat. Do you feel like having something hot or cold, soft or crunchy, sweet or savory?
- Check with yourself and notice if your food choices are coming from a place of diet culture, such as: you are making this choice because it is lower in calories, fat, etc, rather than what you TRULY need to feel satisfied.
These steps will get you started on your challenge to diet culture and the diet mentality.
Learning to make peace with food and your body is a journey filled with many ups and downs but this is the starting point for many women. Taking notice and challenge that mentality.
Looking for help on your journey?
If you want to get additional professional help and support, along with encouragement to develop your own self-compassion, and help you on your own Intuitive Eating Journey, check out my self-paced online Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond program.
It is one of the best ways to begin to challenge diet culture and diet mentality… and you will notice a BIG change in yourself too!
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
Download our Free Intuitive Eating Guide and get off that Diet Roller Coaster for good!