What is diet culture?

Diet culture is a term that you might hear quite a lot, especially on social media, but what does it really mean? Shannon Western, an online nutritionist who helps people feel better around food, writes all about it in this article.

Diet culture isn’t being on a specific diet (e.g. Weight Watchers or keto) but it’s the culture that is intent on weight loss. More eloquently, living in a diet culture is one that values thinness and the socially constructed ideal of beauty, above people’s health and wellbeing.

Now, you can live in diet culture (i.e. the Western parts of the world) and not feel totally consumed by it. You might never have even dieted (you lucky duck!) or thought about trying to change your body.

It’s often easier to write examples of what diet culture looks like, but bear in mind there are 1000s of examples because it’s ingrained in our culture – like ableism, racism, and patriarchal ideals.

  • Diet culture is anything that equates health and beauty to slenderness/leanness/muscularity to health.
  • It links the basic need of eating to morality – i.e. this person is good and pure because they are in a small body and eat salads, but this person is bad because they are in a larger body and are eating a burger.
  • It’s a system of oppression – it disproportionately harms women (as diet culture is an extension of the patriarchy), ethnic minorities, disables people, and people in larger bodies.
  • It’s a shapeshifter – diet culture looks different every few years. It’s the diets (like Noom, Second Nature, and Weight Watchers) who are now “lifestyle changes” and claim to “heal your relationship to food” – it co-opts language and turns it into a marketing ploy. It sells gluten free diets, dairy as a bad food, sugar-free chocolate, charcoal lattes, coconut oil in coffees, and portion control as a normal thing (PSA: They’re not.)
  • It can be totally obvious – like juice cleanses, 800-calorie diets, and water fasts. Or it can be sneaky and socially acceptable – like calorie counting, limiting “treats” to one a day or feeling super guilty, intermittent fasting, and trying out the keto diet just to see if it works for you.
  • It’s on food packaging and magazines, Disney princesses vs Disney villains, it’s in nutrition education in schools, passed down from grandparents, it’s the “would you like any treats?” from your coffee shop Barista. It’s the individual diet culture examples, but it’s also completely ingrained in our beliefs.

What’s wrong with diet culture?

Apart from the fact it makes people feel absolutely awful, a bunch of things!

I do want to say, every single person lives in diet culture. Even if they are an Anti-Diet queen/king, they still live in the culture. So I don’t want you to feel excluded or like you’ve done something wrong if you have/do any of the diet culture examples I have written about.

Diet culture:

  • Normalises disordered eating and eating disorder behaviours
  • Takes people away from trusting their bodies, to only trusting apps, rules, arbitrary numbers like calorie counts, macro ratios, step counts, and nutrition labels.
  • Promotes ideals that are unattainable for the vast majority of people
  • It equates size to beauty
  • It takes the simple act of eating to be a morality issue, and it demonises people who can’t/don’t want to eat the foods diet culture puts on a pedestal
  • It creates shame, anxiety, and guilt
  • It does not care about “health” – it cares about thinness/whatever look is currently trending.

Why say bye to diet culture?

It’s easier said than done, and there’s so much work to do that I couldn’t possibly share in one blog post. But here are some things that might encourage you to start your diet culture free journey:

  • Experience less guilt and shame around eating
  • Detach your worth from your physical appearance
  • Stop exercising to make up for eating
  • Improve your relationship to food – reduced binging, overeating, food guilt and fear, and feeling obsessed with food
  • Feel more at peace with food and your body
  • Stop dieting, start living

Are you ready to kickstart ditching diet culture?

We are a team of specialist eating disorder + disordered eating nutritionists, dietitians, and therapists. We offer private 1-1 support to heal your relationship with food.

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