If you’re a woman, or any person really, living in reality, then you know how intense and all-consuming the drive and desire to be thin can feel. You either experience it yourself or you know other people who do. Diet culture is all the ways you’ve learned that micromanaging your nutrition and exercise is required in order for you to feel good about yourself. But because diet culture is basically Fight Club, once you realize the absurdity of this, you can start to dismantle it. In this article, I’m going to explore diet culture’s roots, and provide some examples of how it’s slippery, sly self shows up, why it is so toxic, and what you can do to protect yourself from its most harmful outcomes.
What Is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is Western society’s fixation on thinness as an indicator of health, beauty, and moral virtue. This system of beliefs about bodies and eating has weaseled its way into our collective subconscious. It’s caused the majority of us to believe that doing whatever it takes to attain or maintain thinness is just a normal part of life. In some ways, with some people, it has morphed away from a dogged drive for thinness and toward health and wellness as a way of life. But this is just diet culture in disguise.
The problem is that this all happens at the expense of your physical and mental well-being. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes, encourages unrealistic body ideals, and can lead to disordered eating and negative self-esteem.
It has polluted and cheapened the way we think about food. It has damaged our relationships with eating and our bodies. Diet culture exists in the atmosphere and individually in each of our lives, in unique and personal ways.
Just like the other 90% of American women who are unhappy with their bodies, I felt this way to an extremely annoying extent in my teens and twenties, even though I had an objectively “acceptable” body, being straight-sized and having tall, white, able-bodied, Dutch genes. No one escapes the expectation that staying thin, fit, and young holds a ton of worth, but those at the margins of what an acceptable body looks like are harmed to a much larger extent, as I’ll talk about in a bit.
A Brief History of Diet culture
We all know how dramatically the current fad “body goal” has changed over the last 100 years, but there has always been a body type that was “best”. In the Victorian era, plump was preferred and a full figure was considered ideal, attractive, and desirable. This wasn’t for any good reason, however, and was bound up in classism and racism, as is our thin obsession today. Before the 1900s, if you had money, you didn’t have to work hard and you had plenty to eat.
In the years during slavery and large-scale immigration into America, there was a lot of dialogue about which bodies were “more civilized” and which were more “primitive”. This was the beginning of anti-fatness’s association with anti-blackness and the beginning of the diet culture we have today. Because women naturally have more fat on their bodies, this was taken as “proof” that we are more gluttonous, and have less morality. Oofa. What utter bullshit.
The thin ideal has gotten slimmer and slimmer as time has gone on and the rhetoric that thin is more moral, more appropriate, evidence of hard work, and healthy, has infiltrated just about every industry we have. Here are some examples of diet culture showing its toxic nature.
Why is diet culture so toxic?
Diet culture is harmful for the way women live, think about ourselves, and move through the world. We are taught our looks are more important than anything else about us. Men are not taught this. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways in which men are harmed by socialization, this particular one just doesn’t happen to be a strong one for them, unlike emotional expressiveness. Here are severals examples of how diet culture shows up.
The most toxic parts of diet culture
Unrealistic standards of beauty
It’s not hard to tell that our fashion, celebrity, and beauty industries sell harmful and completely impossible beauty standards. The average fashion model is between 5’9″-6″ tall, has a bust between 32″-36″, a 22″-26″ waist and hips between 33″-35″. Crazy! One fourth of all fashion models meet the weight criteria for anorexia.
This is what we are comparing ourselves against, whether we realize it or not. The most problematic thing here is that we are sold the idea that these women are “naturally” this size, that they aren’t starving themselves in order to look this way. But they are. And so many women follow suit and because our culture prizes thinness and the pursuit of thinness, you are praised for your efforts and very rarely are they seen as problematic or dangerous.
Many of my clients tell me they have been praised when they lost weight by their parents, even if this was the time when they were the most miserable they’ve ever been. Their parents stop worrying about their grades, they are assumed to “have it together”.
We equate our worth with our weight
Diet culture tells us that being thin and eating perfectly will make us happier and that “fixing our flaws” will make us more likely to attract a good partner, be more successful, smart, and a host of other unrelated positive qualities. It’s no wonder women want to lose weight! We have been sold the idea that thinness is the magic solution to all of our problems.
But unfortunately, research shows that despite the fact that most women think that getting or staying thin will make them happier, the opposite is true. The more one strives to reach a “body goal”, the more conditional their self-worth becomes and the more their body image takes a hit. Conditional self-worth means that you believe you are a more worthy person if you look a certain way. This is troubling as our bodies continue to change throughout life.
Obsession with weight loss
Our society’s obsession with weight loss is very misguided. As I’ve talked about extensively in other posts, the idea that weight loss will lead to improved health has not been proven to be true. We have zero long term studies showing that weight loss is sustainable and effective long-term – for anyone. We have zero studies showing that more than 3-5% of people are able to keep a significant amount of weight off for more than 2 years. Zero.
There is a correlation between body size and some health parameters, yes. But we do not actually know that it is someone’s weight itself that is causing their improved health markers. It could be their diet, their exercise, their improved sleep, better mood, lack of weight stigma.
Focusing on weight prevents people from developing positive health behaviors like eating well and exercising. Folks who are stuck on the idea that they must lose weight to be healthy, happy, and attractive can easily fall into the trap of believing that eating well and exercising aren’t “worth it” if they’re not producing weight loss.
Stigmatization of body types
Diet culture directly contributes to anti-fat bias and the stigma and discrimination that larger-bodied people experience. This is particularly strong at the intersection of gender, race, social class, ability and health status, and body size. The more we stigmatize larger bodies people, the longer anti-fat bias will run rampant and keep us all afraid of fat.
But the truth is that body diversity is real. We are not all meant to be the same size and shape. If we could just all accept that there is a wide range of healthy bodies, it would be easier to feel confident that lots of bodies are healthy, including your own. And caring for your body makes it easier to make healthy behavior choices.
Commercialization of dieting & bariatric surgery
The diet industry creates repeat customers because the results never last. Most people maintain success after a diet for a short period of time and then the new habits stop sticking, life happens, and the weight comes back on. Then, you guessed it – another diet. This is a brilliant marketing strategy – create a product that is undeniably appealing and that only works for a short time, but is so culturally necessary that they won’t even notice it stops working because they’ll blame themselves. Marketing gold.
And then there’s the bariatric surgery industry. The bariatric surgery industry is expected to be worth $27.64 Billion by 2030.
The idea that you’d be happier if you were thinner is just a smart marketing tactic. All the protein shakes, cauliflower rice, and low calorie foods. All the gym memberships, diet books, and weight watchers memberships.
Of course, the cost of weight loss programs are only a portion of the cost that women pay to be attractive. Skin care, hair color, botox, wrinkle creams, hair removal, facials. I could go on. It’s expensive to be a woman.
Negative impact on physical & mental health
Losing weight and gaining it back, which happens in most dieters, decreases lean body mass, causes blood pressure fluctuations, and can mess with cholesterol and blood sugar – all things that weight loss promises but fails to deliver on.
Folks in larger bodies are more likely to have tried to lose weight compared to straight-sized folks, so these outcomes are more likely to negatively affect them. Weight cycling has actually been shown to account for ALL of the risk associated with being in a larger body. Yes, you read that right. That means that there is little to no risk of being “overweight”, only of trying to lose weight.
Look, I know it’s hard to wrap your head around these facts. I get it.
Fad diets and yo-yo dieting are so common because losing weight is really difficult, only works for a small number of people, and is rarely sustainable. Diet culture and weight cycling also increase the risk for anxiety, depression, and negative body image.
Another toxic outcome of diet culture is the high prevalence of eating disorders among dieters. It’s been shown that positive body image protect girls from developing eating disorders and disordered eating.
Three out of four women in America between the ages of 25-45 have disordered eating. 90% of women are dissatisfied with their body. Research shows that the earlier someone starts dieting, the higher their likelihood of developing and eating disorder, and the higher their risk of unhealthy eating habits.
Eating disorders are deadly. They cause heart palpitations, heart failure, osteoporosis, liver failure, esophageal tears, and esophageal cancer. Those who abuse laxatives can become severely dehydrated. Repeated purging can cause esophageal tears, esophageal cancer, and tooth enamel erosion.
Disordered eating and eating disorders also cause a ton of digestive problems. Over 90% of people with an eating disorder have IBS. Restricting food intake, binging, purging, laxative abuse, and eating in disordered ways (like no carbs, too much fiber, no fat, etc) can all cause constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and a lot of painful acid reflux.
Eating disorder behaviors are prescribed to fat folks
Because the mainstream, weight-centric healthcare system hasn’t yet decided to prioritize mental health, people who are not thin get prescribed really harmful and restrictive diets all the time.
Medically supervised weight loss diets are not special – they do not have a longer or larger success rate. People at the higher end of the weight spectrum are recommended all sorts of crazy restrictive diets, calorie amounts that put the body into starvation mode.
If doctors were screening people for eating disorders before they recommended weight loss, I think we’d see a little bit of improvement, as long as they weren’t discriminating who they screen based on body size. According to Jennifer Gaudiani, MD, atypical anorexia, which is a misnomer because it is much more prevalent that typical anorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder in which the patient has all the same behaviors and physical manifestations of anorexia, except the low body weight.
Complicit with systems of oppression
One of the most toxic examples of diet culture’s destruction is how it keeps us all complicit with the many systems of oppression that created it. Our obsession with thinness is rooted in the patriarchy, in racism, in transphobia, and ableism. We cannot dismantle our obsession with thinness and perfectionism if we don’t explore why we are so tethered to them.
I know that it can be deeply uncomfortable to confront your belief system about bodies and look at the way you quietly judge people. But you are actually not to blame! You can look at the ways you’ve contributed to systems of oppression without blaming yourself, I know you can. Just being willing to look honestly at your thought patterns is a wonderful, beautiful, and powerful step toward freedom for all of us.
Examples of toxic diet culture today
Social media (let me count the ways)
Despite the body positivity movement being active on social media, diet culture is still in full force. Research shows that TikTok promotes negative body image.. This study looked at the hashtag #healthylifesyle and found that is actually promoting unrealistic food and body ideals and creating negative body image.
Another study conducted in Fiji found that when teenagers were shown American television programs developed negative body image, eating disorder behaviors like purging, and comparison with peers.
I have a lot of fury about the way that middle school gym teachers and coaches treat kids. Kids get the message that if they don’t have the right body type, they are not cut out for the sport. If a kid isn’t the fastest, the stongerst, the best, the fittest, they are subtley discouraged from participating. I know this isn’t true for all coaches, and thank god.
I’m sure there are some super awesome ones out there. And I hope that was your experience. But I hear every day about how kids relationships with food, exercise, or their body were greatly damaged by some over-zealous gym coach and it just makes me furious.
Maybe you’ve heard this from me before, but being weighed at the doctor’s office is only occasionally medically necessary. Being told to lose weight before being asked about your diet and exercise habits is diet culture to a T. Our healthcare system is rife with anti-fat bias and diet culture. Unsolicited weight loss advice from a doctor is actually not good medical care. This causes folks to delay or avoid preventative healthcare or the doctor’s office all together. This also causes folks in larger bodies to not get the care they need until their conditions are more advanced and harder to treat.
We gatekeep surgical procedures like knee replacements until people lose weight. We force people to lose weight until they can access fertility treatments.
Clothing lines and fashion
The fashion industry plays a significant role in shaping and perpetuating diet culture, primarily through its promotion of specific body ideals that often align with thinness and a highly curated and hard-to-maintain aesthetic. Clothing size availability is a direct way that diet culture harm folks in larger bodies. This lack of inclusivity not only marginalizes those who wear larger sizes but also subtly encourages the pursuit of weight loss in order to easily access more diverse and fun clothing options. Bright colors, patterns, and fun materials should be available for anyone who wants them – not only for the genetically blessed.
It’s true that more brands and designers are now embracing diverse body types – this is great! Many brands are challenging traditional beauty standards, and advocating for a healthier, more inclusive approach to body image.
Oprah and the Ozempic craze
We are in a very confusing era when it comes to weight loss due to this class of diabetes drugs being used off-label for weight loss. This is a pretty complicated topic, but what I see with my clients is that these drugs act exactly like a diet, the only exception being that their appetite is changed to make the restriction easier.
If you’ve been on a path to heal your relationship with food and your body, just know that taking this drug may help you lose weight, but it will not help you dismantle how toxic diet culture is.
Parents over-monitoring their kids sugar intake
This is a sly one. I’m not trying to throw parents under the bus here – I know it is really hard to raise kids. And it can be even more complicated if your relationship with food is not great and if you’re very worried about your diet and body. Being overly strict with your kids sugar intake is diet culture disguised as care for your kids health.
How to fight against toxic diet culture
Now that we’ve explored many examples of diet culture in our society, here are some tips that can help you fight back against it and find more peace with your body.
Learn how to spot a diet
Let’s be clear – a diet is basically any eating plan, list of rules or regulation, or snake oil supplement, cleanse or detox, or just a low-key plan to only eat carbs at dinner – who’s goal is to make you thinner.
There are so many sneaky diets out there these days that are trying to disguise themselves as “healthy lifestyle” plans. Don’t be fooled. According to a fellow non-diet dietitian who has done a lot of research about Noom, they actively target people in eating disorder recovery!
I wholeheartedly agree with Christine that Noom is particularly problematic because they co-opt intuitive eating language and then sell you weight loss packed with the anti-diet message. This makes my blood boil.
When Noom first came out, it came up as the first link when I googled “intuitive eating”! Ughhhh.
Be conscious about diet talk with your community – and opt out!
It is undeniably hard to go against the crowd, but so worth it. The workplace seems to be a particularly annoying place where diet culture pops up. Maybe it’s all the small talk. Groups of female friends who are all very thin and white are also a hotbed of diet culture chatter.
If your family and friends talk a lot about diets, about who lose weight and who gained it, notice this so you can choose to disengage. I wrote an article about a client of mine who did an excellent job at this. I recommend reading this if you have a hunch there are some folks in your life you need to set diet talk boundaries with.
Learn about how diet culture is based on systems of oppression
Become aware of your body privilege and lack thereof. White women need to become conscious of the ways in which black women’s bodies are patrolled and harmed. Black women have additional layers of appearance-based standards they are expected to follow, from their hair to the clothing they wear to their body size.
Women without chronic health conditions should become aware of the stigma that women with chronic health conditions may face. They could easily be blamed for “bringing it on themselves”, which the research very much does not show.
And no matter who you are, you need to be aware of how larger bodied people are treated and use sensitivity.
Stand up for fat people
This could look like advocating for your friend at a restaurant when they try and seat your group in a booth. Don’t wait for your friend, who will not be comfortable in a booth, have to speak up for themselves. Let the host know that you need to be seated somewhere where all of you will be comfortable.
Curate your social media feed
I’ll say this one a million times. It is not worth it to keep following people who advocate for thinness as a worthy goal. Any accounts that post before and after pictures, those who are telling you ways to cut calories or carbs in order to get lean or trim, and absoteluyl anyone who is making fun of fat folks.
Then you can add some amazing fat activists and non-diet accounts to your feed, those who focus on science-based nutrition tips, not only those that are going to help you adhere to a very narrow definition of beauty and health.
Download my free resource guide here for more ideas on staying connected to anti-diet community.
Find anti-diet community
I cannot tell you how much I think we need friends on this path with us. If you exist in a friend group where everyone is striving for beauty and perfection constantly – and you can feel it – it might be wise to try and find some friends who actively do not talk about this.
People who don’t assume that botox is best, aren’t always hacking themselves to look younger, thinner, more appealing to men. These women are out there and I know you can find them.
They prioritize other aspects of being a women and being human. I created my 6-month group coaching program, The Love Food Again Program, as a way to create community for women wanting to dismantle their obsession with thinness and find a step-by-step approach for finding peace with food. Read more here and join the waitlist for the next enrollment period.
Try intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is a self-care framework for learning to listen to your body instead of diet culture. If you’re currently eating in ways that do not feel good to you, maybe binge eating or emotionally eating often, or maybe you’re just constantly worried about what you’re eating, you could benefit from working on your relationship with food.
I think of Intuitive Eating like a practice, not a set of rules. It is a handful of tips that you can remember to practice as often as fits into your life. Stop ignoring your hunger signals, prioritize your nutritional self-care, practice mindfulness when you eat, and drop the food rules.
Engage in joyful movement
Diet culture teaches us that the only exercise worth doing is the kind that will change your body into one more “ideal” and enviable. Not only does this often suck the joy right out of movement, but it can easily cause folks to stop exercising all together. Exercise should not be punishment or be completely abandoned because it’s not “going to count”.
Put your focus on exercise being pleasurable and connecting you to your body. Check in with yourself while you’re exercising to make sure you’re still feeling good. Find body positive fitness groups or gyms. Pay attention to your limits and don’t push yourself somewhere that will cause harm or cause you to enjoy it less. Pushing yourself a little bit is okay, but do learn your limits.
Focus on the non-aesthetic things that are wonderful about you
This may be my favorite on this list. There are so many wonderful things about you that have nothing to do with the way you look. Lean into these.
Are there hobbies you’ve let fall to the wayside because they won’t make you thinner? What about art classes? Do you need to find some new friends that prioritize other things that you love, like books or music or art? Spend time enjoying nature, your spiritual side, or something related to your work or intellectual endeavors.
It may be hard for you to locate these things because of all the time spent dieting and focusing on that. Diet culture truly takes away our brain space that we could be cultivating other hobbies. If you’re not sure where to start, get out a pen and a paper and free write. Make a list of 50 things that you might find interesting, or that you have in your past. Then pick 3 out of them that you want to try this year. And do it.
To sum up, diet culture is a huge can of harmful cultural expectations that get baked into our subconscious. It can be really hard to dismantle this way of thinking, but it is absolutely possible and very, very much in favor of health. Learn to stop all the sneaky ways that diet culture is actually very toxic. This will help you get mad at it and leave it behind. If you’re ready to get some guidance on how to get free of all this, while caring for your overall health and well-being, let’s work together!
I help people in all bodies find peace and confidence with food. I’d love to be your guide. Book an appointment to get started.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.