Understanding the extremes of diet culture
‘Diet culture’ comes from the viewpoint that we need to focus on how our bodies look, and the numbers that go along with that. Don’t let labels and superficial judgements keep you from being your best.
Our society’s obsession with small and thin can be destructive to women and even young girls. Those who don’t fit certain stereotypes can lose their appreciation for their own bodies and even their self respect. They become
out of touch with themselves. This is not the path to health.
There’s a term for this extreme view-point—diet culture. It’s a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal
health choices as moral character. It focuses on and values weight, shape,
and size over health and well-being. Diet culture sends us daily messages shifting our focus to our bodies, numbers, and weight loss—all which are external factors. The concentration is on changing or fixing perceived flaws or parts of us. This can hurt us and create body image issues, low self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviours, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) states that adolescent girls who diet have a three times greater risk for obesity than those who do not. Their research also shows that dieting for weight loss is often associated with weight gain, due to the increased incidence of binge-eating.
Dieting is linked to body dissatisfaction resulting from comparing your body with what diet culture teaches you is the “ideal.” Anxiety and depression may also develop from constant dieting as well as self-harming behaviours like alcohol abuse and induced vomiting.
Dieting can also impact physical health. Studies show that yo-yo dieting, also known as weight cycling, can lead to muscle loss and actually increase your body fat percentage and overall weight long-term. That said, a focus on healthy nutrition is a key part of your overall health. Adopting a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise and eating intuitively by listening to your body’s internal cues will improve your health regardless of your
Just because you go on a diet or have the desire to lose weight does not
mean you are shameful about your body. Not all dieting efforts or weight
loss attempts lead to negative impacts, but it’s important to recognize the potential damaging effects of diet culture.
Moving towards body acceptance
Identifying diet culture is part of moving away from its hold
Diet culture is part of mainstream culture, even in health care. Most of us have been part of conversations or overheard language like, “Oh, I ate so
bad this weekend.” Other examples include programs that claim to “fix” or
shrink you to that “beach/bikini body.”
There’s a fine line in the health and well ness industry between promoting actual health, which we all want and need, and promoting a feeling of superiority for eating a certain way—or preying on our fears.
Diet culture is driven by cues like setting limits or rules, passing judgement on others’ food choices or body size and believing in the need to “earn” or “work off” your food/calories. This culture includes forms of discrimination that have a negative impact on social and economic well-being due to social stigma. Being told you need to be smaller to be more attractive or attain-
able, being marginalized at work due to your size, and the false story that weight loss is a cure for all health conditions play a role in diet culture.
Fire and rewire
The problem with diet culture is that it leads us to believe we are not good
enough or never fulfilled or complete until we reach a certain size, weight, or shape. This has a heavy cultural component. Images of the ideal female body have shifted throughout history, sometimes rapidly. In many cultures, it wasn’t considered feminine to exercise. Or rather, lack of exercise showed you were part of the upper classes. This went for men as well.
There are many paths to improving health and feeling better in your body.
Give up trying to control your body, stop measuring your value and health
by appearance, and make peace with yourself. Surround yourself with people who support you. You want any positive changes you make to come from the inside—from your own personal values and goals.
We have been told our bodies need to change and diet culture has made
a lot of false promises to us. Pressure, shame, and lies are part of the diet culture team.
Certain products, including some supplements, have a legitimate role in a healthy lifestyle. They have been endorsed by science and work well for some people. Other products are fads, and will be gone once they are tested
by researchers and found lacking. The ultimate goal in firing diet culture
is knowing you were already awesome in the first place. You need to be able to identify diet culture and any negative attitudes you have about your own body.
You need to get to a place of self-love. You are in charge of this process and you are the solution. Fire andrewire diet culture and feel what it’s like to be the boss of your own body. Empower yourself and lead by example through a mind-body approach.
Alter how you speak to others about your own body and theirs. When you engage in conversation, be intentional with your language and help others recognize diet culture messages. Compliment others without bringing bodies or weight into it. Indeed, well-intentioned compliments about weight or body size can actually be more damaging than no compliments at all.
Avoid talking about diets and putting your-self and others down. And don’t allow others to put themselves down. Speak up and model the healthy behaviours to help shift the culture.
Practice body acceptance meditations. Center your mind around affirming
thoughts, be in the present moment, and practice non-judgemental observation of your body. This will help support a healthy relationship with your body.
Become aware of your thoughts by recognizing self-talk of diet culture and
reframing them. Notice and interrupt negative thoughts and replace them
with appreciation for what your body can do. This will gently shift your relationship with your body to believing that your body is worthy of care.
Seek out resources to learn from experts. Books like Health at Every Size, and The Body is Not an Apology and Body of Truth are great examples. Pod-
casts that focus on accepting your body and stories shared by others
working to unlearn old diet programming can be inspiring and encouraging as you work on your own. Curate your social media by unfollowing accounts that negatively impact your mental health. Follow people who are promoting and living body acceptance. Challenging #fitspiration messages to be wary of their narrative and taking a media break are other options
to separate from diet mentality.
Expand your view. Look for body diversity, people of every size, shape, colour and gender. There is no one specific type of body.
Look for examples of diet culture. Practice identifying it. When you recognize it, you can detach and feel more in control. Exercising your freedom of choice and knowing you aren’t being manipulated can create a sense of empowerment and build resiliency.
Change how you think about food and how you eat by way of intuitive eating. Learn how to tune into your signals of hunger, appetite and feelings of fullness.
Explore new ways to exercise and move your body in a way that feels
right for you. Discovering what feels good for you can help you learn how to follow your body’s sensations to know what it needs and begin appreciating it.
Do that thing! Don’t wait. Go ahead and sign up for that event or attend that
thing you have been putting off. Wear the clothes that make you feel like the rock star you are. Waiting on a particular weight, shape or size is part of diet cultures’ grip on you. Take back the power and experience life as you are now!
More Inspiration: You might also find this informative article on 12 steps to dealing with the quarantine (or any major crisis) helpful.
The information in this article is not intended as treatment or advice for an eating disorder or any other health condition.
If you are struggling with disordered eating behaviors or believe your health to be in danger, please call a licensed mental health professional or physician as soon as possible.
Support resource: NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Center)
“We believe that through open, supportive dialogue, we can help break the shame, stigma and silence that affect nearly 1 million Canadians living with a diagnosable disorder – and the millions of others who are struggling with food and weight preoccupation.“
Instant chat is available from 9 am to 9 pm Monday-Thursday and Friday 9 am – 5 pm. Emails will be answered during those hours.
The NEDIC helpline (1-866-NEDIC-20) and 416-340-4156) will be open from 11 am to 7 pm Monday – Thursday and Friday 11 am – 5 pm. All times EST.
Author: Doris Ward is a nationally recognized fitness professional, workshop facilitator, and an award-winning personal trainer. As a coach and yoga instructor, she also leads body image and goal-setting workshops and yoga classes for chronic pain management and for those recovering from trauma. She is trained in Mindfulness, Yoga for Trauma, Coaching, Body Positivity, Peer Support Group Facilitation, and Mental Health First Aid. She has been certified as a Yoga Instructor, Pilates Instructor, Personal Trainer, Schwinn Cycling Instructor, and Group Fitness Instructor. Doris is a regular contributor of OptiMYz magazine. You can find Doris at ForTheLoveofFitnessPEI.