What is diet culture?

What is diet culture?

The start of a new year can be an overwhelming time for advertisements and commercials regarding weight loss or dieting. Many morning news or talk shows are currently featuring segments geared at “swapping” your favorite foods for healthier versions or trying to show you more ways to work out and lose weight.

It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. We’re being told repeatedly that we must shrink ourselves and become smaller in order to fit a nonsense beauty ideal. Not only that, we’re being taught that enjoying foods is wrong and bad. This creates a fear-based mentality around food and gives it far too much power over our lives.

All of these things are part of something called “diet culture.” Here’s how I define diet culture:

  • Constant negative messaging surrounding our bodies and our food choices.

  • The use of shame or guilt to inspire feelings of self-hatred when it comes to food.

  • Promoting thinness as the beauty ideal everyone should be trying to attain.

  • Companies promoting products or “plans” designed to take your money while convincing you to feel bad about yourself.

  • Putting foods in “good” or “bad” categories which creates a dichotomy in our minds of what we’re allowed to eat and what we should avoid.

Here’s how Christy Harrison, an anti-diet dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor, defines “diet culture”:

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

  • Oppresses people who don't match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health. 

You don’t have to be actively on a diet to be participating in diet culture; it’s pervasive and has reached into nearly every corner of our lives. And lately, it’s become even sneakier.

Do you follow friends or influencers on social media who are always promoting “eating clean” or participating in a cleanse? Do they cut out carbs or sugar or gluten or dairy, even though they haven’t taken any medical tests that prove they’re sensitive to those elements? Do they post about needing to lose weight in order to do something new with their life (i.e. fit into some new jeans, go on a vacation, etc)? These people are promoting what’s collectively known as the “wellness diet” — which is still a diet, folks. It’s still a way to restrict and confine your life by judging your food choices and overall lifestyle. It puts the green juices/yoga retreats/açaí bowls on a pedestal, leaving no room for errors or for being human. More on that later.

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