Disclaimer: the following article discusses the harmful effects of “diet culture,” wherein diet and exercise is used to achieve weight loss for aesthetic purposes by whatever means necessary, and should not be interpreted to apply to diets prescribed by medical professionals to help treat or alleviate symptoms of certain health conditions.
After the whirlwind that was 2020, many of us are entering the new year still processing, healing, and learning how best to cope with this not-so-new-anymore normal. Hopefully, with this in mind, we can be gentler with ourselves in 2021, swapping out strict resolutions and goals for guiding intentions. Pandemic or not, though, one thing has not changed – January is still prime time for harmful messaging around diet and exercise. To be clear, setting an intention to eat more nutritious foods and incorporate more enjoyable movement into our lives is a great thing, but “diet culture” is an entirely different beast.
First, let’s talk about what we’re referring to when we say “diet culture,” which is a system of beliefs and practices that glorifies one “ideal” body type (typically thin for women and muscular for men) and prioritizes achieving this ideal body over our physical and mental wellbeing. Logically, it’s not difficult to see why this is problematic, but diet culture’s messaging is everywhere and it can oftentimes be so subtle and insidious that it sneaks into our minds without us even noticing. Diet culture can include messaging like:
You have to “earn” eating treats by restricting food intake and exercising religiously in the weeks or months leading up to the holidays.
You need to work off holiday treats by participating in a 30 day fitness challenge.
Countdowns that warn of a fast-approaching “bikini season.”
Labelling some foods as “guilty pleasures” and others as “guilt free.”
Again: there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat a balanced diet or reap the benefits of regular exercise, but it is important to understand what makes diet culture so toxic, and be able to identify it when we see it in action.
Diet culture practices aren’t sustainable
Whether it’s a fad diet that relies on restricting certain food groups and counting calories or an exercise regimen that demands you wake up at 5 AM 6 days a week, diet culture was not created with real life in mind. Many diets aren’t sustainable because reducing caloric intake or restricting food groups can be bad for your body and could be dangerous in the long term. They might also be simply too restrictive and easy to quit. Taking the fun out of eating by being forced to eat foods you don’t enjoy makes it too easy to throw in the towel sooner than later.
Diet culture sets unrealistic expectations
The reality is that even if we all ate exactly the same foods and had the exact same exercise regimens, we would all still have different bodies and we would all still look entirely unique. No matter how hard someone may workout or how much they may restrict their food intake, they may never be able to achieve the body that society has convinced them they ought to have. Diet culture ignores the fact that genetics has far more to do with our weight, weight distribution, and body type than diet and exercise ever will. And even if someone does manage to obtain the body they’ve been striving for, diet culture’s work is never done: there’s always a new goal, a new fad diet, or a new trendy form of exercise we’re all expected to keep up with. It’s important to remember that the so-called wellness industry is just that: an industry. It can’t profit off of people who feel satisfied with their bodies or like they’ve reached their fitness goals, meaning it relies on a never-good-enough mentality.
Diet culture equates weight with health, worth, and virtue
Yes, it’s true that eating nutritious foods and getting regular enjoyable exercise can have positive effects on our mental health but, as we’ve discussed above, taking care of your body doesn’t mean that you’ll look like whoever’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this month – and that’s because our health does not determine our weight and vice versa. Furthermore, especially in the fitness world, the concept of being strong willed, committed, motivated or determined is huge. Diet culture tells us that if you aren’t able to achieve the ideal that society has set for you, it’s not a problem with the ideal itself, but a problem with you not trying hard enough. With goals that are usually unattainable despite how much effort one puts in, this messaging is bound to (and actually designed to) make us feel badly about ourselves.
Diet culture is a slippery slope
Finally, diet culture is dangerous because it can lead to disordered eating. Diets often create strict rules for us to follow: counting calories, no food after 7pm, intermittent fasting, biohacking, no “cheat” foods, no foods belonging to a certain food group, the list goes on. When we believe that our self-worth is tied to how much we weigh, it becomes easy to prioritize and even obsess over following these rules at all costs. Especially when it seems like dieting isn’t “working” (see: leading to significant weight loss), some may feel the need to create rules that are more and more extreme, and less and less flexible. With eating disorders being the deadliest of all mental health conditions, ditching diet culture can be lifesaving.
Pushing back and living healthfully
Unlearning all of the harmful ideas we’ve come to internalize around diet and exercise isn’t an overnight thing, but there are some things you can do to start moving away from diet culture:
Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel less-than, or use guilt and shame to try and “motivate” its followers. Find some accounts centred around intuitive eating instead, which teaches us how to listen to our bodies and build a relationship with food that is as kind to our minds as it is our bodies.
Watch your language – even if it’s said in a joking way, the way we talk about things influences the way we think about them (and it can also be hurtful to those around us.) For example, avoid using language that assigns moral value to food (“guilt-free,” “naughty”) or implies that you’re doing something wrong by eating food you enjoy (“ugh, I know I shouldn’t eat this but I’m going to… I’m so bad!”)
If you’ve been struggling with your relationship with food, exercise, and/or your body and it’s been getting in the way of your life you may want to consider reaching out to a professional, whether that’s a therapist or a nutritionist. We all need help with unlearning harmful beliefs and attitudes at times, and there’s no shame in getting the support you need.