What is Diet Culture?
On any given day- I’m that girl dilly dallying or in cahoots with my favorite Italian entree or the largest slice of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen. Can I have some ice cream with that please? At 32 years, I am confident about my food choices. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend 32 years getting to know diet culture and its demeaning tone on a first name basis!
Diet culture, like any culture, is a groups shared system of beliefs and customs.You and I experience culture daily. Most of us exist within many cultures- including interest groups, religious affiliations, etc. However, it’s probably not all that often we stop and reflect on how society is influencing our everyday behaviors and choices, especially when it comes to food.
Diet culture often demands we change our values and beliefs to fit societal expectation. While diet culture is often disguised in good intentions, I would like to offer A few words of caution here:
- Diet culture does not discriminate -your economic status or ethnicity is irrelevant to the system.
- Diet Culture is like an abusive partner, it tags along in every pursuit in our lives.
- It doesn’t care about your mental welfare. If we do not identify the toxic nature and re-frame our thinking, we can easily begin to bully ourselves and others into unhealthy and even harmful behavior.
Our experiences with diet culture often happen on a subconscious level, so they are challenging to identify.
What Makes Diet Culture Powerful?
For cultural norms to hold meaning for members- traditions must be consistent, repeated, and hold social significance. Members often feel a sense of self worth by engaging in acceptable actions of a culture. A combination of social belonging and fostering self efficacy for individual success makes diet culture powerful. These are some reasons why:
- Eating food is probably one of the most frequent things we will do in our lifetime. Having a repetitive experience with food shapes our day to day behavior as well as our interactions with peers and family.
- Food is one of the first cultural experiences we will have! Thus it is our longest standing behavior and cultural custom. Food introduction often begins as early as four months of age.
- Everyone has an opinion on and experiences to share about food. Not all of these opinions and experiences are positive or healthy, but we can almost always find someone that shares them! Therefore our food behaviors are reinforced, good or bad.
Foods vary across culture, as do eating customs and meal timing. In fact very few things surrounding food are untrained. This ranges from the foods we eat, how we eat it, and what we believe about it.
When Can I Expect to Learn About Diet Culture?
Developing cultural constructs surrounding dietiting can come in many forms. It typically starts young (especially for girls). Signals encouraging dieting may be frequent. For example it may look like-
- Mom or sisters in the mirror noting every “negative” aspect of her anatomy. This sets an early expectations for how a human being “ought” to appear.
- Discussing shapes and numbers as a rule of thumb for health versus healthy eating, proper hygiene and physical activity.
- Early Introduction to “good” and bad” and “off limits” foods as children.
- Off-limit foods include specific macro-nutrient groups (for example fats or carbs are off limits)
- Advocating for severe restriction in calories
- Advocating for excessive physical activity
The rules of diet culture are often simple– lower numbers are “better” and the “shape” you ought to always be in is small. I was primed to understand diet culture by learning the customs and language early on. I am sure I am not alone here.
At a young age I was taught to let a food label tell me what to do and how to eat rather than my body. I was taught to examine myself in the mirror regularly to identify any body parts that may contain “problem areas.” I was taught appropriate social interactions always involved discussing weight and food trends.
What are Some Examples of Diet Culture?
When I was a teen, the cool kids talked about diets. I noticed my friends regularly checked labels for fat, cut out carbs, or stopped eating anything that wasn’t Jenny Craig.
It seemed like the hottest girls in school were dressed in “losing 5 pounds.” Naturally, I wanted to lose 5 pounds too! The unfortunate reality in this scenario is- I ABSOLUTELY DID NOT NEED TO LOSE 5 POUNDS! And really, I would now argue that nobody really NEEDS to. What I meant to say was, my losing 5 lbs would’ve been downright dangerous.
At the age of 16 when I was trying out to be in the cool kids talk diet all day club I was 5’8” and 110 pounds. I wanted to cut lunch with my friends, mostly just so I would have something to talk about!
What Some Dieting Dangers?
One of the things that makes diet culture so powerful is that it is a collective effort. Thus, we have many people supporting and affirming a single idea. This is true regardless of supporting research is associated with each crazy new food trend.
Since EVERYONE has experience with food, we can often easily find others with similar ideas about food-even if our ideas do not support good health.
When diet culture fosters harmful ideas surrounding food, we may find a sense of community and moral support for our crazy diet plans.. Some examples of harmful behaviors that may be reinforced by community include:
- Extreme restriction in calories
- Cutting out food groups which can contain essential vitamins and minerals (for example, I don’t eat anything with sugar).
- Advocating for excessive exercise which may lead to injury, malnutrition, or low blood sugars.
- Use of laxatives, exercise, or purging for punishment of consuming food
One of the most common contributors for disordered eating is dieting at an early age. More information about this can be found in the article Diet Fads and Eating Disorders
Further, restricting calories and food groups can significantly impact our mood and ability to think clearly. This can further heighten our need to feel welcome in a group, and amplify the power of diet culture. You can find more about the role of food on mood Here.
What Has our Culture Taught us about Food?
At some point in our lives, we stopped trusting our bodies when it came to food. Society has taught us many mixed messages about food including:
- Using food as a reward system
- Eating as the main focus in social settings
- Associating food with entertainment (e.g. watching films or using social media)
We begin to develop anxiety surrounding food at a young age. For example, we may utilize video games or reading to distract ourselves from the food we’re eating. We teach ourselves early on to distrust our bodies with our food choices. Eating, the essence of our life source is too frequently becomes an afterthought.
What's in a number? Is there any value to discussing weight?
This afternoon I scarfed down an entire veggie pizza *sips beer.* As a dietitian, I have intricate formula’s which help me to prescribe number recommendations in the form of calories to patients.
Calorie recommendations are based on weight and height and a heap of other metabolic factors. They certainly work sort of okay to determine nutrient needs! But like captain Barbossa quotes in Pirates of the Carribean “the rules are more like guidelines.” That also applies to scientific calculations the prescribe calories.
Numbers like weight and calorie prescriptions can sometimes tell us a little bit about our needs, and many times tell us NOTHING! As a registered dietitian with no rules, Diet culture would HATE most of my choices! Here’s why:
- I’m a carb lovin’ fool and most days the number of calories I consume far exceeds what science would prescribe as my needs. I don’t match a prototype!
- Tomorrow my number on the scale will be 125. Ten years ago it was 120. I’m quite confident neither of these numbers are better. All it tells me is that like everything else in life-my body will change. Cool!
- In addition to a number on the scale, I also have a phone number and a number of cats. These numbers tell me diddly squat about my health. Pretty much just like my number on the scale.
- There are better numbers to pay attention to for health than calorie prescriptions and scale digits. these would include things like blood sugar, cholesterol and other bio-markers.
Ironically, while diet culture is seemingly obsessed with numbers it typically completely ignores the ones that are actually important for health!
How do I stop dieting and start eating normally?
We need to learn to trust our bodies and not the noise outside in order to normalize eating behavior. Believe it or not, our bodies are very good at distinguishing what and when it needs to consume nutrients. However, our body can only determine what it needs if our behavior and environment allow for this.
To set ourselves up for normalizing eating behavior we should remember that a little of something is better than a lot of nothing. We ought to avoid all-or-nothing thinking to help us achieve our health goals.
Diet culture often focuses all-or-nothing thinking, leaving the impression that a single easy behavior change will lead you to your goals (for example, just cut out carbs). In reality, our bodies and nutrient needs are much more complicated than isolating any single nutrient or activity to manipulate.
Identify Diet Culture-It often identifies an end goal!
My dad, a musician always used to say “practice makes practice.” What he meant is, perfection is impossible, and we ought to enjoy the experience rather than continuing to pursue an end goal. We cannot hope to resume normal eating until we stop connecting our choices to an “end goal.”
Spoiler alert- eating has no “end goal.” There isn’t a day where we are just where we want to be weight or dietary wise and nothing again ever changes. To normalize eating behavior and stop dieting, try setting small realistic goals and practicing them over and over again. This might include trying one new meal each week or pulling back out some old favorite recipes.
Ways to love your body
I Encourage you to practice body positivity and ditch diet culture by doing the following:
- Ask yourself how you feel about your body
- Determine what you can change or can’t change realistically through diet and exercise
- Ask yourself what you like about your body
- Notice positive things your body can do and write them down (for example arms can lift children, legs can carry you to do daily tasks, nose allows us to breathing-the vitality of life )
What are your experiences with dieting and body image?
You can find some fantastic additional ways to appreciate your body Here.
What have been your experiences with diet culture? What are some ways you choose to love your body? We are all exposed to cultural practices surrounding food, but the way in which we experience these can be a positive or negative experience. I encourage you to think critically about partaking in fad diets, and look at the ways in which social pressures may be causing you to adopt harmful health behaviors.