Diet Culture Definition
Diet cultures cornerstone is a value on thinness above all else. It glorifies altering ones body weight, shape and size to fit its hearty demands and feed the system of oppression.
Sociology or anthropology might define culture as the shared language, customs, beliefs, and collective identities of a group of people.
Cultural ideals are generally passed from one generation to the next.
Diet culture, while harmful, is no less fueled by the same rigor, passion and enthusiasm as one may experience in any cultural affiliation.
If we want to ditch diet culture-we must first be able to identify it and expose it at every layer.
Diet Culture Exposure
I spent my first 4 years in the university studying anthropology. I began to examine subcultures existing within westernized societies.
My capstone assignment: dissect the interworking cultural components of the weight watchers local chapter.
I meandered into my first weight watchers meeting a seemingly innocent bystander.
Before I knew it- I was experiencing what us anthropologists know as going native.
- I was obsessed with how everyone in the room worked together to solve a common problem-eradicating body weight.
- I longed to connect with the women in the room who promised to soothe my body and soul if I only worshipped what I did or didn’t put into my mouth.
- I lingered in the simplicity of a cookie cutter, easy-fix solution for any problem that could reduce the need to nourish the body with food.
I suddenly learned that ALL things in the world could be solved by simply coming together with my peers to punish our pesky bodies for doing what they had evolved to do for thousands of years-keep us safe with body weight.
Diet culture IS culture. Diet culture holds its power in the ability to connect individuals through a shared customs and rituals.
Diet Culture Is Sneaky
Admired principles that uphold diet culture include:
You don’t see diet culture coming- because it disguised itself within highly valued ideals such as working hard, honoring the body, and sharing ideas of wellbeing.
We can’t fight something we can’t fully identify!
The Layers of Diet Culture
America prides itself on individualism. The person that can “do it all all by themselves” is typically seen as a gold standard in the United States.
This individualism mindset also supports remanning isolated in our thoughts, emotions, and communication.
This individualistic thinking is hands down one of diet cultures GREATEST accomplishments.
Diet culture tells us- if you can’t do it all (Be thin, financially successful, healthy, there for your children’s every need, and academically competent) YOU have failed-not the system.
Further, a compliant member of diet culture won’t discuss their thoughts about any shortcomings they have in meeting the systems demands.
Diet cultures sets them up to believe it’s THEIR fault they failed to meet demands of thinness unattainable for most people, not the shortcomings of the weight centric system.
Perfectionism and Diet Culture.
Diet culture is soooo sneaky if we start only on the surface or with visibly observable components we will likely miss the problem in its entirety.
I like to think of “diet thoughts” as being the pervasive thoughts that manifest in our body and souls but never fully completed.
For example we might say to ourselves “I need to be thinner,” But we never stop to dissect what that truly means. For example:
- What is the value of thinness?
- Who benefits from me changing my body weight shape or size?
- Who am I achieving thinness for?
- Will being thinner improve the quality of my life? In which ways?
- Is there something I could do that would be more valuable to my life than the pursuit of thinness (for example, getting ahead in my career or playing with my kids)?
It’s almost impossible to cannot close the loop on a diet culture question.
We’re often left dwelling on unattainable aspirations until our day is spent, we’ve tossed money at the problem, and we’ve dismantled our closest relationships to achieve a goal we often can’t even fully describe the value in pursuing.
How Diets Promise Control
In diet culture language this translated to something like “If I am thin I will show others that I’m in complete control of my body and life.”
Nobody stops to think that what we’re actually doing when we are attempting to gain control by appeasing others-we’re literally the puppets in the system. We’re literally the ones that are BEING controlled-not the other way around.
I’ve meandered through this world in a thin body (genetically).
With this, I’m well aware of the social advantages extended to me merely based on my body weight, shape, and size.
Throughout my life I experienced
- 90% of the conversations I engaged in being about body weight shape and size.
- Body weight, shape, and size being the first thing addressed about me in any encounter
- The ability to choose clothing at any store to fit my body
- Being able to go to the doctor and be treated for my actual medical problem rather than simply scolded and dismissed for needing to lose weight.
Who Gets To Dismantle Diet Culture:
Every one of us has a role in dismantling fat phobia.
Those of us in thin bodies have not experienced the same oppression or had the same experiences as those living in larger bodies who can advocate against the harms of diet culture from first hand experiences.
However, those with thin privilege have the unique ability to advocate for those in bodies of all sizes by delivering the message to ditch diet culture. We have the ability to deliver powerful messages that those others who are heavily weight centric may not be ready to receive by someone they are biased against in a fat body.
Everyone has a role in advocating to ditch diet culture.
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 repetitive experiences 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.
- 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 we can collaborate with about our beliefs about food. Therefore our food beliefs and behaviors are reinforced, good or bad.
What Are Some Examples of 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.
- 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
- A focus on “health” being the end all be all for living a good life. An aspiration everyone with any self worth MUST pursue.
What Are Diet Culture Rules?
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.
Healthism Definition-And Why It's a Problem.
A further endorsement of diet culture begins in our healthcare sector.
Healthcare sectors are often littered with oppressive weight stigma.
A common message in healthcare- Smaller is better. And if you can’t get smaller by the doctors orders YOU have failed (not the healthcare infrastructure).
This is really convenient for providers needing a “quick fix” in their 15 minute allowed time slots for patient sessions. .
You might be feeling ripped off right now. But what if I told you this actually isn’t the practitioners fault?
How is Weight Centric Healthcare Harmful?
The practitioner is simply unintentionally part of a system of oppression rooted in hundreds of years of systemic racism and capitalism. One which was intentionally designed to uphold weight centric biases.
As someone who holds 4 science degrees, I have a huge respect for evidence based research in healthcare.
However, there are some flaws when it comes to measurements of how weight impacts health in science.
Flaws With Science Based Research On Weight
- Evidence based research only measures one single variable at a time. So if that variable is “weight and chronic disease” it is ignoring all other variables including socioeconomic status, employment, stress and genetic markers.
- I see many studies touting “60% of Americans are overweight or obese.” The researcher then moves onto conclude that we see the most chronic diseases in overweight or obese individuals. For the life of me I cannot understand how practitioners don’t read this information and say “wait a minute- if the 60% of of a population is ANYTHING obviously its going to have the greatest prevalence of chronic conditions-simply by sheer volume.”
- Studies on weight and disease do not measure for eating disorders and weight cycling, a much greater indicator for the risk of chronic diseases.
What Some Dieting Dangers?
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
Is It Really Healthy For Me To Be Any Weight?
Yes! Weight is not a determinant of health.
Even if there was some correlation to weight an certain health outcomes- we actually don’t have the research to form solid conclusions here!
What we can form solid conclusions on is that active restriction, stress, socioeconomic status, and access to food ARE determinants of long term health. These are much more important measures than our body weight.
For my first 7 years as a dietitian, I functioned solely as a weight loss counselor. A few common themes I observed were
- Weight had almost zero correlation with lab values and other biometric markers.
- Weight loss was often regained plus some.
- EVERY person that came to me KNEW at some deep level the system focused on caloric restriction and shrinking body size was flawed.
- Weight loss of more than 10% was almost always unattainable without disordered eating behavior.
- Restriction always led to a binge.
Why Should We Ditch Diets?
While my employer mandated my participation in promoting shrinking bodies to earn a paycheck, I had a deep understanding there was something horribly flawed about my “healthcare interventions.”
I was failing my patients by hyper-fixating on how I could help them reduce their biological matter in no way that was substantial in improving their quality of life. Diets are not effective!
I was failing my patients by parading around as a healthcare practitioner while actually instilling nothing more than damaging aesthetic interventions.
Diet Culture Stole My Life. How Can I Ditch Diet Culture?
Straight out of college, I thought I identified as a feminist. Someone who fought against oppressive systems.
I prided myself on my ability to dissect culture from an anthropological lense.
As a registered dietitian. I could tell you all of the enzymatic reactions in the digestion process from start to finish.
And yet… I didn’t realize I am a leading member of the biggest system of oppression this nation has to offer by following my weight centric dietetics philosophies.
Diet culture has stolen something from every one of us. Here are a few ways I’ve experienced grief in diet culture participation.
- I thought I was empowering women by wasting countless hours trying to change my body weight, shape, and size to meet their needs.
- I prided myself on my ability to be independent and self sufficient- while using my body as bargaining power to land jobs and be present in space with little effort.
- I demonized food and irradiated them from my diet.
- I body checked frequently in front of my daughter, teaching her the nuances of being a women and how to “correct” our bodies.
- I labeled foods as “good and bad” allowing this message to trickle down to my daughter.
- I wasted thousands and thousands of hours thinking about food, my body weight and size instead of progressing in my career, helping others, and spending time with my daughter
I didn’t realize that we are all part of the system. By our actions, we either build up or tear down this system of oppression which is diet culture.
Diet culture is a life thief. An abusive partner . A two headed snake that parades around touting its safeties whiles simultaneously breaking down your body and emotional wellbeing.
In what ways has diet culture stolen your life from you? How are you fighting back now? Drop a line in the comments below!