Diet Culture

When it comes to diet culture, many can struggle with a negative self-image.

“Why are women so obsessed with losing weight?” 

Someone I know recently tweeted something along those lines. 

This got me thinking: No matter our initial weight, losing some is almost always seen as a positive thing. When I hear a woman tell another “I lost weight,” it’s generally received with positive responses, with questions such as “which diet did you follow?” and remarks of how great they look.

Why is it that we always assume weight loss is a good thing? We rarely ever question if it was necessary or done in a healthy way.

While pondering this, I stumbled upon a term I hear often but had not been looked into properly: diet culture. 

What is diet culture? 

According to Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian, diet culture is “a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health.’”

A study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that 91% of women on a surveyed college campus have attempted to control their weight through dieting. Many of us have seen our mothers dieting, hearing that certain types of foods are harmful while others are beneficial. We are taught to see food as something other than what it actually is: fuel for our bodies. 

Seeking balance

Balance is something that is very important to be aware of when trying to distance ourselves from diet culture. 

Take candy, for example. Knowing that candy is not “evil”  does not mean you are free to binge on it. Instead, it means that you should be able to have it in moderation without feeling like your health efforts have been compromised. Similarly, eating salad for every meal does not mean you will be healthy. 

A healthy body needs different sources of food to thrive. 

According to Science Learning Hub, your body needs all macronutrients to function for different reasons. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. All these provide your body with different things it needs to function, such as giving you energy and properly processing some vitamins.

Diet culture tends to demonize fats and carbohydrates, but your body needs them to survive. We relate our worth to what sits on the plate before us when it was never meant to have that much power.  When did our looks become more important than the proper functioning of our bodies?

What about exercise? Many people exercise because they want to look a certain way. As long as it does not become obsessive, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look like a better version of yourself. 

Exercising can be a great tool. It can be amazing for health and even though most of us are aware of it, I have not seen many people whose main motivator is health. I struggled with finding a reason to go to the gym that was not driven by looks. When I did not see the results I wanted, I was discouraged.  

I found that focusing on how I felt stronger and less tired gave me great satisfaction. I also focused on finding workouts I enjoyed instead of the ones I “should” be doing. This made exercising a lot easier.

Overcoming diet culture 

The National Eating Disorders Association provides us with different ways to resist diet culture. I decided to address one of the most popular ones I have seen: generalizing that “fat” people are unhealthy. In order to resist diet culture, the NEDA says on its website:

“When you see someone pathologizing fat bodies, you can explain that there are healthy and unhealthy people of every shape and size, and that adding healthism to sizeism is not a good look. Point out that what’s important is that people of all sizes have access to ethical, evidence-based care, and that weight loss recommendations aren’t prescribed for health issues.”

We have to understand that the only opinion that matters over any body is that person’s. Only you know if you are healthy and what is best for you. Even though your appearance can be a reflection of this, there is no general rule. 

There are many misconceptions that take root in diet culture, but I believe the most dangerous one is that worth and self-love tie back to weight.

Everything comes from within. You will not get confident when the number on the scale drops or be liked by everyone when those jeans fit. You will not immediately love the reflection in the mirror when you lose a couple of sizes if you have hated it for years. 

You might get some happiness and a boost of confidence, but it is never long lasting. If it were, there would not be any supermodels struggling with body image issues or mental health such as Alexis Ren, who is perceived as having the perfect body by many young girls. Despite this, Ren has stated she has suffered from disordered eating. 

We have to understand that no amount of juice detoxes, treadmill workouts or fad diets are going to give us what we have truly been seeking all along: self-acceptance.