Why Diet Culture Might Be Doing You More Harm Than You Think

Diet Culture and Health Take-Home Tips:

  • Diet culture is persuasive and can be hard to spot even when you are looking for it.
  • Diet culture harms your mental and physical health.
  • Bodies are meant to exist in all shapes and sizes, and body size is not an indicator of health.
  • There are many things that we can do to have a full life, without needing to change your body size.

Every year in late winter and early spring, there is a slow but steady increase in messaging about getting “beach ready”, feeling your best, and losing weight. These messages are so frequent that you might not even realize that you have scrolled past 4 or 5 of them in the first minute of using a social media app. Summer is here and there are lots of messages out there to remind you that the only way to enjoy summer is to make sure that your body is different… better… thinner.

Have you ever stopped to think about how these messages make you feel? Do they bring a sense of excitement for the warm weather ahead? Do you want to run out and enjoy the lake or a pool? Or rather, do these messages sit below the surface and simmer when you are thinking about what to eat for dinner, or how to enjoy the weekend with your family? These negative thoughts are the influence of diet culture, and it can be more damaging to your health than you think.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates physical appearance and body shape with moral virtue and health. It promotes weight loss as a form of achieving status, values certain ways of eating over others, and devalues bodies that do not fit the standard “image of health” (Body Brave, 2023). Diet culture works because it disconnects you from your body, results in negative external comments from others, and creates societal pressures that impact the choices you make about how and when to fuel and move your body. These influences neglect that bodies are meant to come in all shapes and sizes, and that they are meant to change over time.

Diet culture does not consider that what is best for one person could be harmful for another. Instead, it gives a set of desired standards which are rooted in the pursuit of thinness, and not in the overall well-being of a person. These beliefs can lead to you feeling like a failure if you don’t conform to these narrow, and ever-changing, rules. In order to combat diet culture, you have to be able to recognize it.

How to recognize diet culture and its impact on your health

Diet advice can be confusing because fad diets often have differing views. Low-fat, low-carb, high protein, or fasting diets are all created to pursue thinness, even if they are marketed for health. Although these fad-diets may work in the short term, there is no evidence that any diet will produce long term results.

Diet culture is a system designed to be successful in the short-term but ultimately fails, and when it does, it will sell you a new “solution” that will also fail. This cycle normalizes deprivation and restriction and makes food the enemy. It does more than just deprive your body of calories; it deprives the body of essential nutrients, which can decrease immunity, increase irritability, and decrease focus.

Diet culture views larger bodies in a negative way and harmful assumptions are made about the person based only on the way they look. These negative views and assumptions are called weight bias and weight stigma. They help diet culture thrive because they further push the narrative that it’s bad to be in a larger body, and that being thinner is the only way to be healthy. Body size is determined by many factors outside of any individual’s control, and when a person does try to control it (e.g., through weight loss efforts), their body will naturally correct for that effort as a means to protect itself.

People who face weight stigma are more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors, such as binge eating, and are also more likely to avoid exercising. They are more likely to have low self-esteem and negative body image, and suffer from depression, anxiety, and decreased quality of life. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their body size.

Ways to be kind to yourself and resist diet culture.

Firstly, remember that all bodies are worthy regardless of size, weight, ability, and health status. This may be hard living in a society built on the notion that thinness is the ideal norm, but when you start believing in your value outside of your appearance - then you are able to combat the harms of diet culture.

Here are some ways to help you resist diet culture:

  1. Eat foods that nourish your body and your soul. Food is many things – it is fuel, it’s social and it’s cultural. All these factors are important and valuable.
  2. Move in ways that feel good. Physical activity shouldn’t be a punishment. Finding the way that makes you feel your best will help you repair your relationship with movement and help you be consistent in the long term.
  3. Spend your time doing things that bring you joy. Spending time with friends or family, being in nature, working in the garden, and finding a new hobby are all things that will help promote positive mental health.
  4. Let your body rest. Take days off from busy activities. Work on having a consistent sleep schedule, if possible.
  5. Stop passing judgement on peoples’ bodies, including your own. Body size is determined by many factors outside of a person’s control. You are more than just the way you look, and the way someone else looks tells you nothing about their character.

Need extra help?

The Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA) is the primary source for the prevention and treatment of eating disorders in the Windsor-Essex region.

The Teen Health Centre is a part of the Windsor- Essex Community Health Centre. They offer counselling for youth between 12 and 24 years old affected by disordered eating.

For both programs, individuals needing services can call 1-855-969-5530 for assessment and referral to the appropriate treatment program.