If you’ve been around the diet recovery, body positive, HAES, or ED recovery world, you’ve probably heard of diet culture. But what is it? And why is it so important to beware of?
What IS diet culture?
The first time I heard the term diet culture, I was listening to a podcast hosted by Christy Harrison. She explained most people aren’t even aware of diet culture because “it’s the water we are all swimming in.” Initially I understood diet culture as the mainstream belief that thin is good and fat is bad. But as I dove deeper into the concept I learned it’s much more.
In her book Antidiet1, Harrison defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health.”
So what does that mean? Diet culture says if we’re thin, we’re healthy, and morally “better” than other people. People with smaller bodies receive social power and a higher status based on their size in our diet culture. And certain foods and food groups are labeled as “good” while others are labeled as “bad.” Sound familiar?
The problem with diet culture is- it’s built on lies.
Diet Culture Lie: Thin = “Healthy”
The first lie diet culture sells us is: in order to become healthy, we must weigh less. Our society has bought into this fallacy hook line and sinker. The truth: research simply doesn’t support this myth. In fact newer research suggests our current approach to health (villainizing fat and recommending weight loss) actually contributes to weight stigma and fat phobia which reduces health, well being, and adds to poor quality of life.2 That sure sounds backwards, doesn’t it?
Researchers have also found that health can be improved without focusing on losing weight when we instead focus on health promoting behaviors.3 Such as physical activity and stress management.
So doctors can avoid adding harmful stigma when they stop focusing on weight and instead focus on behaviors that improve health.
Diet Culture Lie: You Should Make Your Body Smaller
Because we’re all brainwashed into thinking thin=health, our magazines, news feeds, commercials, apps, and conversations are fill with the latest diet, cleanse, or trick to lose weight. The truth: despite billions of dollars spent each year on trying to find a diet that works…no one has ever found one.
So even if losing weight did improve health (which again the research doesn’t support this myth) we STILL don’t have a safe and effective way to lose weight. In fact, when looking over years of research, it’s become clear that dieting not only doesn’t work4, but often results in the opposite. Most people gain weight after dieting. In fact, the number one predictor of weight gain is actually dieting.
What about those who do lose weight and keep it off?
When told “diets don’t work,” most people immediately reply with a story of someone in their life who has lost and kept weight off. Maybe they’ve done it themselves.
Science tells us only 3-5% of people are able to lose and keep weight off longer than five years. (Most studies “proving” a diet works never follow the participants for five years and don’t account for participants who drop out of the study because they can’t sustain the diet). So what about those 3-5% people?
Some may have been above their body’s natural set point weight when they started dieting, therefore their body returned to it’s comfortable set point. Others are likely living a life revolved around controlling their food. Many successful dieters actually meet the criteria for a clinical eating disorder. Obsessively tracking their foods, following rigid diet plans, and building their lives around what and how much they will or won’t eat. Sadly they aren’t diagnosed because of the size of their body when they began cutting out foods.
Living in the land of disordered eating feels miserable. As your body shrinks, so does your entire world. Controlling food and weight can take up your time, money, and energy until it overtakes everything. I’ve been there, and trust me, I never want to go back.
Diet Culture Ignores the Social Determinants of Health
Diet culture screams at us: “You are what you eat!” And scares us into believing we can control our health by controlling our food. Making every single food decision feel treacherous. We find the illusion of safety in choosing “healthy” foods. As if we can outrun illness and the inevitable aging.
But the truth is: the food we eat and our weight are only two of many factors that influence our health.
Social scientists understand there are so many components that influence health. In fact, according to the World Health Organization’s page, “Research shows that the social determinants can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health.” When we focus only the food we eat and the number on our scale, we’re ignoring SO MANY other things that influence health.
Diet Culture Lie: Thin = Morally Better
This lie is particularly harmful because it attaches our worth as human beings to our weight, body shape, and size. In the same breath of telling kids, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” parents flip on cartoons for children that consistently portray larger bodied people as lazy, the butt of the joke, and undesirable.
The truth is: I’m a worthy human being who deserves respect and love no matter what size or shape my body is. My value as a person should never be tied to the size of my pants. Who I am is about so much more than my weight. The same goes for you. And every other human.
I have a giving heart, a dry wit, and a silly personality. I pour my heart into my connections with my family, friends, and clients. And I’m constantly focusing on learning and growing. None of these things are related to what I ate for breakfast. Or how much I weigh.
Contrary to what diet culture says, choosing to feed myself three times a day does not make me a bad person.
Diet Culture and Social Power
So if dieting doesn’t make us healthier, and doesn’t even work…. WHY do we still buy into diet culture? Why do so many people spend their lives chasing the impossible goal of becoming skinny?
Sadly, our patriarchal society teaches us to rank women according to size, giving more social power or social currency to those in smaller bodies. There’s no doubt about it, our diet culture places a higher value on people in thin bodies. Thinner women are portrayed in the media as the ones who gain love, attention, and success. Women in larger bodies even make less money than those in smaller bodies.
The most dangerous way this oppression occurs is in the medical setting. People labeled as “obese” are often denied the same medical care that someone in a thin body with the exact same presenting symptoms get.
Someone with a hurt knee is told to exercise more if they are in a fat body. While a thin patient receives needed treatments to heal their issue. Symptoms that indicate cancer are often ignored (and even praised) in larger bodied patients, thus allowing cancer to spread. When a doctor simply prescribes a diet (which we know won’t work or make them healthier), they are providing unethical care. Yet it is done every single day in our diet culture.
Diet Culture is Rooted in Racism
Fatphobia is a fear of fat. But it isn’t just the fat we fear. Under our worries of what others will think of us, are much deeper concerns. For many people it’s actually a fear of losing social power. This is a valid fear given the culture we live in. And it often is the catalyst to spiraling into the land of disordered eating. While diet culture affects us all, it’s the most damaging to the marginalized people. Such as fat black women.
Many fat activists are fighting against this system of diet culture. People such as Ragen Chastain, VirgieTovar, Sonya Renee Taylor. While the body positive movement was started by fat black women, this movement has often been co opted by thinner white women.
In her book Fearing the Black Body5, Sabrina Strings dives into the history of fat phobia and explores how it is rooted in racism. She discusses ways the beauty standard changed dramatically as colonialism and slavery spread. Race scientists looked towards ways of proving white people were superior and turned to the shapes and sizes of bodies.
Standing up to diet culture is a way to stand up to oppression and racism.
If you believe that all human beings deserve to be treated equally and with respect, then start by working on your own internalized fat phobia. We all have it. It’s something we’ve been brainwashed to believe since the day we were born. Understand that these beliefs were born out of hate and racism, and vow to no longer blindly accept the lies of diet culture.
What do You Value?
Diet culture is our norm. But it tells us harmful lies, oppresses people who don’t meet the beauty standard, and puts people in larger bodies in harm’s way when they don’t receive fair medical treatment.
As Christy Harrison says on page 55 of Antidiet1, “We don’t’ have an “obesity epidemic,” but we sure as hell do have a diet-culture epidemic.”
Learning to stand up to and reject diet culture is an ongoing process that will likely go on for the rest of our lives. Recognizing and working through our own internalized fat phobia can add to our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. And it can help make this world a better place for people all shapes, all sizes, and all colors.
So the next time you catch yourself getting caught up in the size of your stomach, remember your own values. Come back to the truth that all humans are worthy of resepect and love. And make the conscious decision NOT to contribute to your own oppression or the oppression of others.
If you’re looking for support learning to stand up to and reject diet culture please check out my work with me page here.
- Harrison, C (2019) Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, Link
- O’Hara, L, and Taylor, J (2018) What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’ A Narrative Review of the Weight-Centered Health Paradigm and Development of the 3C Framework to Build Critical Competency for a Paradigm Shift. Sage Journals, Google Scholar
- Gaesser, G and Angadi, S (2021) Obesity Treatment: Weight Loss Versus Increasing Fitness and Physical Activity for Reducing Health Risks. Science Direct, Google Scholar
- Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. Weight Science (2011) Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutr J 10, 9, Google Scholar
- Strings, S (2019) Fearing the Black Body : The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Link