Diet culture is one of the biggest topics I like to myth bust when working with clients as a nutritionist. While diet culture doesn't just include fad diets and weight loss hacks, and purported influencers, diet culture goes a whole lot deeper. In fact, it goes so deep that it is rooted in the ways we’ve been told, marketed, and sold to think about ourselves, our bodies, our health, the food we eat (and don’t eat), all or nothing thinking, and more. It’s an entire belief system that’s ruining your life, your relationship with your body, your morality, and belief about what is your definition of ‘healthy’. We’re going to get real deep in understanding what diet culture is so that you can call it out when you see it as well as give you 5 things to get behind and start believing in, instead.
What Is Diet Culture
Diet culture is this Westernized idea that we have to restrict food, pursue thinness, that our beauty isn’t defined by who we are by what we look like, fitting into societal norms and that you can only be accepted if you ‘fit the box’. Social status, image, and social media are all wrapped up in this bundle. From the fit chick on the Bud Light commercial running through the streets hitting that post workout light beer to the elitist eaters on social media touting that you’re not healthy if you eat anything with any artificial anything, any non-organic food, or don’t buy the most expensive clothes from the trendiest stores, they all promote what is called diet culture. There’s no actual definition of it, but more of an entire belief system that worships and falls to its knees in the face of thin, elite, moral virtue tied to disproportionate health and beauty standards.
The Problem With Diet Culture
The problem with diet culture, if you haven’t picked that out yourself just yet, is that it hurts people. It lies to people, makes them feel inadequate, and makes money preying on their insecurities, imperfections, and how they’re different from one another. Gross. It’s wrapped up in fat phobia, fear of gaining weight, fear of gaining muscle, fear of getting bulky, fear of wiggling, having stretch marks, or a normal human body that moves with you when you move.
To make matters worse, it’s not just our moms, the magazine covers, or the billboards telling us to contribute and to be a part of diet culture anymore. For younger, up and coming generations, these messages are just about EVERYWHERE. In fact, they’re in the palm of your hand, with every single media outlet, digital advertising, commercials, movies, and so on. Diet culture is a problem because it teaches us that our bodies are bad, that there’s something wrong with us, that food is the enemy, that overexercising and restricting calories are the way to go, and that we have to cut out the food, drink, and people/activities that we love in pursuit of being socially accepted.
Diet Culture: 5 Ways To Overcome Diet Culture For Sustainable Change
1. Recognize Diet Culture Messaging
There are a few different levels to this, but we’ll start with the way that you talk about food. Do you talk in absolutes like I ‘never’ or I ‘always’? This can encourage feelings of guilt and shame when you do or don’t have those foods on a regular basis which is an example of diet culture messaging (you’re lesser than if you don’t ____).
What about what you say about others? Do you people watch and talk smack about the lady with her belly hanging out of her shirt? Or how about that woman in shorts with cellulite? Maybe the man with stretch marks on his arms? Do you sit there and pick people apart just like diet culture messaging does, preying on peoples’ differences, imperfections, and things that make them unique?
Diet culture messaging is everywhere. From low fat foods, to the way that we see and perceive others, to the supplements and food that we’re sold as being ‘healthy’ or that promotes our weight loss. This also looks like the websites/companies that sell you their own 200 calorie meals and tell you the only way to lose weight is to eat 1,200 calories and drink 4 protein shakes a day? Believe it or not, you don’t have to do any of those things to lose weight.
You also don’t need to go so low on your carbs you pass out, miss out on family gatherings, develop disordered eating (like binging/restricting), or have to only rely on supplements. There are other things out there that diet culture doens’t tell you about, like sustainable eating patterns, incorporating the foods you love while still being in a caloric deficit, and not cutting out entire food groups.
2. Establish A Respect And Relationship With Food
Understanding the role that food plays in your life and in your body might be one of the biggest middle fingers you could stick up to diet culture. Food is an incredible tool for us to support longevity, disease prevention, reduce inflammation, balance weight, and to feel better, living more vibrantly with every single passing day. However, diet culture has taught us that food is the enemy, that we are to avoid it, restrict it, shame it, and not partake in it. Diet culture has taught us to have unhealthy, unbalanced, and a biased relationship with food, with no respect for the energy or nutrients that food provides our bodies on a daily basis.
In order to earn a respect for food, and develop and relationship with your body, as well as food, we suggest asking yourself questions about food when you eat, before you eat, and after you eat. These questions might sound like:
- When was the last time that I ate?
- I know I’m busy at work right now, but I need to stop and feed myself
- My stomach is grumbling, I am going to stop what I’m doing and find some food to eat
- I will prioritize making food and bringing it with me because my body needs nutrients to thrive
- How does this food make my body feel before, during, and after I eat it?
- Why do I eat this or why do I do this to myself when I know it isn’t going to make me feel good
Questions like these are what a nutritionist or nutrition coach would ask you to help you better understand what you’re putting in your body and the output that you’re getting. However, you can ask yourself questions like these, so that you can begin to understand how what you put in your mouth affects you, from the inside out.
3. Listen To Your Internal Dialogue
The things we say to ourselves surrounded by the way we look at our bodies, the way we approach food, the way we criticize and praise ourselves, are often a result of the messages we’ve been taught through diet culture messaging. Think about when you are trying on clothes in the mirror and crap lighting in a dressing room. I’m talking about that internal dialogue you rattled off to yourself about how x, y, and z you are for not being able to fit into a pair of pants off the clearance rack that are two sizes too small for you.
I’m talking about the times you walk by a window and pick yourself apart. The way that you beat yourself up when you see a picture of you from behind in strong sunlight, exacerbating the dimples on your legs. I’m talking about the lack of forgiveness you have for your body and for your white or purple stretch marks from growing, losing, or creating (you know all those amazing things your body does for you). I’m talking about the criticisms and the nasty, nasty things you say to yourself about your height, weight, looks, the way you act, what clothes you wear, the things you eat, everything in your life tied to this negative internal dialogue.
All of these things we tell ourselves that have been influenced by diet culture messaging telling you that you’re lesser than, stand out, imperfect and that you should be shameful of those things because they’re not the cookie cutter shape med spas have created in our society *BREATHE*.
You get the point here without me continuing because we ALL do it. We all spew disgusting, degrading words and judgements at ourselves that we’d never dare to say to another. So give the middle finger to diet culture, take back your power, and start to change that narrative. After all, only YOU harness that power, and it is a mighty thing to own and become better at, let me tell you.
4. Read Nutrition Labels
Reading nutrition labels and looking at what you’re eating, as well as understanding what you’re looking for on that label to have/not have, is a super power within it self. By understanding what you’re putting in your body and recognizing that you have the control to do so, you’re taking back your power from the diet culture messaging and lifestyle that you’ve become accustomed to living.
When you read nutrition labels, look for ingredients that you can pronounce. Look for quality protein, carbohydrates, and omega-3 rich fats. Try to avoid overly processed ingredients that cause systemic inflammation and that are foreign to the body, like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and trans fats. Minimize sugars overall and try to pair your carbohydrate focused meals and snacks with a quality protein.
On top of reading nutrition labels and becoming a more informed person on what you’re eating and how much, you can then begin to strengthen that internal dialogue and relationship with food that we talked about previously. It starts to make sense that a food makes you not feel very well when you turn it around, look at the nutrition label, and recognize that it had 46g of sugar and 26g of fat with processed ingredients. Now instead of shaming and guilting yourself for feeling bad physically after you ate something, you can begin to understand that a food like should be avoided not because someone or something else (like diet culture messaging) told you to, but because YOU decided it wasn’t right for YOUR body and the way you want to feel.
RELATED ARTICLE 16 Things You Need To Know About Nutrition Labels
5. Be Active Every Day
Exercise, and no we’re not talking about a 3 hour exercise routine, every single day can be a way to regulate your mind and your body that goes against the ‘team no days off’ and ‘1 hour cardio for that snatched waist’ diet culture messaging that you’re fed to believe is true. We recommend going outside for a walk or two every day, or establishing a gym routine that is sustainable and that compliments your weekly routine. In doing so, you’ll be able to give your body the movement it craves, reduce inflammation, become more mindful and present, as well as reduce stress, expend calories, and to just feel better all around. Put the social media down (yeah, we know it is hard, ok?) for 30 minutes to an hour each day and go move your body.
Diet Culture: Takeaway
At the end of your life people aren’t going to remember your weight. They’re going to remember what you were like as a person. They are going to remember the things you did, the way they made you feel, and the memories that you made together. Living a life that is full of activities, maximizing the ability of your body, moving well, and feeling radiant from the inside out is what living is all about. It isn’t about dieting, feeling shameful of our bodies, believing that food is bad for us, that we cannot indulge or enjoy the food groups that nourish us from the inside out. Diet culture is everywhere and it is important to recognizing the messaging, create a relationship with food, listen to your internal dialogue, read nutrition labels, and to get more activity on a daily basis. In doing so, you can get behind other methods of pursuing your health, earn your own self respect, and break free of diet culture for good. After all, don’t you owe it to yourself to live your life in a body that you love? We sure think so.
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