Trigger warning: This post contains sensitive information about diet culture, which may be triggering for those struggling with disordered eating and eating disorders and individuals who have experienced discrimination due to living in a larger body (Please see Glossary of Key Terms for definitions).
Exposing the Problems with Diet Culture
Diet culture feeds body shame, fuels body discrimination, and fosters disordered eating. It instills the false belief that eating certain foods and living in a thinner body increases one’s value. I imagine most people have heard at least one (and likely an unquantifiable number) of diet culture messages, not only from the media, but regurgitated by family members, friends, colleagues, classmates, and so on. Consider the following common utterances:
- “I gotta burn off all of those holiday treats,” an acquaintance at the gym jokes as she taps her midsection.
- “Wow, it looks like the freshman 15 hit you! You must be taking full advantage of that all-you-can eat buffet in college!” comments an uncle to his nephew at the family reunion.
- “I’m cutting carbs for the next three months. I’m taking a spring break trip to Florida and can’t be seen in a bikini in this body,” states a woman in an office to her coworkers.
These are only a tiny sliver of ways in which diet culture hijacks our society, skewing our view of what health truly looks like.
Interrogating the Distorted Lens of Diet Culture
When you think of a “healthy” person, what/who do you envision?
- Do you imagine someone who eats a restricted diet of fruits and vegetables?
- How about someone who attends daily spin, lifting, yoga, or Pilates classes?
- Does this person have a slim figure and toned muscles?
Now, who do you visualize when you think of an “unhealthy” person?
- Someone who eats burgers, fries, and ice cream every day?
- Someone who sits in front of the T.V. for hours?
- Someone with large thighs and belly rolls?
If you pictured anything like the images I described, you are not alone. Existing research estimates about one third of the United States population either experiences or knows someone who has experienced body shaming. Additionally, about 85% of people deem fat shaming a serious issue. These statistics highlight the importance for counseling professionals to commit to dismantling diet culture.
The distorted lens also draws our focus to White, cisgender women as the primary target of diet culture’s insidious pressures and lies, but many populations and marginalized people are affected. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the nuanced and complex impact of diet culture on specific populations, but it is important to recognize that diet culture hurts everyone.
Revealing Diet Culture’s Broken Promises
- “If you lose weight, you will be healthy, happy, and successful!”
Most dieting promises revolve around the above statement. If we fail to interrogate the central promise of dieting, we may buy into such lies for ourselves and in our work with clients. Below, I unpack a few of the failed promises that stem from this central premise.
- “Dieting will magically make weight disappear.”
In most cases, diets fail at their only job, to facilitate weight loss. Research suggests, 80% of diets fail in the long-term. Essentially, dieting damages our metabolism because our biology is not programmed to spiral into starvation mode. Dieting increases the likelihood of binging and compulsive eating, which is our bodies’ way of saying, “Hey, you! I’m starving over here! Feed me already!” Our bodies are quite remarkable that way, and although diet culture tells us otherwise, it is important for us to listen to our bodies.
- “Dieting ensures health and happiness.”
Striving to fit society’s portrayal of ideal body shape and size increases one’s likelihood of developing body shame, which relates to eating disorders. Eating disorders affect people of all body sizes and negatively correlate with measures of happiness and health. For example, a study found that people with eating disorders report lower overall life satisfaction than the general population. In addition, eating disorders correlate with a multitude of adverse health outcomes, including (but not limited to) gastrointestinal issues, menstrual irregularities, cardiac abnormalities, osteoporosis, oral and dental complications, and psychological disorder comorbidities.
- “The world should be organized around diet bias.”
Lastly, diet culture promotes body discrimination. People living in larger bodies may be unable to find comfortable seats on airplanes and in restaurants, unable to receive adequate medical care without being automatically dismissed and told to lose weight, unable to move freely through the world without stares of disgust or pity, and so on. Weight discrimination is associated with detrimental health outcomes, including increased risk of developing eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. I do not see any signs of “health” or “happiness” in the line of mental and physical health risks, do you?
Dismantling Diet Culture
Given the harmful implications of diet culture, how can we work to dismantle it? On the bright side, diet culture is not rooted in our biology. Like all aspects of culture, it is learned, which means it can be unlearned. I must include the caveat that unlearning happens differently for everyone, as we each grapple with our identities that grant us privileges and disadvantages in a world infected by diet culture.
What I offer here, in terms of steps toward dismantling diet culture and seeking body justice, is merely one path toward unlearning, a path developed by someone with thin privilege. Because I am an acronym nerd, here is an acronym I want to present to guide you on the start of your body justice journey, RECLAIM:
- Reflect on your own relationship with your body
- How connected do you feel with your physical body?
- How has diet culture influenced your connection with your body?
- Examine your biases
- In what ways has diet culture influenced your view of others’ bodies?
- How have these biases been reflected in your work and interpersonal relationships?
- Check your thin privilege
- If you live in a thin body, ask yourself, in what ways does your body grant you advantages in society?
- How can you use your privilege to liberate larger bodies?
- Listen to the experts and those with different lived experiences than your own
- Body Justice by Allyson Inez Ford
- Food Psych: Intuitive Eating and Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
- Advocate for body justice
- How can you bring awareness to body justice in your community?
- Inspire others to embody a health at every size perspective
- Check out the Health at Every Size (HAES) website and share it with others
- Measure your health by what makes you feel worthy, fulfilled, and whole, and avoidtelling others how to measure their own health.
- What foods are you avoiding because diet culture tells you they’re “bad”?
- How does diet culture influence your relationship with exercise?
- How do you view and relate to others who practice different eating and exercise habits?
As counseling professionals, dedicated to acknowledging our own biases and advocating for clients with marginalized identities, it is our duty to advocate against diet culture. By challenging our own assumptions, we can create a more body-inclusive environment for our clients, students, and colleagues. Diet culture fills our society with falsities, but counseling psychology seeks liberation in truth and justice. Please join me in advocating for a more body inclusive and size affirming world.
Glossary of Key Terms
- Diet Culture: a system of beliefs that places moral value on thinness, promotes weight loss and restrictive eating to attain higher value, which is based solely on one’s body size.
- Eating disorders: maladaptive thoughts and behavioral patterns related to eating that cause significant functional impairment in multiple life domains and meet full criteria for diagnosis, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-5)
- Disordered eating: a preoccupation with or manipulation of food, exercise, and/or weight/body image that does not meet full criteria for an eating disorder due to an insufficient number of symptoms, duration, or level of functional impairment
- Weight / body stigma: negative attitudes (prejudice) or actions (discrimination) toward people living in larger bodies based on their weight or body size
- Health at Every Size: the notion that health is not defined by one’s body size, shape, or weight
Emma Deihl works as a family therapist with children and adolescents in a partial hospitalization program in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Emma earned her bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and she completed her master’s degree in Clinical-Counseling Psychology at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. Her research interests include the effects of stigma on LGBTQ+ individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS, mental health treatments for gender diverse individuals with eating disorders, and the impact of diet culture on marginalized communities. In her spare time, Emma loves creative writing, hiking, reading, and traveling.