diet culture

What Is Diet Culture?

If you're familiar with my work, then you know I'm all about dismantling diet culture. But what exactly is diet culture? It's a term that gets thrown around in anti-diet spaces without a lot of unpacking, but it's incredibly important to understand so that we can recognize how it's showing up in our lives and fight back. Here's how I define it:


My Definition of Diet Culture

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

  • Oppresses people who don't match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.


Diet culture doesn't just mean “being on a diet,” because you don't have to follow any sort of official diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting.

Moreover, some people may eat in a way that they refer to as a diet for legit medical reasons (e.g. diagnosed celiac disease, diabetes, etc.) and not actually be engaging in diet culture (which, I should add, is very rare and hard to do, since diet culture has its tentacles all up in the medical field).  

I've worked with hundreds of people who think they're not dieting, but when we dig into their relationship with food, they realize that they're pursuing “wellness” or “health” in a way that looks veeeeeery much like a diet. 

That's a form of diet culture that I call The Wellness Diet, and it's rampant in the 21st century. “Clean eating,” detoxes, cleanses, the overuse of elimination diets, carb restriction, gluten phobia, “ancestral” diets, and performative health all fall under the umbrella of The Wellness Diet. The weight-stigma aspect of diet culture may be de-emphasized in some iterations of The Wellness Diet, but the moralization and demonization of food is front and center.  

There are many other forms of diet culture, too. It's a sneaky, shape-shifting thing that robs people of their time, money, health, happiness, and so much more, which is why I've nicknamed it The Life Thief. It can be hard to spot, and yet in Western culture, it's everywhere. 

To learn more about diet culture, how to recognize it, and how you can reclaim your life from it, check out some of my writing on the subject, and tune in to my podcast, Food Psych. I'm also working on a book about diet culture that's coming out in January 2020, so be sure to check back here for more info, or pop your email address in the form below to stay in the loop.

Diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that's just and peaceful for people in ALL bodies.

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How to Avoid Falling for The Wellness Diet

At this point in history, many of us have gotten wise to the more overt manifestations of diet culture, and we’re not buying them.

Commercial weight-loss programs, “lite” foods, diet books: We’re over it.

We know that diets don’t work—and the diet industry knows we know.

“Many millennials today view Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig as your mother’s (or grandmother’s) weight loss program,” reads a 2017 market analysis by Marketdata LLC, an independent market research publisher that also offers consulting and strategic planning to the diet industry. “This will be the challenge—to stay relevant and cultivate this future generation of dieters.”

Let that sink in for a sec: Stay relevant and cultivate this future generation of dieters.

That’s exactly what diet culture is out to do these days, because it stands to lose a LOT of money if it doesn’t.

“Millennials are the future dieters,” says the Marketdata report. “Any weight loss company that continues to focus most of their efforts on Baby Boomers is sure to wither and die.”

In an attempt to stay relevant, young, and hip (with all the ageism inherent in that effort), diet culture has had to morph and shape-shift.

 

The Wellness Diet

Amid all these changes in the diet industry, diet culture has figured out a way to reinvent itself: as The Wellness Diet.

The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about “wellness” but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like.

It’s not just about weight loss, although thinness is an essential part of The Wellness Diet’s supposed picture of health. (So is whiteness, and youth, and physical ability, and wealth.)

It’s also about eating the “right” things and removing supposedly “impure” foods from your life.

“Clean eating,” detoxes and cleanses, mass hysteria about gluten and grains, and elimination diets prescribed for the general population are all part of The Wellness Diet.

They’re ways of demonizing some foods and styles of eating while elevating others, and they force us to be hyper-vigilant about our eating and ashamed of making certain food choices.

The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about ‘wellness’ but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

Whenever I bring up this connection between wellness culture and diet culture, there are always a few people who protest that what I'm calling The Wellness Diet is really about health, not dieting—and of course I acknowledge that some people with certain health conditions (like folks with celiac disease, for example) might benefit from making a few changes in how they eat.

But that’s not the general population; the vast majority of folks don’t need to cut any foods out of their life, but instead would do better to explore the role that disordered eating might be playing in their health outcomes.

And NO ONE needs a cleanse or food-related “detox” (Content Warning [CW]: restrictive eating practices, health recommendations). Your liver, kidneys, and lungs do a great job of that already, without any intervention from you.

What’s more, the “it’s about health, not dieting!” argument is exactly what diet culture wants you to think.

As Marketdata’s diet-industry report puts it, “‘diet’ has become a four-letter word in the minds of many consumers, as they shun commercial weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers. ‘Healthy’ eating has replaced ‘dieting.’”

Diet culture has co-opted wellness culture and disguised itself as "healthy eating." Hence: The Wellness Diet.

 

Food Isn't Always Medicine 

Of course nutrition can play a role in our overall well-being, but the widespread cultural belief that “food is medicine” is incredibly problematic.

It suggests that consistently making the “right” food choices will heal or prevent all ills, and that eating certain kinds of food will inevitably harm our health.

Scientific research disproves this belief by showing that to be in good physical health, people don’t need to cut out “processed” foods or sugar (CW: nutrition information), and that weight stigma is actually a bigger determinant of health than actual weight OR eating habits(CW: BMI numbers)

You DON’T need to demonize certain food groups, or restrict your overall food intake, or treat food as the be-all-end-all of health.

In fact, putting too much emphasis on our day-to-day food choices doesn’t lead to improved health at all, but to a preoccupation with food and panic about our health.

The Wellness Diet can easily slip into orthorexia, a type of eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy eating.

So if you’re following The Wellness Diet, then you’re actually putting both your physical and mental health at risk.

Of course food can play a role in our overall well-being, but the widespread cultural belief that ‘food is medicine’ is incredibly problematic.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

If you really value and want to pursue health (which no one is morally obligated to do, BTW), then it’s important to understand that food is just a small part of the equation, and that things like mental health, access to compassionate and evidence-based healthcare, and eliminating weight stigma are far more important.

Health has a lot less to do with our individual choices than we’re led to believe in diet culture.

That’s what I discussed in the Q&A portion of this week’s episode of Food Psych.

I got a great question from a listener about how to frame public health efforts in a way that doesn’t stigmatize people in larger bodies, and I talked about the many factors that matter more for our health outcomes than just food and exercise choices.

Tune in to hear this discussion, and also catch my amazing conversation with psychotherapist and author Judith Matz about how physical deprivation—rather than emotions or psychology—is the primary driver for feeling out of control around food.

We also talked about the negative health outcomes related to weight cycling and weight stigma, the health benefits of intuitive eating, and so much more.

Check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts!

Here’s to getting off The Wellness Diet and finding true well-being,

Christy

P.S. If you want support for letting go of The Wellness Diet—or any other form of diet culture—come join my intuitive eating online course and community. You’ll get a wealth of resources for learning to trust yourself with food, so that you can free up time and energy to the things that really matter in life.

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The Life Thief

How diet culture steals your time, your energy, and your health—and how you can take them back.

 

As a dietitian who specializes in helping people make peace with food, I’ve seen the research on dieting, and I know that its track record is abysmal

Dieting—the act of changing your eating and exercise habits in an effort to lose weight and ostensibly improve your health—is a lot more likely to end in a whole host of other things, including rebound overeating, food obsession, and weight regain (Trigger Warning).

Not just regain, actually; as many as two-thirds of people who embark on weight-loss efforts end up gaining more weight than they lost (TW)

Meanwhile, the diet industry is now worth more than $66 billion, a record high. In recent years 68 percent of Americans have dieted for some length of time (TW), mostly making up their own weight-loss plans or “lifestyle changes” rather than following formal diets to the letter.

People are still dieting, even though it clearly doesn't work and actively causes harm. 

Why are we so wedded to dieting? Shouldn’t we know better by now?

In my work I’ve come to see that it’s not just an issue of knowledge, although that’s a part of it. It’s also an issue of culture. Specifically diet culture.

 

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that intentional weight loss fails more than 95% of the time.

  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

 

By and large, Western culture is diet culture. This way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society, in so many different forms, that it can be hard to recognize.

It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness.

It cloaks itself as connection.

Diet culture is why people bond over restrictive ways of eating. It’s why people get compliments for losing weight—even if the behaviors that led to the weight loss are killing them.

Diet culture is what makes some of my clients skip birthday parties out of fear that they’ll have to eat cake.

It’s what made some of their parents put them on diets before they were old enough to remember their birthday parties.   

Diet culture is consuming us. In the thousands of conversations I’ve had with people about their relationships with food and their bodies, I’ve seen the same themes emerge again and again: People have lost years of their lives to dieting and disordered eating. They’ve spent thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars on diet products and programs that didn't work and just left them more hopeless.

They’ve tried to lose weight or change their diet because they were told it would make them "healthier," only to end up sicker than they started out (and not having lost any weight in the long-term, either).

They haven’t really been there at weddings, funerals, graduations, honeymoons, and countless other important moments because their minds were distracted by thoughts of food and weight. 

Diet culture has stolen their lives. 

That’s what it does to everyone. It steals your joy, your spark, and your precious time on this planet. 

That’s why I call it The Life Thief. 

When you’re governed by diet culture’s rules, your life suffers. 

 

But here’s what I want you to know:

You DON’T have to spend all your time and energy worrying about food and your body. You CAN have more mental space to do great work, take care of yourself, spend time with your loved ones, and answer your calling.

Your life may have been stolen, but you have the power to take it back.

I’ve seen people do incredible things with the time and energy they’re able to reclaim when they stop dieting. Things like starting their own businesses, advocating for social justice and human rights, going back to school to pursue their dreams, finding supportive partners who love them just as they are, and raising their kids to feel good about their bodies and trust their instincts with food. 

Things that help build a better life for themselves and others.

I’ve also seen too many people miss out on these kinds of opportunities—or not even realize what kinds of opportunities they really want for themselves, what their true passions are—because their minds are completely occupied by the rules and restrictions of diet culture.  

It’s a life thief.

And it’s not your fault.

It’s really a systemic problem, a cultural problem—not an individual one. The fact that you’re preoccupied with concerns about eating, exercise, weight, and shape is a direct result of diet culture. It’s also exactly what The Life Thief wants.  

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf calls dieting a “political sedative,” basically a massive distraction from participating in public life. It keeps us from changing the status quo, from speaking out and rebelling against the things that don’t work for us, and from reshaping society in ways that align with our values. 

The Life Thief keeps us from recognizing our true power.  

It’s also stolen our well-being. It’s taken over the health and wellness fields and twisted them into its image, an unrealistic, exclusionary ideal that’s rooted in oppression.

Our culture’s version of health is laced with fatphobia, racism, ableism, and ageism—because with very few exceptions, the bodies that are held up as supposed “pictures of health” are all thin, white, able-bodied, and young.

This view of health and wellness isn’t actually about helping your well-being at all—it’s about reinforcing the status quo and making sure you keep chasing after an unattainable ideal so that you don’t notice all the things that are really harming your health. 

Things like trying to change the size and shape of your body, which diet culture tells you to do, but which actually leads to worse physical and mental-health outcomes than body acceptance. 

Things like internalized weight stigma, which has been shown to increase people’s risk of all the diseases that are typically blamed on weight itself. 

Dieting is against your best interests. It puts you at war with yourself and takes your energy away from fighting so many more important battles. 

It makes you doubt yourself and feel like you can’t trust your own instincts. It gaslights you into thinking that you’re the “failure” because you “couldn’t stick to” the diet du jour. Because you had the audacity to get hungry, to need nourishment and pleasure. 

To need the things we all need.

That’s abuse, and yet The Life Thief is an expert in getting us to perpetuate it on ourselves, again and again and again. 

 

The Social-Life Thief 

Here’s one of the things about The Life Thief I hear all the time from clients, online course students, and podcast listeners. I hear a version of this: 

“My social life is non-existent.”

Or this:

“I avoid going to parties, since I know there will be lots of food and alcohol around.”   

Or this:

“Whenever I get invited to a wedding, I start panicking about fitting into my dress and can’t enjoy myself for months.” 

Or around this time of year, it’s this:

“I can’t even enjoy the food at my family’s holiday meal because I’m so afraid of how it’ll affect my body.”

Because diet culture makes people so fearful of food and anxious about losing control that they can’t even participate in their lives.  

This hurts my heart. That anyone has to live like this is unconscionable—because it’s no way to live. It’s theft. 

The Life Thief steals your capacity for everyday joy. It keeps you from being present in all the big and small moments of your life. Moments like holiday dinners, birthday parties, weddings, or just lunch with a friend on a Tuesday.

The Life Thief literally keeps you from going out and participating in the world. 

Or if it does let you participate, it keeps you from really being there. It always holds a part of your mind hostage.        

If you had a romantic partner who did these things, we’d call it abuse and tell you to get the hell out of that relationship. And what The Life Thief does IS a form of abuse—but because it’s on such a massive, culture-wide level, we don’t recognize it as such.

There’s no reason except injustice that people should have to live with this level of restricted freedom and life possibilities. 

Here, I’m not even talking about your greatest fulfillment or your calling or realizing your potential (although diet culture restricts those things, too). I’m talking about your day-to-day human existence. Your ability to grab a spontaneous bite with a friend, enjoy a piece of cake at a birthday party, or eat at a drive-thru on a road trip. 

This is literally life theft at the moment-to-moment level—and you deserve so much better than that.

One of the main things we need to do to get our life back is to make peace with food.

Being at peace with food means not WORRYING so much about it. 

Being calm, on an even keel, with an inner sense of stillness and ease—not restricting yourself or feeling panicked by deprivation.

Being able to make food choices from a place of trusting your instincts and desires. A place of self-care and abundance, not self-control and deprivation. 

The Life Thief robs you of that ability. 

One of the key ways it does this is by keeping you swinging back and forth on what I call The Restriction Pendulum. 

The Restriction Pendulum is your body’s natural reaction to deprivation. When the pendulum swings over to the side of restriction—which diet culture frames as “success” and “being good”—inevitably there’s going to be a swing back in the other direction, because your body perceives restriction as dangerous.

To your body, diets (or “lifestyle changes,” or “eating plans,” or whatever they’re calling themselves now) feel like famine. 

Even the most seemingly “gentle” diet is a swing of the pendulum over to the side of restriction. 

When that happens, your body’s natural response is to have the pendulum swing over to the other side—to eating a LOT, feeling out of control with food, even bingeing. 

A pendulum can’t just stop in the middle when it’s been pulled over to one side. It HAS to swing the opposite direction with equal force. 

Your body is exactly the same. It won’t find stillness and peace until it’s responded to the restriction.     

Here’s what that looks like in our lives: we restrict, restrict, restrict (or “eat clean, eat clean, eat clean,” or whatever our restriction du jour is calling itself)...and then we end up eating to the point of discomfort. 

And then we think we have no self-discipline, we’re out of control, we simply can’t be trusted to eat certain foods, we’re uniquely broken while everyone else can just have a bowl of ice cream without polishing off the whole carton…

We get into a spin where we berate ourselves as though what happened was about our minds, our lack of willpower.

But it’s not.

It’s physiological, a survival impulse encoded into your body. When you get cold, you shiver. That’s how your body keeps you warm so you can survive. And when you’re restricted or deprived of food, your body turns up the food-seeking signals because it wants you to live.

This isn't a failure of your mind to control your body. This is your body taking care of you.

Here’s what I want you know: Your body is not broken. 

YOU ARE NOT BROKEN.

You haven’t irreparably damaged your hunger and fullness sensors. Your body is trying to protect you. This is a natural, predictable, automatic response to famine—and that’s what diets are.

It’s not you. It’s not a defect. 

The Restriction Pendulum is what allowed our species to survive, and we wouldn’t be here without it. 

But we don’t need to spend our lives swinging on that pendulum anymore. To reclaim our lives and reach our full potential, we need to stop The Restriction Pendulum. 

We need to stop the restriction. 

My online course, Intuitive Eating Fundamentals, re-teaches you how to attune to your body’s cues about hunger, fullness, and satisfaction—and that helps you achieve stillness and peace with food. On your own. Every day, all day. 

This can be life-changing. It’s the difference between bingeing every time you’re anywhere near a plate of cookies and forgetting about them after you eat a couple because you’re so engaged in conversation.

Here’s what happens when you stop the restriction:

YOU GET YOUR LIFE BACK.

And that’s everything.

It’s my mission. My big why. My life’s work. I dedicated my career to helping people reclaim their lives from dieting because I know what it's like to have your life stolen. I lost more than a decade of mine to dieting and disordered eating—and I was finally able to reclaim it by giving up the restriction and learning to trust my body again.

That kind of trust is what I want for you, what I want for all of us. 

I want you to have the freedom to let go of thoughts of food and your body, to engage in all the moments of your life—from the mundane to the magical.  

I want you to have your mind free to focus on the things that really matter to you. 

To pursue your purpose—and to have the mental space to figure out what that is. 

To trust your body’s cues and nourish yourself fully. 

To stop restricting and stop feeling out of control with food. 

To be present in the big, important moments as well as the small, everyday ones.

To OWN your life.

Because when you own your life, you thrive. All of us do. The world literally becomes a better place. 

Let’s get our lives back.

 

If you’re ready to reclaim your life alongside an incredible community of people who are on the same path, join my Intuitive Eating Fundamentals online course so you can learn how to give up dieting once and for all. You deserve to be fully present in your life, and to not have a single moment more stolen by The Life Thief. NO.MORE. Your life is YOURS.

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The Truth About Your Weight

Your body isn't meant to be at a weight that it can only sustain through restriction

Your body isn't meant to be at a weight that it can only sustain through restriction. 

Intentional weight loss was invented by diet culture, which I define as a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.

Not only is intentional weight loss a product of this toxic belief system, it also doesn’t actually jibe with how the human body *works.*

We’ve all heard that statistic that 95% (or more) of people who pursue intentional weight loss gain back all the weight they lost within five years, and the majority of those people will gain back *more* weight than they had initially lost—and that’s because our bodies were designed to protect us from famine. None of us would even BE here if it weren’t for this mechanism that kept our ancestors from dying when food was scarce.

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.
— Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

So what about that other 5% (or less) of people who do seem to maintain intentional weight loss, you might ask? Unfortunately, the research indicates that they do so through disordered means that, if diet culture didn’t deem them "success" stories, could be diagnosed as an eating disorder.

They’re not meant to be weight-suppressed—none of us are. Our bodies aren't meant to live in perpetual restriction, which wreaks havoc on our mental and physical health.

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Diet Culture Is a Life Thief

Diet Culture Is a Life Thief

Diet culture is a life thief; when we’re caught up in it, food and body preoccupation take up so much real estate in our brains that pursuing any other life goal can feel nearly impossible.

Diet culture takes away our passion and drive.

It prevents us from being fully present in our relationships and our work, because thoughts of food and body are constantly humming in the background.

It keeps us from being social around food for fear of "falling off the wagon.”

Diet culture tells us we aren't good enough day in and day out, and sells us products to “fix” ourselves—products that research has demonstrated fail 95% or more of the time.

And yet somehow we still feel we’re the ones to blame. That's the most insidious thing about diet culture—making us feel like failures, when in reality the system is rigged so that no one ever actually “succeeds."

Diet culture drives us to passively restrict our eating and our pleasure, and can even push us into disordered eating and eating disorders.

Do we really want to spend our entire lives fighting against our bodies and trying to force them into a certain shape or size through restriction and deprivation?

Do we want dieting to steal any more of our precious time on this planet?

Do we want our life’s work to be the pursuit of weight loss?

Or do we have more important, fulfilling, and fun things to do with our time here?

From where I sit, the answer is clear. We all deserve SO much better than to have our lives stolen by diet culture.

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