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