Debunking Diet Culture: How can health be seen through a broader spectrum?

What You Need To Know (Trigger Warning: Deaths due to eating disorders and suicide are mentioned)

Have you ever felt guilty for eating something that is considered “unhealthy”? Maybe you enjoyed some ice cream and regretted it after in fear of gaining weight, that is diet culture speaking. Diet Culture creates an active belief among peoples that the size and shape of one’s body defines their worth and well-being. America, being a consumerist country, thrives off of profits amounting to about $72 billion dollars per year from the source of diet culture, the dieting and weight loss industry. This industry perpetuates harmful messages surrounding body size, eating habits, and movement. Diet culture can be seen in small ways in your life such as the size of seats on buses, cars, airplanes, but it is overtly apparent when looking at mental health in the US. The US is one of the leading country for deaths from eating disorders, not eating disorders that lead to suicide. This is diet culture, death from society’s want for profit, instead of care for well-being.  

“‘Guilty pleasures” is a concept made by people who profit off of your repression and hatred”. – Ailey Jolie

My Response: How are we going to debunk diet culture when it is so engrained into society?

Awareness about diet culture is the first step. Where can we identify it in our own lives, the lives of our family and the lives of our friends. The second piece is challenging it, challenging those systems, habits, and thoughts derived from diet culture through questioning them. 

1. Awareness/Identification

To challenge a system we have to understand it first. The idea of diet culture can be confusing and hard to see because it is so engrained in society that it seems normal. Some ways you might see it in your own life are physically, socially, and mentally. Below are some examples of where you might see diet culture in your own life.

Physically: things you can see that you/others may be doing. 

  • Dieting (Ex: Whole 30)
  • Weight Loss Ads (Ex: Weight Watchers)
  • Food Names (Ex: Skinny Pop) 
  • Serving Size (is based off of number of calories not based off of how much you individually should eat) 
  • BMI (made 200 years ago to measure populations for government resource allocation, not to measure health) 
  • Size of Seats (Ex: car seats, bus seats, chairs = made for a certain body type)
  • Hiding Food From People ((this excludes the reasoning that other people will eat it all if you don’t hide it.) This is often associated with having shame about eating habits or cravings.)

Socially: expressions used in day to day conversation that diet culture has created for it’s own benefit of our self-repression 

  • “Be careful you already had ______ today” (associated with sugar or foods considered to be “unhealthy”)
  • “Gotta get that beach bod/summer body” (associated with slim, tall, and white bodies, unrealistic beauty standards) 
  • “Don’t eat too many of those” (associated with eating “unhealthy” foods) 
  • “Eat something healthy!” (“healthy’ is less associated with overall well-being, but instead unrealistic societal norms of eating and exercising)
  • “Which one has less calories?” (associated with the idea that calories are bad for our bodies and that eating less of them will benefit our well-being through weight loss) 

Remember: Diet culture is hard to see and understand, so don’t feel guilty for taking part in any of these. Identifying where it exists in your own life is simply to acknowledge that it is there without judgement. 

2. Challenging the “Normal”

Diet culture has been seeded into society and now that it has sprouted up in every aspect of society it seem normal right? It feels normal that dieting and exercise are known as the “solution to all your problems”, that seats on busses are all the same size, and that there is shame around eating “unhealthy” foods because they are “unhealthy” right? It feels normal to disregard our own body’s cues and follow what society tells us because that is all we have known our whole life. So how do we challenge something so embedded into our lives? We must first start with challenging our own thinking and the thinking of others around us by questioning.

Some questions you can ask yourself are: 

  • Why is dieting and exercise considered “healthy” when so many people struggle with it and develop mental health issues from it? 
  • Why is our culture so focused on losing weight that we are soled unsafe weight loss products (things that only harm us and do not help us at all) in order to reach this norm?
  • Why do so many people feel shameful about eating when food is supposed to be enjoyable? 
  • Where does the idea of what “health” is come from? 
  • Why do so many people hate going to the doctor’s office (a place that is meant to be a safe space that focuses on well-being) for fear of shame about lifestyle habits and weight? 

Some questions you can ask others to challenge their thinking: 

  • Why can’t I snack if I feel hungry, that would be disregarding my hunger cues?
  • Why can’t I snack if I am sad/angry/happy if I find comfort in food? 
  • Why can’t I have _________ right now, that is what my body is telling me I need? 
  • Can you not tell me what I can and cannot eat, it makes me feel ______? I know what my body and what is best for me. 
  • Can you not look at my weight on the scale, it makes me feel ______ ? 

Why Question?

Listening to how you feel when people restrict your eating, insult your body, or critic your exercise habits helps in understanding how diet culture affects your mental health. Once you recognize how these actions impact you, you can began to try and communicate this to some of the people in your life (remember no matter the intent of someone’s words the impact is what matters). It isn’t just about when you shame yourself, but how you feel when others shame themselves. We are all stuck in diet culture until we all challenge it. 

What can you do? 

Debunking diet culture starts with individuals (you) identifying it and questioning it in their own lives. I invite you to identify where it shows up in your own life and listen to how it feels for you. You can use my examples above for some aspects of diet culture you may be able to see in your own life and for how you can question your own thinking and other’s! 

Prompts for the Comments:

I am also open to any general comments or questions these are just some optional prompts! 

  1. Where do you see diet culture in your own life or the lives of others? 
  2. Do you feel defensive about the idea of diet culture (It is normal! I did when I was first introduced to the idea)?
  3. What does “health” mean to you? 
  4. How might diet culture disproportionately affect certain groups of people?

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