If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve likely seen me use the term “diet culture” more than once. But now, I want to go a little deeper, explaining what diet culture is, why it can be harmful, and why you’ve very likely been influenced by it even if you’ve never “dieted,” per se.

First, the definition. In broad strokes, diet culture values weight, shape and size over health and well-being, and paints being thin as morally good, being fat as morally bad.

I also want to share a more detailed definition from Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, host of the “Food Psych” podcast and author of “Anti-Diet.” She says, “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.”
Where diet culture shows up in the world

It would be easier to say where diet culture doesn’t show up, but instead I’m going to do a bit of a brain dump of some of the obvious places you’ll find it:

  • Ads for weight loss programs, even the ones who have rebranded and are now using terms like “wellness” and “lifestyle changes” (WW, I’m looking at you).
  • Any article, social media post or public health message that invokes the “war on obesity” or the “obesity epidemic.”
  • The continued existence of “The Biggest Loser.”
  • Most magazines targeted at women.
  • Descriptions of clothing or beauty products that promise to make you look thinner.
  • Yoga instructors or personal trainers who offer diet/nutrition advice when you’re there to work on your flexibility or strength.
  • Healthcare providers who want to talk about your weight when you come in to get a strep test.
  • Dining companions who talk about how they aren’t eating carbs, or about how they’re going to need to work out longer to compensate for having dessert (“I can’t believe I ate that…I’m so bad.”
  • Comments on Instagram posts telling women that they need to lose weight (often accompanied by “concern trolling” messages like, “I’m worried about your health,” or “But you’re going to get diabetes.” (Jillian Michaels is the current queen of concern trolling.)
  • Family members who comment on your weight within five minutes of seeing you, whether it’s “You look great, you’ve lost weight” (as if that’s the only way someone can look great) or “You those pants look a little tight, have you gained weight.”
  • Anyone who comments when you choose the burger over the salad (or vice versa), decide to go out for ice cream, or eat a second cookie.
  • Focusing on the outward appearance of thinness or fitness as a symbol of health.
  • The lack of appealing clothing options for people in larger bodies (although this is changing):
Where diet culture shows up in your head
  • Engaging in “Clean eating,” detoxes, cleanses, reboots, restarts, elimination diets (unless prescribed for a specific health condition and monitored by a qualified healthcare provider), gluten-free diets (unless you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity), autoimmune diets, carb restriction, “ancestral” diets, and any fad diet followed for “health” reasons.
  • Feeling unclean, so “cleansing” or “detoxing” your body with juices, shakes or a special detox diet.
  • The phrases, “I feel fat,” “guilty pleasures,” “cheat day.” (Especially earning “cheat days” by being “good.”)
  • Feeling virtuous for resisting a food deemed as unhealthy.
  • Promising yourself that you’ll compensate for eating “bad/unhealthy” foods by exercising later (or extra).
  • Allowing yourself to eat a “bad” food if you’ve earned it by exercising or eating “healthy.”
  • Giving yourself permission to eat during holidays, vacations, or special occasions with the promise you’ll get “back on the wagon” later.
  • Judging people at the grocery store based on what food is in their cart.
  • Determining your worth based on the foods you eat — believing you are lesser than or superior to others because of the way you eat.

If you want to see diet culture at its most absurd (intentionally so), watch this sketch from the Amy Schumer show. (Note: This is not safe for work, and some people might find it offensive. Just saying.)

Why diet culture is such a trickster

A few years ago, I had a client in a larger body who, quite amazingly (given that we all live in diet culture) had never dieted. She had never tried to lose weight. She came to me because she wanted help nourishing herself better, mostly with meal planning and ideas for easy dinners, because she had a very demanding job. Because she also had a few eating behaviors that were causing her some distress, we decided to work on intuitive eating.

She started reading the book “Intuitive Eating,” and when she came to our next session, she told me how shocked she was to discover that, even though she had never dieted, she clearly had a diet mentality. If you’ve done any work with, or reading about, intuitive eating, you probably know that “reject the diet mentality” is the very first principle.

The bottom line is that diet culture doesn’t just mean “being on a diet.” You don’t have to follow an official diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting. Increasingly, diet culture disguises itself at simply promoting “health” or “wellness,” and some talk about eating sustainably is really wrapped up in diet culture mentality. (I’m all for eating with the environment in mind when we can, but when that comes with rigid rules, guilt and feelings of moral superiority, that smacks of diet culture.)

Let me share an analogy to demonstrate how pervasive diet culture is.

Two young fish are swimming along, and they meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Good morning. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a few moments, and then one of them looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

Well, diet culture is our water, and we are all swimming in it.

Next week: How diet culture harms all of us.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

Print This Post Print This Post