Last week, I talked about what diet culture is and where you find it — both the obvious and hidden places. This week, I turn to how diet culture harms all of us. And I really do mean all of us, because even if you’ve never dieted, you are still swimming in diet culture waters.

How diet culture harms dieters

Diet culture feeds us the idea that we will be healthier, happier and more worthy if we lose weight, and that the next diet is just the ticket. When we buy into those lies, a number of things can happen:

  • You lose weight, and feel the glow of social acceptance — praise from friends, family, coworkers, healthcare providers — followed by the fear of losing that acceptance if you regain the weight, which leaves you working desperately to maintain your loss, even if it gets harder and harder, and you feel hungrier and hungrier.
  • You lose weight, feel the glow of social acceptance, but then start regaining the weight after a few months (or maybe you make it a whole year or more before this happens). You start sinking into feelings of failure, and may start avoiding certain people or situations to try to hide your “failure” the best you can. If you were very vocal about your weight loss “success” when you were still losing, and briefly maintaining, the desire to stick your head in the sand may be even more acute.
  • You try mightily to lose weight, but the scale doesn’t budge more than a few pounds — or maybe the number on the scale even goes up. You beat yourself up for being weak, for not being able to succeed at this Very Important Thing. You may worry that you will die early, unloved. All the things you were waiting to do until you lost weight — that trip to Hawaii, asking for a raise, baring your arms and legs in the summer, dating — stay on the back burners.

In all three of these scenarios, we spend a significant amount of time, money and energy in the pursuit of weight loss. Time, money and energy we could be spending on much more important and fulfilling things. Things that bring us joy and may actually contribute to better health.

If I could only say one thing to you, it would be this: You are not worth more or less based on how you eat or what you weigh.

How diet culture harms non-dieters

Even if you’ve never pursued weight loss, diet culture can harm you. Why? Because even if you aren’t particularly caught up in dieting and diet culture, odds are good that at least a few people near and dear to you are. I’ve had clients who finally decided to start breaking free of diet culture only because they saw how their obsessive, restrictive eating behaviors (often accompanied by body shame) were impacting their relationships with their partners, and causing them to socially isolate themselves, which impacted friendships. They also couldn’t be fully present when they were with the people they cared about, because all they could think about was the food, the eating of it or the avoiding of it.

Also, you may never have adopted an eating-and-exercise plan with the intent of losing weight, but if you’ve ever pursued a rigid plan in the pursuit of “wellness” or “optimal health” — “clean eating” comes to mind — then you’ve actively participated in diet culture.

With “diet” becoming more and more of a dirty word — witness Weight Watcher’s rebranding as WW, with related “wellness” and “mindfulness” messaging, in spite of the fact that their ads still promote weight loss — more diets are spinning themselves as being about “health,” with wording about how you will probably lose weight along the way tucked in there somewhere.

Finally, if you buy into diet culture’s messages that thinner = better, then you may fear the possibility of future weight gain, and may also have biased attitudes about people in higher weight bodies.

What can you do?

As I often tell my clients, once you really see diet culture for what it is, you can’t unsee it. And that is frustrating, because once you start doing your own personal work, you want to wipe diet culture away everywhere. Also challenging is the fact that the work of untangling yourself from diet culture never ends, because you might finally be able to see the water, but you’re still swimming in it.

And here’s another hard truth: as much as each one of us thinks we are not influenced by advertising and marketing messages (other people are, just not US), we are influenced. Research bears this out, and, let’s face it, would advertisers spend so much money on advertising if it didn’t work? Just be aware that diet culture messages are in all kinds of ads, so if you’re exposed to those ads, you continue to be exposed to, and possibly influenced by, diet culture.

That, the bad news. The good news is that these seven steps will help you become more resistant to diet culture:

  • Practice intuitive eating.
  • Clean your social media feed.
  • Start paying attention to where you hear diet talk. Once you become attuned to it, it can be stunning how pervasive it is.
  • Set boundaries around diet talk.
  • Be curious–and gently challenge–your beliefs about food and body.
  • Choose forms of movement that you enjoy–not just those that “burn more calories.”
  • Practice self-compassion. Remember, we all swim in diet culture waters, like it or not.

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!