Overcoming Toxic Diet Culture – Improve Your Relationship With Food and Find Peace With Your Body.

Written by: Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Date Posted: April 3, 2024 12:05 pm

Overcoming Toxic Diet Culture – Improve Your Relationship With Food and Find Peace With Your Body.

Overcoming Toxic Diet Culture – Improve Your Relationship With Food and Find Peace With Your Body.

Deconstructing Diet Culture While Exposing How it Can Contribute to Disordered Eating or a Full-Blown Eating Disorder.

Why does diet culture persist when studies have shown that diets do not work long-term 95% of the time? Worse yet, diets can cause additional harm with a greater risk of disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder developing. Perhaps we should reevaluate just what exactly is going on here.

Diet culture is everywhere. It has been around for a long time and is not going away anytime soon. It affects how we receive medical care and our experience in fitness spaces. It’s a system that rewards thin bodies and equates thinness with moral superiority. Diet culture promotes weight bias (fatphobia) and upholds perfectionistic belief patterns.

No body shape is intrinsically good or bad. Let us repeat: body shapes and sizes do not have moral implications, and a diet culture that says otherwise lacks humanity.

In This Article

  • Have our attempts to curb obesity done more harm than good?
  • What exactly is diet culture?
  • What are some warning signs that we are encountering or participating in diet culture?
  • Let’s talk about the new weight loss medications.
  • What are the implications of diet culture on our mental health, and how can we resist these influences?
  • Practice Self-Compassion, Challenge the Status Quo, and You Will Find a Path of Healing from the Toxic Effects of Diet Culture.

Let’s look at the impact of diet culture through one woman’s story about her annual visit to the doctor.

In my late 20s, I was 16 pounds above my ideal body weight. I loved practicing yoga and running long distances, and I was also fully entrenched in diet culture, which started in early childhood. I will never forget going for my annual check-up, and all my doctor could say to me was that I needed to lose weight. To be clear, I was a traditionally healthy 20-something in all the ways that preventative care assesses. I felt so ashamed.

For my entire life I had been pushing myself toward an ideal body size and shape. Along the way, I found physical activities that I thoroughly enjoyed. The fact that these activities were not moving the needle on my weight made me begin to look at them as useless endeavors that were not achieving society’s (my) desired results. They became chores that were failing me. I eventually lost my love of physical activity, and it has never returned.

The damage inflicted by diet culture can be heartbreaking. It’s an unkindness pushed on us by the culture and then internalized, so we continue to self-enforce its toxic tenants.

“Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good?” from the National Library of Medicine Website

Substantial evidence exists that diets do not maintain weight loss. Studies have shown that most dieters regain the weight they have lost through dieting, which suggests that diets are ineffective in the long run.

Overall, studies demonstrate that dieting is an ineffective method of weight control at best and contributes to weight gain at worst. While it may be easy to dismiss these failures as a personal lack of control, it stands to reason that if the majority of the population is unable to follow through with dieting, then perhaps there is something innately wrong with it.

We know that a myriad of factors play a role in weight gain, such as hormonal disturbances, interactions with the gut microbiome, lack of sleep, and socioeconomic status. Logic would then follow that diets would not be able to address all these factors. For more in-depth reading, check out the entire study.

What Exactly is Diet Culture?

Diet culture is a pervasive idea that equates being thin and losing weight with health and moral superiority. It insists that being thin is the ideal and enforces an atmosphere that views any other size as inherently unhealthy or something to fear.

Let’s look at the impact of diet culture through a childhood memory.

When I was a kid, I internalized my mom’s anxiety around food and calorie counting (I had no idea what a calorie even was!). I remember looking at my lunch, a cheese sandwich on white bread, and wondering if I was overeating. I was four years old.

Worrying about food types and portions progressed into ever-present talk and action around which foods were okay and which were not. Losing weight was always the goal of the adult women in my life. Even though I was slim and active, as a teenager, I began taking diet pills and severely restricting my food intake, which would inevitably lead to binges. Most adults supported my efforts to stay thin and get even thinner. I can now see that we were all in the grips of a culture that only valued thinness, and taking pills along with disordered eating was considered acceptable as a means to an end.

This story is not an isolated incident; we hear versions of it all the time. Diet culture is the water we are all swimming in, and folks of all genders can begin showing concern about their weight and body shape at incredibly young ages.

Concern about body shape and size can begin very young.

It is important to note that the negative influences of diet culture and eating disorders do not discriminate; boys and men are also affected. They conservatively comprise 25% of eating disorder cases and are significantly less likely to seek help. The barriers they experience can include equating getting help with weakness, discomfort with the change in power dynamic required to get help, and healthcare providers not recognizing the symptoms in boys and men–to name a few. ⁠

Diet culture is insidious, and it can be challenging to identify. It is often shrouded in the guise of cultivating healthy habits such as consuming nutritious food and exercising for longevity. If these ideals are healthy, where does diet culture veer off the track?

What are Some Warning Signs That We are Encountering or Participating in Diet Culture?

  • Our perfectionism is showing. We focus on our perceived inadequacies of body shape and size rather than appreciating and nourishing our bodies.
  • We may have a sense of urgency to fix our imperfections–obsessively counting calories, constantly getting on the scale, and focusing exclusively on size and shape.
  • We might over-exercise to make up for eating what we deem “bad” food or to earn a treat.
  • Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” indicates that diet culture has entered the room.
  • Limiting or avoiding entire food groups for being “bad.”
  • We feel guilt and shame when eating, no matter the type of food.
  • We may practice food restriction and attempt to suppress appetite through caffeine, nicotine, water, etc.
  • We notice a culture of defensiveness and that individuals can go on the attack when confronted with anti-diet information. They insist that overweight people are lazy, lack control, and are inferior to their thin counterparts. Seriously, just read the comment section of any news article that questions diet culture’s validity.
  • Thin is equated to all things good.
  • Anyone unable or unwilling to achieve the thin ideal is labeled unhealthy and lacking in self-control.
  • Health and wellness gatekeepers feel entitled (and believe they are qualified) to define the standards for everyone while rarely taking into account people’s cultural, economic, and genetic differences or the presence of disabilities and illnesses, along with countless other relevant factors.
  • Almond parenting is happening, AKA Almond Mom (but it can also be a dad!). The term was coined recently after a video surfaced of model Gigi Hadid’s mom telling her to treat her physical weakness/hunger by eating a few almonds and chewing them really well.
    • An Almond Mom is a parent steeped in diet culture, fatphobia, and food policing. It’s a parent who projects their fears around food onto their children.
    • It’s worth noting that dads and men can be every bit as toxic when it comes to body size, shape, and food policing. We feel the need to point this out as we live in a culture that also tends to blame moms and hold them accountable at an unfair and universal rate. ⁠

Diet culture is a powerful system that marginalizes anyone who can’t or won’t conform to its narrow set of rules. It’s a dehumanizing hierarchical structure disguised as health and wellness that promotes comparison culture, prevents authentic connection, and is an isolating factor in people’s lives.

Let’s Talk About the New Weight Loss Medications.

GLP-1 receptor agonists, prescribed as Wegovy and Ozempic for weight loss, were utilized initially in lower doses for the treatment of type II diabetes with the consequence of minimal weight loss.  Now, Doctors prescribe these medications to their patients at higher doses for weight loss.  Although no longitudinal studies exist to examine effectiveness beyond two years, individuals who take the medication report being less preoccupied with food, becoming fuller quicker, and having less “food noise.”

Scientists have identified that “activity at GLP-1 receptors in appetite and reward centers in the brain reduce hunger, decrease motivation to eat, decrease food reward and increase satisfaction.” (Dennis, 2024). While this might be a welcome experience for some, for others, the experience of rapidly losing weight may be a risk factor for developing an eating disorder or may worsen an existing eating disorder.  Furthermore, some argue that by emphasizing the use of these drugs for weight loss, we are yet again buying into the old, harmful idea that thin is better and should be pursued at all costs.  Despite where one lands on this issue, these drugs have illuminated that weight is not about “willpower.” There is a biological basis for hunger and satiety that must be acknowledged.  

Dennis, Kim (2024.) GLP-1 Receptor Agonists: Clinical Implications for Patients with Eating Disorders.Plenary at the International Conference on Eating Disorders.  

What are the Implications of Diet Culture on our Mental Health, and How Can We Resist These Influences?

Based on what we have just learned, it’s no surprise that diet culture often leads to or exacerbates anxiety disorders, depression, mental health issues, disordered eating, and full-blown eating disorders.

Tips to Increasing Happiness and Mental Health by Resisting Diet Culture:

  • Actively reject diet culture and critical self-talk whenever you become aware that they are taking place. You would be surprised how powerful it is to say, “I reject that,” or “That concept does not work for me.”
  • Work on self-awareness. Notice when you reject a specific food for being “unhealthy” or automatically judge someone based on their size. The goal is to increase awareness of triggers so that you can make changes. Remember, change requires the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. Change is not possible until we are aware of what is happening.
  • Aim for food neutrality. Food is an energy source without moral value. Avoid using emotionally charged words such as indulge, cheat, clean, bad, or good regarding food.
  • Make use of humor. Sometimes, social media can be an excellent source of destroying diet culture through humor. Case in point, check out this TikTok (while you still can!)
  • Cultivate a positive relationship with food. Food can be a source of connection, satisfaction, and joy, thus having a positive impact on mental health. Rejecting diet culture’s harmful food labeling and messaging can become the beginning of the end of shame when it comes to our beliefs about food.
  • Avoid body bashing of self and others. It might seem like this should go without saying, but this practice is incredibly prevalent. When was the last time you heard someone express how much they loved or even marginally liked how they looked? Emphasizing what we hate about our bodies or commenting negatively on others seems like a national pastime and sometimes a bonding experience. We can accept and validate others’ feelings without participating in or perpetuating negative body talk. Let’s normalize not commenting on any bodies at all, ever.
  • Learn how to cope with the excess of diet culture on social media. Social media is rife with content that can negatively affect body image, promote comparison culture, and seriously trigger those at risk for disordered eating. However, there are also ways to engage with social media that can potentially protect and aid your mental well-being. Here are just a few tips:⁠
    • UNFOLLOW any account that triggers or makes you feel bad about your appearance.⁠
    • FOLLOW accounts that inspire, educate, and bring you joy.⁠
    • BE AUTHENTICALLY YOU on your personal accounts. Many find comfort and confidence in honesty, such as sharing unedited pictures or opening up on difficult days.⁠
    • CREATE/JOIN a community of like-minded people when resisting diet culture. There is strength in a society of people who understand.⁠

Practice Self-Compassion, Challenge the Status Quo, and You Will Find a Path of Healing from the Toxic Effects of Diet Culture.

If we could distill this article down to one takeaway, it would be this: You are worthy, just as you are, right now, full stop. One of the reasons diet culture is so toxic and works so well is that many of us have an inner critic, a part of us that is quick to believe the worst, uses shame as a tool to prompt action, and will never miss a beat to tell us how and where we are not good enough, how and where we need improvement, and use unrestrained criticism to obtain a desired result.

It’s easy to believe this is the only way to exist because it may be all we have ever known. Let us assure you that there is a different way of being that is infinitely kinder and more self-compassionate. If we can begin to internalize at a deep level that being our own worst critic is not a sustainable plan to control and manage behaviors, beliefs, achievements, and our sense of self-worth, then we have started the healing process.

We will discuss this further and have plenty to say about self-compassion in our next blog, Self-Compassion Will Not Make Me Lazy, Weak, or Self-Indulgent.

How Do I Know When it is Time to Seek Professional Help?

If you or someone you love is feeling anxious and depressed or starting to develop disordered eating patterns, you should seek professional support. It is important to seek help right away at the first signs of an eating disorder because it is a serious mental illness. If you are experiencing negative body image or disordered eating, it is crucial to seek help from a mental health professional or organization that specializes in eating disorder treatment.

Take your time when choosing a therapist because trust is essential to your therapy’s success. Obtaining an initial consultation can be a great way to see if you feel comfortable speaking with the therapist and can help you decide whether you want to move forward.

Recommendations For Additional Reading:

If you want to learn more and delve deeper into the topics we have touched on in this article, we recommend starting with the following books.

  • “The Body Is Not An Apology” by Sonya Renee Taylor
  • “Body Kindness: Transform your health from the inside out — and never say diet again.” by Rebecca Scritchfield
  • “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
  • “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” by Casey Crosbie and Wendy Sterling
  • “How to Nourish Yourself Through an Eating Disorder” by Casey Crosbie and Wendy Sterling
  • “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” by Sabrina Strings
  • “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat” by Aubrey Gordon
  • “Overcoming Binge Eating” by Christopher Fairburn