The Problem With Diet Culture
I recently heard diet culture defined as "a society that focuses on and values weight, shape, and size over health and well-being." I think that's the perfect definition; it operates on a widely held belief-that we need to make our bodies smaller to achieve optimal "health." Not only is this mindset misguided, it's really damaging. Diet culture harms everyone; regardless of age or gender. The problem with diet culture is that it's really hard to see. When everyone around you is talking about food in terms of morality it seems normal. We hear it all the time. "I know it's bad but I'm going to have a milkshake," I ate so many bad foods over the holidays, I just need to focus on eating clean now," I've been doing so good lately, I'm eating really healthy." We hear it it the work place, at church, within families and between friends. People will mention how healthy they're being, or how much weight they've lost and we largely sing their praises for all their efforts.
For the most part diet culture is really subtle, making it even more difficult to spot. Big companies use words like "flexible," or "intuitive" to make you think their plan is safe and easy to follow. We congratulate pregnant women for being "all belly" in pregnancy and for how quickly they "lose the baby weight" after. Health care providers recommend cutting calories and increasing exercise to lose weight and be "healthier." We encourage brides to workout excessively for their weddings...
The list goes on and on. This is something so deeply rooted in our culture that most of the time, we don't even notice it. It's a normal part of our conversations.
Diet culture exploits some of our deepest insecurities and desires. It twists "health" together with love and acceptance. It makes us believe that our weight or size will measure our worth. These messages get all tangled up and we think we're doing good by prescribing plans to count calories and macros. We strive for lower numbers on the scale because we're told we'll be better and feel better that way.
It's messy and complex and it takes a lot of effort to climb out of that world. So we need to have compassion for the people who are still working through it. I've personally been there, so I know how easy it is to get caught up in that mindset.
When I was in college I was incredibly focused on maintaining and achieving what I thought was "perfect health." I was in a sorority and went to a huge school with tons of beautiful girls and felt a lot of pressure the have a "perfect body." I was micromanaging my food intake by meticulously counting calories, getting up at 5 am to run and exercise (usually some form of cardio) at least 6 days a week. I would go out to dinner at fun restaurants and always order a salad. I'd cook the same boring meals over and over again. As a nutrition student I felt like I had the upper hand, I knew exactly what "healthy" should look like and how to get there. It was easy to convince myself that I was only doing these things in the name of health.
Looking back now, I can see how diet culture played a big role in those habits. I loved the praise I got for eating so healthy all the time and being so dedicated to exercise. I didn't care that I was ignoring my sleep, had little energy and high stress levels. People said I was healthy, so I believed it. My experience is not unique. I've heard countless stories of similar experiences and others even more influenced by the harmful culture. Thankfully, my disordered relationship with food, exercise and body image improved and I never spiraled down into an actual eating disorder. I started to realize that I would never be able to find my worth in my appearance. I learned about real health and how to actually take care of myself.
It can be a long road to ending diet culture's influence in our lives. Doing so doesn't mean that you're giving up on being healthy or "letting yourself go," it just gives us the ability to focus on the right things. We are able to assess health more clearly and begin to really take care of ourselves. It starts with us recognizing that diet culture exists and it's a problem. From there we can start to see its role in our daily lives and we can begin un-learning the messages. I'll be rooting for you, but please reach out if you have questions or want to learn more!