Editor’s Note: This is part of a year-long series that takes a closer look at eating disorders, disordered eating and relationships with food and body image.
When you hear “diet culture,” you probably think of models, movies and magazines.
But it’s much too insidiously far reaching to be limited to what we take in from entertainment.
Much of the world is entrenched in ideas that controlling food and movement to get closer to an ideal body type is the way to go – even if it doesn’t lead to healthy choices, said Sabrina Strings, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine.
“The vast majority of the public is influenced by diet culture,” said Strings, author of “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.” “I think it is the overarching experience of our lives living in the West.”
While diet culture can contribute to eating disorders for many people, even those who don’t have a diagnosed condition often are subjected to shame, bullying, restriction, self-punishment and negative relationships with their food and body because of diet culture, said Jill Andrew, the first openly queer Black person to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and cofounder of Body Confidence Canada.
Often messages from diet culture can sound a lot like healthy eating advice, but the two are different, said Lauren Smolar, vice president of programs for the National Eating Disorders Association. And identifying if your dietary choices are being led by your body or what society says about your body is an important first step, she added.
What diet culture is
An important disclaimer: When these experts say “diet culture” they do not mean making choices with the health and well-being of your body and mind being the priority.
Diet culture is comprised of the influences and messages that impact how we eat, based on cultural pressure to attain an ideal body type, Smolar said.
It can be hard to tell when and to what extent society is influencing our eating habits, given the messaging that says a body with less fat is healthier and that some ways of eating are morally better than others.
“When you’re thinking of why you’re eating food or engaging in certain behaviors and thoughts, what is the reason behind it?” Smolar asked. “Are you doing it because your body is craving that food and that is what you need right now for nourishment? Or are you doing it because you feel like this is the right thing to do?
“Is it (that) society has told you that that choice is the better choice – even though your body might be telling you that there is a different option that it needs right now?” Smolar said.
Every single body needs different amounts of food, different levels of activity and different types of nourishment – anything that tells you there is one right way for everyone is a diet culture trap, she said.
How it controls our bodies
For Da’Shaun Harrison, diet culture is a prison.
Harrison, who uses they/them pronouns, was told to lose weight much of their life – so much so that when they got very sick as a child and began to lose pounds at a concerning rate, the illness went undetected for a while.
Instead of questioning it, those around them celebrated their body getting smaller, said Harrison, author of “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.”
“Diet culture is our society’s deep orientation toward trying to regulate what people eat as a mechanism or regulating what people weigh,” Strings added.
Eating disorder resources
US: National Eating Disorders Association
The control of how people look and behave and the prioritization of one appearance over another can impact everyone, and intersects particularly with racism, sexism and homophobia, Harrison said.
Diet culture promotes a very limited range of appearances that is acceptable to society and can put pressure on people to conform to those few images, even if they are not inclusive of their shape, gender, race and sexuality.
And while some messages sound like they are supporting those communities or offering medical advice, they may actually be promoting diet culture, Strings said.
She remembered living in the Bay Area and hearing ads on the radio saying Black people were stressed and not taking care of themselves. The ad said they needed to lose weight, she said.
“They claim to be concerned about Black folks’ health but what they’re doing is just pathologizing Black people,” she said.
What to replace it with
Joyful eating is a fundamental human experience, and diet culture shouldn’t be allowed to steal it, Strings said.
“We should have cake, we should have pie, we should have these things, and we shouldn’t feel like we don’t have the right to have them,” she said.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t think about nutrition, Andrew said, but it does mean that you should think about what you need mentally and physically instead of what others want you to look like. Punishing yourself around food can lead to a worse relationship with food and more indulgence in things that might not actually nourish your body, Andrew added.
Can’t figure out what you need to nourish your body? There are professionals who can help sort out which choices are coming from your body and which are coming from the culture of dieting around you. Therapists and dieticians who specialize in eating disorders or intuitive eating are great places to start, Smolar said.
“If you’ve lived your entire life emerged, invested in diet culture and you’re trying to tease that out, sometimes that can take some professional support to be able to sort of turn off the messages that you may not be aware of or really change for yourself,” she added.