10 ways Diet Culture is infiltrating our lives (and minds) and what we can do to take action to be informed, educated and empowered in our bodies.
I’ve recently finished the NEW book Anti-Diet by HAES® informed Registered Dietitian and Intuitive Eating Counsellor Christy Harrison (I highly recommend it by the way). At one point she talks about how insidious Diet Culture has become. And it got me really seeing it. Like seeing it (as if for the first time). And now I can’t unsee it, and I’m all fired up. Because Diet Culture is so pervasive and “unassuming,” it has truly integrated itself into our way of thinking and woven its dangerous threads into our cultural consciousness. So much so, we don’t even realize it’s there.
And here’s the thing (and the reason I’m so fired up). It’s not just making us feel shitty about our bodies and in a perpetual state of on and off the wagon (hello, infuriating), it’s actually costing us. In dollars, in time, in happiness, and in our actual health (oh the irony).
Truth bomb: all that stress you feel around what to eat/ when to eat/ what fitness program to do/ whether you burned enough calories/ whether your macros are right/ if it’s too processed and organic enough… that is all stress (and not the good kind). Layer on guilt and shame when you don’t feel like all your work is measuring up or you get frustrated and quit, and you’ve got a one-way ticket to the unhealthiest “healthy” person out there. Why the quotations around “healthy?” Because all that stress it’s actually more damaging to your health than simply eating the stereotypical “bad” diet. Yeah. Let that sink in a hot minute.
It really got me thinking, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know. So this blog is about shining a light on what you maybe don’t know. So you can step out of the shadow of this insidious beast we call “Diet Culture” and be free from the constraints of it for good!
But before we begin. What is diet culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and fatness to disease. It reinforces the old (broken) paradigm I outlined in my book, The Elephant in the Gym whereby achieving your “desired outcome” of a healthy body (aka diet culturally defined “thin/ toned/ fit” body) is as simple as having a desire to change and pairing that with a gritty combination of a “perfect program” and hard work. Because thinness is idealized and praised, Diet Culture stigmatizes larger bodies and shames people who don’t “measure up,” or appear to be “working on it” (aka engaging in Diet Culture). Diet Culture plays on our human desire to belong and draws us in with empty promises and hope that there is indeed a solution that will solve our “body problem,” ignoring the research that shows us that almost nobody can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years. We spend time, energy and money but all diet culture really accomplishes is stealing our joy.
Before we dig into some of the sneaky (unseen) tactics of Diet Culture I want to share with you one more piece of very compelling research.
The research around dieting is plentiful. Mostly because it’s easily funded by none-other than the diet industry. Of course they want “proof” it works. But the long term unbiased stats aren’t promising. Long-term follow-up studies have found that one-third to two-thirds of the weight lost is regained within 1 year and almost all is regained (and sometimes more) within 5 years. What’s more, the weight cycling most dieters experience (aka yoyo dieting and subsequent weight loss and gain), puts dieters at higher risk of cardiovascular disease independent of weight. (want to geek out? Check out some of the research here, here and here).
Yeah. It’s body shaming BS. And it’s not ok. But knowing it means you can DO something about it. You can increase your awareness and take action to protect yourself (and those you love) from the biases and stigma pervasive in Diet Culture and ditch it for good.
I often say Diet Culture is something that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Which is both empowering and maddening. If what you read below gets you a little hot under the collar, I get it (me too). Use that fire to fuel action. Get informed and educated (check out the reading list below!). Then armed with the facts, stand up for yourself and others! Inform, educate and empower.
Here are some of the sneaky ways Diet Culture infiltrates our lives and minds:
- Before and after photos. I get it. I know why they get shared. Heck I used to share them too (a truth I’m now embarrassed to admit, but also #whenyouknowbetteryoudobetter #alwayslearning). I stopped sharing them when I started “getting” the cost. Here are the problems with before and after pictures as they are generally shared. Note: in general most before and afters are showing fat loss/ increased muscle, so I recognize I am making some generalizations and I acknowledge that).
- These photos imply that a smaller body is a “better” body and if that’s the case, the assumption is that bigger bodies are bad. This reinforces weight stigma and the implication that fat = ill-health. This is not only untrue, it’s dangerous and reinforces weight stigma (more on that later).
- They don’t tell you anything about the health of the individual. Fat does not equate to ill-health and thin does not equate to good health. In many cases people in thin bodies are actually very unhealthy, and those in fat bodies are very healthy. We need to ditch our assumptions and weight bias.
- “Guilt-free” or “clean” and other such labels on food. Just go to your local grocery store for this one. Labels on products that imply their health worthy-ness and also imply morality (aka sinfully good or devilishly delicious).
- We need to uncouple food from moral imperative. There are no good or bad foods. No foods that make you righteous or gluttonous. You are not good if you “eat clean” nor are you bad if you eat “junk food” or processed foods. Your morality and your nutrition/ fitness/ health choices are mutually exclusive.
- All foods can be part of your healthy nutritional approach. By giving yourself permission to eat what you want, when you want and how much you want, you reclaim your autonomy and make peace with food. This is cornerstone principle of Intuitive Eating and can be absolutely game-changing.
- Compensatory conversation. The notion that you have to earn your food or work off anything you consume, plays into the simplistic (and inaccurate) model of energy balance that has long been reinforced by the fitness and diet industries.
- Great news: you don’t have to #earnit. You have permission to eat foods that you enjoy with ease and move because it feels good or you have goals (non diet culture influenced ones that bring you joy!)
- Energy balance (aka weight balance) is not as simple as energy in vs. energy out. There are way more factors at play (such as your resting metabolism, how much metabolically active tissue you have, and how well your body converts food into energy, to name a few)! Put the My Fitness Pal app down kids. It’s just making you obsessed and isn’t actually accurate (did you know it’s “data” is populated by it’s users? Read: it’s not even accurate, again, #byefelicia). Furthermore it often blunts your capability to listen to your innate hunger signals and be responsive to your body cues. For more on why I don’t recommend food trackers read this.
- Making exercise compensatory behaviour also makes it punitive and kills the joy of movement. The majority of people will not (consistently) do things they view as punitive (even subconsciously). When we kill the joy, we kill the habit. If you want to move consistently, build movement into your life that you actually enjoy.
- Water cooler “wound bonding.” You know, the “harmless banter” about the latest diet, program or plan you have over a cup of coffee or wine or Pandemic style via Facetime or Zoom.
- It tends to start with self-depreciating commentary about your body and how you need to “get back on track” and the associated “culturally appropriate” commiserating that ensues. Followed (of course) by banter about what celeb is doing what celeb trainer plan, or what the best keto friendly restaurant is in town or what new program or plan you’re starting on Monday.
- All of it. All of it is unhelpful and reinforces the thin ideals and thinness at all costs mentality set forth by Diet Culture.
- Size based metrics. Aka the BMI charts, scales, bio-imepedence (body fat scales), and girth/ caliper measurements that predominate the fitness and diet industry (along with those blessed before and after photos). These types of measurements don’t offer any qualitative information about the individual’s actual health (aka metrics that actually make a difference in your health and well-being). As discussed earlier, a “bigger” body does not equate to ill-health and thin does not equate to good health.
- You can be thin and have blood pressure through the roof. You can be thin and have high levels of cholesterol. Both are associated with an increased risk fo Cardiovascular Disease.
- Further, the BMI chart as a tool to evaluate individual health is a complete mis-use altogether. Which is terribly unfortunate given that the majority of physicians and weight loss programs base their “target weights” for individuals upon this flawed tool. The BMI chart was actually developed in the 19th century by a mathematician to give governing bodies a quick and easy way to measure the degree of obesity of the general population to assist the government in allocating resources. Again, this entire methodology is surmised upon the assumption that fatness = illness. But wait, it gets worse! In 1998 an advisory committee was formed to evaluate the research and advise the NIH (national institute of health) as to whether the tool was still accurate. Based on their review of the research they advised a move of the scale UP – meaning there was more evidence to show that higher weights were correlated with better health outcomes. In the end the NIH lowered the recommendations making thousands of people “obese” overnight and beginning the war on obesity. Just why they made that decision is somewhat of a conspiracy theory. It has been said that it is due to pressure from industry. Diet industry. Shocker.
- Additionally, if we’re truly intent on helping improve the health and well-being of an individual through our fitness + nutrition interventions, perhaps instead we might look at metrics that give us better health data. Functional measures like the clients ability to move their body in activities of daily living or in ways they choose to move (ie. if a client wants to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded, perhaps we should take a qualitative measure of this improvement over time. Or quality of life measures like sleep quantity and quality, client subjective measures of overall energy and vitality, and mental health metrics like stress coping or reduction in anxiety or depression symptoms. By looking beyond the aesthetic and into the individuals experience of health, we can garner more important (and valuable) measures of progress.
- Pathologizing fat bodies. Both in the medical system and socially. This is a can of worms, but for now I’ll summarize it as this: there is considerable research to show (some shared above) the root of disease lies not in the “obese” body, but in the weight stigma experienced by those in “obese” bodies.
- Regularly, I hear stories from people in bigger bodies who have been to the doctor for an acute condition (say strep throat), who left with a prescription and a hefty dose of shame about their weight. It’s not only unhelpful, it’s harmful to the doctor patient relationship and the patients health. More on that in a bit…
- Additionally, people in bigger bodies experience disparities between care provided due to assumptions about the health consequences of fatness. This can be as “minor” as the mis-treatment of joint pain and as major as missed diagnoses of chronic degenerative conditions.
- There is actually considerable evidence that the weight-normative approach (aka counselling patients to conform to the broken paradigm that thinner bodies = healthy bodies) and its focus on weight and weight loss is linked to diminished health (awesome geeky science here).
- Additionally there is a significant loss of trust between physician and patient with this type of treatment, which also results in poor access to health care and delayed treatment for those in bigger bodies.
- I will note that the number of HAES® informed physicians is on the rise, which gives me incredible hope, but there is most certainly more work to be done. As a start, taking steps outlined in this article.
- The predominance of thin imagery in marketing. This one really gets me. The images used in health, fitness and diet marketing customarily fit within a very narrow aesthetic – the thin aesthetic perpetuated by Diet Culture.
- Google “fit woman” or “healthy woman” and you’ll be primarily bombarded by thin, white, young women. I often view Google as a microcosm of our societal beliefs. But you don’t have to look far to see it in advertising.
- In marketing the objective is to use imagery that draws the person (your ideal client/ customer/ consume) to assume that using your product/ service will help them look and feel like the actor/ model. It’s “aspirational.” If a larger body is used, it’s generally to show what the ideal customer doesn’t want (aka the before picture). This reinforces the mis-belief that thinness = health and fatness = ill-health (return to before and after bullets on why this is not only unhelpful, but harmful!).
- If a person in a bigger body is used within marketing the person is usually “on their journey,” and celebrated with a patronizing tone. There are also so many incredibly healthy people living in bigger bodies. Instead of shaming them, or marginalizing them, let’s celebrate them and showcase them so other people in healthy bodies can feel represented.
- Diet/ body representation in media. Between the predominance of the thin ideal and the reinforced Diet Culture commentary, TV and movies are a hotbed of Diet Culture.
- If you start to watch TV and movies with the Diet Culture lens it doesn’t take long to see it. The thin ideal is on overdrive in Hollywood and while we have begun to see more actors in bigger bodies featured in movies and TV, most typically they’re the “funny guy” or self-conscious friend. They aren’t typically the hero or heroine.
- If actors are in a bigger body they’re often seen to be engaging in diet culture. Recently I was most put off by an old episode of Modern Family where the 10-year old “old soul” character Manny makes regular Diet Culture infused commentary about how he’s “watching his weight.”
- Fitness programming that is centred around changing the aesthetic. Now before I get strung up, hear me out. I get that body building and figure competitions are a sport. I recognize the hours of work and the commitment it takes. And I also recognize that some people do it in a healthy way. And, I know far too many people who have engaged in this type of training and as a result developed disordered eating. If you love the sport and you can honestly say you have a 100% healthy relationship with food and fitness, you do you. But for the majority of people this is a huge issue. But my beef with this aesthetic focus goes way beyond the niche fitness area of figure or body building. The ideas and intention from these styles of training has infiltrated mainstream fitness. Mainstream fitness which (in theory) is out there to “help” the average person in pursuit of “health.”
- “Fat burning” classes, exercises that target “trouble areas,” the excessive focus on building a better butt (thanks Kim Kardashian). It’s all focused how the body looks, not on the functional capacity of the body. At the end of the day, how your butt looks or whether you have “cut abs” has no bearing on actual health metrics (circle back to point 5 and the issues with size based metrics).
- This aesthetic focus also goes beyond class types and is infiltrated into the industry through the way programs are marketed, the images used to promote said programs/plans/services and the language used by many fitness professionals both to get clients in the door and in session once they’re there. Ideas like a “fat burning zone” or motivational cuing like referencing how an exercise will help you “tone your abs,” “get your arms ready for tank top season” or get you “beach ready.” These all reinforce the notion that physical activity and movement is a chore designed purely to improve the aesthetic of the body, not the function of the body.
- While we’re at it can we talk about the lack of diversity in the fitness industry leaders and professionals? If you do see a plus sized instructor they’re often the ones teaching the “low impact” or “plus size” class. Which is great, but what about the kick ass athletes in plus sized bodies teaching the athletic or high intensity classes? It’s not nearly as prevalent due in part (in my opinion) to how marginalized fitness instructors in bigger bodies are made to feel (I sadly speak from experience). The weight stigma people in bigger bodies face is a huge barrier to someone entering into the profession and making a big difference. And when it comes to the glossy “professionals” out there in Lala-land? Hardly a plus sized “celeb trainer” to be found. If you see a plus sized person in a fitness video or in marketing they’re often the “modifier.” I call BS! There are so many fabulous, talented fitness instructors and professionals who also live in a bigger body. Let’s ditch the Diet Culture shame and help them come into the forefront!
- Complimenting that is body focused not trait focused. Specifically, the culturally accepted tendency to offer compliments when someone has lost weight.
- This not only reinforces the thin ideal, it also is a strange back handed compliment. If you’re praising the thin body, what does that say about the bigger body?
- This Diet Culture informed practice also assumes that weight loss was intended and was indeed healthy. I get into the issues that result from this and explain why I will never comment on weight loss or gain in this blog.
There’s so much more to say. And I will, but before I go any further in this blog, I need to address something. Because I can hear your but….
“But Gillian, what about their knees, hearts, what about diabetes!”
I hear you, health is what’s most important to me too. Which is why what I’ve learned about body weight/ size and how it relates to individual health, is quite possibly what I’ve found most alarming as I’ve explored this path.
There is no evidence to link higher weight/ fatness with higher risks for diseases like cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. There is a correlation between living in a bigger body and experiencing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But (and it’s a big one), as my stats teacher drilled into my head back in University, “correlation does not imply causation.”
There is a correlation between male pattern baldness and Cardiovascular disease too, but we haven’t started a “war on baldness.”
Why can’t we just blame fatness for all our health issues?
Because there are too many conflating factors. Let me explain.
People in bigger bodies also experience Weight Stigma and as a result have a significant allostatic load (aka. the “the wear and tear on the body” which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress). It also may mean an individual in a bigger body won’t have access to unbiased medical care as I discussed above. I could dig into this more, but for now, we’ll leave this rabbit hole and head over to the other major source of actual ill-health and disease among bigger bodied people, weight cycling.
Weight cycling is what happens when we lose and gain weight, repeatedly. It’s the “yoyo diet,” or “fitness wagon” I so often reference, and it’s not just exhausting, it’s really harmful for your body (and mind). When we lose weight and regain it there is a cost to our overall health too, including increased risks for cardiovascular disease, metabolic issues, as well as increased incidence of eating disorders.
The irony: both weight stigma and weight cycling are the fault of diet culture NOT being in a bigger body.
Bottom line: living in a bigger body does not doom you to a life of ill-health and disease. Weight is not the issue. The issue is the Diet Culture we’re swimming in. And I hope through this blog you’ve seen a few more ways that diet culture may be creeping into your subconscious.
Whether you live in a bigger body or not, I hope you will actively take steps to reduce your exposure to Diet Culture, and perhaps even further, take steps to become more informed, educated and empowered around the impact and cost of diet culture on our well being as individuals and as a society.
I truly believe that together we are stronger. If you’re fired up by this blog, awesome. Together, we rise.
Want some reading suggestions to help you become more informed, educated and empowered against Diet Culture? I’ve got some for you!
- Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resche and Evelyn Tribole
- Health at Every Size by Dr. Lindo Bacon (formerly Linda Bacon)
- Body Respect by Lindo Bacon (formerly Linda Bacon)
- Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
- Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth
- The Elephant in the Gym by Gillian Goerzen (oh hey, that’s mine!)
- 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body by Brenda Lane Richardson and Elane Rehr
- Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings
- Mothers, Daughters and Body Image by Hillary L. McBride
- The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonnigal
- Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln
- Big Fit Girl by Louise Green
If you’re interested in digging into how to ditch Diet Culture and truly rediscover your more authentic, intuitive path to health, I’d love to chat. Book a free 15-minute Discovery Call with me and let’s discuss next steps so you can experience true body liberation.