Diet culture is the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than physical, psychological, and general well-being. It’s the idea that controlling your body, particularly your diet—by limiting what and how much you eat—is normal.
Diet culture also normalizes labeling foods as good or bad and thinking of food as transactional—something that you either earn or don’t deserve depending on how you’ve eaten and worked out. Not only is food labeled, but people may label themselves as good or bad for consuming these foods.
People who have been conditioned to accept diet culture as a normal way of life may have a poor self-image, regularly participate in negative self-talk, and believe that being thin makes a person better than someone who is not. They may also have an all-or-nothing mentality.
Diet Culture and Disordered Eating
Diet culture is one factor that contributes to disordered eating habits. This generally occurs from a lack of focus on nutrition while prioritizing low-calorie foods. It can also affect how someone views exercise since activity can be viewed as a way to work off so-called bad foods or used as a way to earn food.
Food is More Than Fuel
The idea that food is only fuel and must be earned is a toxic notion that can create disordered eating and eating disorders. Food is much more than fuel. It is a social and cultural part of our lives. Solely focusing on food as fuel—or good vs. bad—isolates you from enjoying and embracing food as a deeper and more meaningful part of your life.
This effect is often seen after a major holiday when advertisements and articles push for detoxes or cleanses to “reset” or purge your body of “bad” food choices. Not only are these practices unscientific and potentially dangerous, but they also push the idea that enjoying food must come with a consequence.
Moreover, not all physically beneficial components of food provide fuel. Food is full of nutrients, phytochemicals, water, antioxidants, and other essential factors that contribute to an overall thriving body but provide little in the way of actual fuel.
While the aspects of foods that supply us with energy—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—are vital, they are only part of the bigger picture regarding nutrition.
Avoiding nutrient-dense foods in favor of low-calorie foods, or restricting your food intake so that you do not obtain the correct amount of nutrients for optimal functioning, causes you to miss out on important qualities food has to offer. This can be detrimental to your health or contribute to poor health.
Diet Culture As an Unhealthy Obsession
Labeling yourself as good or bad based on the foods you eat can lead to worsening disordered eating habits and may lead to an eating disorder. Trying to rigidly stick to consuming only food deemed as good, as virtuous as it sounds, can be considered an eating disorder called orthorexia.
Orthorexia is considered an extreme form of clean eating—an obsessive focus on what the person believes to be the “correct” healthy diet. This obsession leads to interference with everyday life, including social, emotional, and more.
Some characteristics of orthorexia include:
- A restrictive diet
- Rituals based around eating
- Avoidance of foods not considered “good” or healthy
Diet culture contributes to orthorexia because it encourages avoiding foods or restricting your diet. Examples include avoiding gluten when you do not have an intolerance or allergy, extreme versions of veganism, extreme low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets, detoxes, cleanses, and avoiding all GMOs or non-organic foods.
Orthorexia can lead to other disorders such as anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorders, including body dysmorphic disorder. Eating disorders, as well as disordered eating behavior, can result directly from the poor body image that occurs due to diet culture and the glorification of thinness. Body dysmorphic disorder causes people to become fixated and obsessed with their outward appearance and what they see as flaws.
How to Combat Diet Culture
While altogether avoiding diet culture is impossible due to its pervasive nature in all aspects of society, there are ways that you can both limit your exposure to diet culture and advocate against it.
Avoid Some Forms of Media
Avoid any type of social media, forums, online groups, or programming that makes you feel like you are not good enough the way that you are. Media usage has been shown to increase feelings of poor self-image, which is a prominent aspect of diet culture.
Practice Body Neutrality
Body neutrality is the idea that you should focus on what your body can do right now, in the present, rather than what you want it to look like. It takes your mind off of trying to manipulate or control what you look like. Instead, it shifts your mindset to become ambivalent about the way you look and focused on respecting the things you can do now.
Practicing body neutrality can help you step away from diet culture and food labeling, instead helping you work towards honoring your body as it is now.
Educate Yourself on Health
Reading and educating yourself on what overall health is might help you gain a deeper understanding of how focusing solely on thinness and food restriction can be detrimental to your health. It also helps you understand the broad range of ways to be healthy, including diverse body types and eating patterns.
Diet culture can feel like an unavoidable pressure everyone has to experience. It’s important to know that dieting is not the only way to pursue health, and being thin does not automatically mean healthy.