Why Is Diet Culture So Toxic?
From the age of 5, some children are unsatisfied with their bodies.
One-third of 9-year-old girls have tried to lose weight.
More than half of adolescents are dissatisfied with their body appearance.
Almost three in four women want to lose weight, regardless of their weight.
Almost one in five men are dissatisfied with their weight. (1)
Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about diet culture and its toxicity more in depth.
What is diet culture?
You don’t have to follow a strict and official diet to be immersed in the culture of dieting. Diet culture worships thinness while oppressing people who do not correspond to that supposed thin “ideal”. It also promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, or as the solution to achieve many things (e.g. health, positive body image, higher self-esteem…), and vilifies certain ways of eating while upraising others (2).
Diet culture is not only about diet. I know, this is very confusing, but diet culture also concerns all of our food choices under the pretext that it mirrors our morality: every choice has to be categorized as either “good” or “bad” (e.g. sugar = bad, but maple syrup = good; white bread = bad, but whole grain bread = good). Examples of diet culture include:
everything under the umbrella term “wellness diet” such as “clean eating”, “detox”, “cleanse”, and “(whatever-it-is-you-avoid)-free”;
all the TikToks about people barely eating in their “What I eat in a day” videos;
anything promoting restriction of foods in general or specific food groups while putting others on a pedestal;
your favorite influencers posting what they do to stay “in shape”, or promoting a miracle product that “works” on them to be thin;
when your friend claims they would be so much happier with or without XYZ about their body shape;
your family member talking about XYZ diet they’re doing and how they’ve lost X lbs already;
I could go on for a long time but I’m hoping you’re starting to get the picture here.
So, what is the problem?
Diet culture can be very sneaky and hard to detect, when in fact, it’s pretty much everywhere. Diet culture robs people of all sizes from their money, time, health, and happiness. It plays a major role in perpetuating eating disorders, food-body preoccupation, weight stigma, and fatphobia (3). Fatphobia is defined as a “set of hostile attitudes and behaviors that stigmatize and discriminate against fat, overweight or obese people” (translated from the French dictionary Le Petit Robert 2019). Sadly, fatphobia is also everywhere and it is one of the driving forces of this diet culture.
Well then, who is the problem?
The system. Let me reiterate: the system is the problem, NOT you. The ultimate goal of the diet industry is to make money. Just to put this into perspective, in 2018, the weight loss industry accounted for 72 billion dollars in the United-States (4). Thus, they will do anything to make you feel like you need what they’re selling you.
- 88-95% of the time, people will regain weight (5-7);
- Weight loss efforts predict long-term weight gain, even in people previously normal weight or underweight (8-10);
- 60% of people that regain weight will regain even more than what they had lost;
This industry will try to blame it on you so that you try another one, and another one… until you break free from it (11).
How to break free from diet culture?
1. Recognize it.
2. Educate yourself on the subject. The more you read/hear/talk about it, the more you will be able to recognize and dissociate from it.
3. Get familiar with the Health at Every Size ® (HAES®) approach. As Bacon et al. (2011) stated, “randomized controlled clinical trials indicate that a HAES® approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. eating and activity habits, dietary quality), and psychosocial outcomes (e.g. body image and self-esteem)”. More beautifully, HAES® also achieves these health results more successfully than traditional weight loss treatment, without the negative consequences associated with a weight focus (3).
4. Follow #antidiet , #HAES, and #bodypositive social media accounts that make you feel good and unfollow the ones that do not. Here are some of my favorites: @lisarutledgerdn , @dietitiandeanna , @jessicawilson.msrd , @diet.culture.rebel , @no.food.rules , @chr1styharrison , @thefuckitdiet ,
(French accounts: @nutrition.positive , @mangerenharmonie , @jessicaprdnc , @lespiedsdanslesplats_ , @groupeequilibre)
5. If needed, do not hesitate to seek support. Here is the McGill Student Wellness Hub website: https://www.mcgill.ca/wellness-hub/.
1. Groupe Équilibre. L’approche d’Équilibre. Retrieved from https://equilibre.ca/notre-approche/lapproche-dequilibre/
2. Harrison C. (2020). What is diet culture? Retrieved from https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture
3. Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutr J 10, 9 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9
4. LaRosa J. (2019). Top 9 things to know about the weight loss industry. Retrieved from https://blog.marketresearch.com/u.s.-weight-loss-industry-grows-to-72-billion
5. Methods for voluntary weight loss and control. (1993). Annals of Internal Medicine, 119(7 Part 2), 764–770.
6. Fildes, A., Charlton, J., Rudisill, C., Littlejohns, P., Prevost, A. T., & Gulliford, M. C. (2015). Probability of an obese person attaining normal body weight: cohort study using electronic health records. American Journal of Public Health, 105(9), 59. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302773
7. National Health and Medical Research Council (2013). Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults, adolescents, and children in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/file/4916/download?token=5RaPGL3n
8. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Haines, J., Story, M., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2007). Why does dieting predict weight gain in adolescents? Findings from project EAT-II: a 5-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(3), 448–455. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2006.12.013
9. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Story, M., & Standish, A. R. (2012). Dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors during adolescence: associations with 10-year changes in body mass index. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 50(1), 80–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.05.010
10. Stice, E., Cameron, R. P., Killen, J. D., Hayward, C., & Taylor, C. B. (1999). Naturalistic weight-reduction efforts prospectively predict growth in relative weight and onset of obesity among female adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67(6), 967–974. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.67.6.967
11. Mann, T., Tomiyama, A. J., Westling, E., Lew, A. M., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. The American psychologist, 62(3), 220–233. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220