January 7

Diet Culture: What It Is and 5 Ways to Cope With It

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started to think of myself as anti-diet. I know it probably started making an influence early on when I began studying. I learned way back then (2009), that yo-yo dieting can be used to help people gain weight. Which I believe is why I have always struggled to fully embrace the usual meal plans and tupperware meals so common in the fitness industry. I knew I couldn't live my life that way, so why work so hard on it?!

As I am working with more and more clients as a Holistic Health Coach, I have had to figure out how I am going to balance offering weight loss. I don't want to contribute to diet culture, but I do want to offer sustainable weight loss because the desire for weight loss help isn't going away any time soon. 

Which means, I have always discussed diet culture in some way when working with clients. Mostly bringing attention to the problems with crash dieting, using "hacks" before making room for the big rocks of deep health and how social media can create unrealistic expectations.

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

Equates thinness to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you have to lose weight just because you don’t look like the current “ideal” body.

Promotes thinness as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

Reduces us to body parts that need to be "fixed" rather than whole, beautiful people. Food is turned into a collection of calories to be controlled. And exercise becomes a tool to try achieve an often unattainable body type rather than something joyful or empowering.

Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your time.

Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women and people in larger bodies, damaging both their mental and physical health.

Notice that diet culture is not just about dieting. It encompasses so much more than that. Oppressive body and beauty standards. The promotion of weight loss at any cost. The moral value of food (the idea that there’s “good” and “bad” food, or a “right” and “wrong” way to eat). And discrimination of anyone whose body doesn’t fit the narrow “ideal.”

Why is Diet Culture Harmful?

For decades, we have been inundated with messaging that there is a “right” way to eat and exercise in order to achieve the "correct" body size as a means to a more fulfilling life — and that it's attainable for anybody who has the 'right' willpower, the 'right' determination, and that any failures on this front are ours and ours alone. The reality is much different. 

In actual fact, there is no “correct” body size, and even if there were, it’s not attainable to whomever does the “right” thing (or whatever weight loss trend may be viewed as “right” at the moment), as evidenced by the 98% failure rate of diets. This stat alone is proof of the no-win norm that we have been groomed to accept as fact.

Perhaps the larger problem is that, when we do gain weight back post-diet, we have learned to internalize it as a failure of self instead of accepting that it is ultimately a success for evolution and our bodies’ way of protecting us from starvation.

And this "fact" sets us up to judge ourselves — and judge other people, too. We’re living in a society in which the value placed on thinness is oppressive for all of us, but especially for anyone living in a bigger body. Research shows that when you don’t stigmatize people for being in a larger body or for their weight at all, they actually have better health outcomes.

In fact, changing body weight doesn't automatically translate to better health. Behaviours do. What are other ways can you support your health, outside of weight loss?

Read More: Why Diets Don’t Work… and What Does

5 Ways To Overcome Diet Culture For Sustainable Health

1. Recognize Diet Culture Messaging

Diet culture messaging is all around us at all times. It can be as obvious as driving past a Slimming World sign, or as low-key as hearing someone rave about how much weight they lost using Noom, MyFitnessPal or Bodyslims. We have weight loss meals in our supermarkets and ads everywhere promoting the latest diet or workout. The point is it's essentially impossible to live in modern-day society without having the *magic of diets* waved in front of your face.

To make matters worse, especially for younger, up and coming generations, this messaging is in the palms of our hands. Social media plays a major role in how we form beliefs around food and body image by mainly circulating posts of "influencers" who are deemed attractive and promote the idea that the secret to happiness and freedom is locked within a smaller body requiring a "willpower" key.

Research finds that frequent exposure to thin-ideal media often leads to higher levels of body dissatisfaction. Over time, these body concerns can become so deeply ingrained that it may eventually lead to disordered eating behaviors or an eating disorder.

The first step is taking an honest look at the media you consume on a regular basis. TV Shows like Love Island, Selling Sunset, films which promote how changing the hero's appearance has improved their life, magazines which discuss health but are laden with weight loss content are all media to evaluate.

Take some time to go through each of your social media feeds and unfollow any accounts that are triggering or promoting diet culture-related content. Be mindful when following new accounts. If you notice some diet culture messaging, ask yourself if you really need to be consuming it.

2. Establish A Healthy Relationship With Food

When I begin working with a new client I start with getting to know them and their current lifestyle. This includes reviewing not just what they are regularly eating, but how, when, where, with who to identify patterns. 

For instance, many clients engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food groups and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as meal replacements, calorie controlled ready meals), over-exercising, and feeling anxiety about social events with food.

Spending more time on the what (with a meal plan for example), rather than the how would not move these clients forward on anything but a superficial level.

Food is an incredible way for us to support longevity, disease prevention, reduce inflammation, and to feel better, living with more vitality every passing day. But, it’s important to understand that your relationship with food goes deeper than fueling your body. Unlike animals that eat solely for survival, humans eat for a variety of reasons, such as joy, pleasure, culture, tradition, socialization, and to fuel our bodies.

A healthy, good relationship with food means welcoming all foods with no restrictions, seeing the value in food beyond calories, and remembering that your value as a human isn’t dictated by your size or health status. It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your diet, but rather how and why you choose the foods you eat and often includes:

  • Enjoying the taste, social, traditional, and cultural aspects of food
  • Being aware of how, why, and where you eat
  • Noticing your body signals for hunger and fullness
  • Looking at food as a source of energy, nourishment, and enjoyment
  • Knowing that eating will change based on appetite, emotions, routines, and many other factors

Like any relationship, it is personal, unique, and requires regular work to keep it healthy. Though it may seem impossible to fix your bad relationship with food, with time, it is possible to get to a state in which food no longer controls you and instead fuels your overall well-being.

Taking the first steps is scary and difficult but well worth it in the long run as you’ll notice a lot less stress and worry around eating and much more food freedom and enjoyment.

3. Listen To Your Internal Dialogue

There are a few different levels to this, but we’ll start with the way that you talk about food. When we say we need to “burn off” or “make up for” the cheeseboard we shared with friends; when we skip the dessert we want because it's not “worth it”; whenever we ascribe virtue to our food choices, giggling that it’s naughty when we choose to eat what we crave or what comforts us, or good when we opt for low-calorie, low-carb, or other foods is deemed healthy.

All of that talk is part of diet culture, and it is so inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture that many people aren’t even consciously aware of the daily internal inundation. The things we say to ourselves surrounded by the way we look at our bodies, the way we approach food, the way we criticize and praise ourselves, are often a result of the messages we have internalised.

Diet talk (and anti-fat talk) is also culturally normalized, especially among women, Do you pick yourself apart? I’m talking about the criticisms you say to yourself about your height, weight, how your clothes fit, the things you eat. All of this negativity has been influenced by diet culture messaging telling you that you’re imperfect and that you should be ashamed of your imperfections/differences (what makes you unique) because they’re not the ideal our society and media promote.

Start to build awareness around the way you talk to yourself. Remove the guilt and shame, and become curious about the narrative. Would you say these things out loud to a loved one about their body? If not, what makes it OK to speak this way to yourself? Reframe your self-talk with the same compassion you would offer a loved one.

If eating and your body image is taking up a lot of head space and it’s affecting your day-to-day and your ability to be present with yourself and other people. I invite you to not minimize it because, disordered eating and dieting are so pervasive you might not think that it’s a big deal, but it’s a big deal because it’s affecting your life.

If you struggle with body image, disordered eating, an eating disorder, or are concerned about your health, or eating habits, speak to a qualified health care provider. Don't put it off. Get an appointment with your G.P. or Google right now for these services in your area or online.

4. Write down every food rule you have ever followed.

Food rules are a sneaky way diet culture infiltrates our lives. We may not be on a formal diet, but we pick up bits and pieces of here and there and essentially make our own diet. I’ve certainly worked with clients who don’t identify as someone who diets, but do follow a lot of these food rules. Food rules can include things like, “Don’t eat past 7pm”, “Don’t eat added sugar”, or “Only eat x amount of calories.” 

These are rules we pick up from outside influences. Without these influences, there’s no way we’d be following these; we’d be eating like we were when we were babies. We are all born intuitive eaters. We just have this diet culture society that tears us away from trusting ourselves and our bodies.

Recognizing and letting go of food rules is a part of relearning being guided by our internal wisdom instead of these external influences. To start, make a list of the food rules you follow. Be honest with yourself and show yourself a lot of compassion along the way. Try to do this non-judgmentally. Once you’ve made your list, reflect on:

  • Where did these rules come from?
  • When did you begin following this food rule?
  • Do others around you follow food rules?
  • Do some food rules conflict?
  • How following this food rule affects you?
  • What purpose does this food rule serve you?
  • What are the pros and cons of following this food rule? 
  • What are the pros and cons of letting go of this food rule?
  • What does it feel like to let go of the food rule? 
  • What emotions have come up for you? 
  • What has my self-talk been like while considering giving up a rule? (Judgmental, compassionate, etc.)
  • Can you take a baby step and challenge one of those rules?

Then, practice letting go of one food rule at a time. If it feels scary, think of this like an experiment, it doesn't have to be forever. See how you feel, mentally and physically after a week or two without the food rule. Over time, the goal is to let go of all food rules and really make peace with food. 

It is normal to feel resistance. Many people struggle with the idea of ditching the diet mentality and pushing away years of the diet culture messages they’ve been getting since a young age. However, your resilience will grow and as you practice listening to your internal guidance and preferences, this becomes easier.

5. Commenting on Another Persons Body

Commenting on someone’s apparent weight loss, or complimenting them on their body in pretty much any way, is seen as one of the highest forms of praise. You might think, “How could a compliment ever be anything but a good thing? It’s a compliment!”

Your intention might be good. But really, compliments like this just reinforce the idea that certain body sizes are better than others, and that weight loss is always a good thing, no matter how they got there.

What if someone went to extremes to get to that weight? Or what if they’re suffering from an illness? What if they have an eating disorder? There's just no way of knowing. And if you did know these things, I'm sure your compliments would focus elsewhere.

And, perhaps even more importantly, what happens when they (almost inevitably) gain back the weight they’ve lost? They’ll likely be remembering how many compliments they received when their body was smaller, and wondering what people are thinking about their now-larger body.

Before you give out a compliment on someone’s assumed weight loss or their body, think about how it might affect them long-term. These compliments are absolutely based on the assumption that thin is best. And even if someone is happy to receive them in the moment, compliments like these keep you both trapped in the type of thinking that praises thinness at all costs.

Instead, if someone looks happy, or has a great outfit on, or is spreading good vibes, tell them that instead. If it's a close friend or family member who you know is on a weight loss journey, check in with them and see how they'd like you to note their changes. Maybe they'd rather you not say anything at all, or maybe they'd enjoy some encouragement.

Either way, remember to check in before commenting on someone else's body without their permission.

Challenging Diet Culture

At the end of your life people aren’t going to remember your weight. They’re going to remember what you were like as a person. They are going to remember the things you did, the way you made them feel, and the memories that you made together. Living a life that is full of activities, maximizing the ability of your body, moving well, and feeling radiant from the inside out is what living is all about.

It can feel intimidating and deeply personal to pick apart it's influence on your life. Knowing where to start can be daunting, and it’s naive to think that you can change everyone’s mind. We are swimming against a strong current of media, big business, biology and culture.

I think the first place to start is with yourself. Do what you can, lead by example. Begin by noticing the messaging and challenge it's effect on you and limit it's spread to your children and teens who are still forming a relationship with food and their own bodies. Educate them about it, and how it can affect them.

Can You Reject Diet Culture and Still Want to Change your Body?

Do you want to lose weight so you will be physically healthier? Then absolutely yes. Having the mindset of wanting to lose weight to improve your health rather than to feel accepted by others is exactly what I hope every client says!

Those most successful at breaking the yo-yo diet cycle are those who are able to embrace healthy eating behaviors, such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry, rather than treating food as something that needs to be monitored and controlled.

And what if you just want to lose some weight?  This is completely understandable. We are still hardwired to care about our appearance, and we’re expressing ourselves via our appearance ALL THE TIME through fashion, makeup, tanners and hairstyles! I think this is part of being human as we are still largely driven by our ancestral genetics.

Why should we then feel different about our body? Especially when all this is possibly a biological part of our society. Which is why I always support my Health Coaching Clients in whatever THEY want for themselves and their bodies. But I have to balance that with true care. so I don't take on clients who are not ready for this nuanced work together.

Healthy and sustainable weight loss is possible! Making lifestyle modifications to include foods and movement that you enjoy, while avoiding severe restriction, is key. A healthy lifestyle is not always easy to follow, but it can become your norm. The many benefits include better quality of life, lower risk of diseases, and improved mental health.

Before looking for a quick fix, trying the next new diet, asking for a perfect meal plan to be created and handed to you consider the following:

  • Digging into WHY you want to make these changes. Personal preference? Solely external influence? Shame or embarrassment? Performance? Can't afford a new wardrobe and need to fit into some of your old clothes?
  • Do you accept yourself and your body fully NOW? If not, then making changes solely driven by appearance may not be the best move.
  • Is your goal actually in alignment with your genetics, lifestyle, food and exercise preferences? If not, then it’s likely not worth it.
  • Do you have a solid, positive relationship with food and exercise, where they’re empowering and enjoyable? If not, nail that down first.
  • Are you treating yourself with respect and compassion TODAY? If not, focus on that first.
  • Whose opinions do you *actually* care about? The list should be REALLY small, with yours at the top. And those people should care about how you treat yourself, not care only about your appearance.
  • Are you fulfilled in other areas of your life, like relationships? If not, start there to ensure you're not using your body as a scapegoat.

Once you have the big rocks of a healthy lifestyle in place, ask yourself if the rest is actually worth it to you!

Want Some Help?

Everyone is unique. And everyone, I would hope, would have an individualized way forward when they feel stuck. After all, no one way of eating will work for everyone and can't factor in who you are as a person and what access to resources you have.

I guide you through making sound nutritional decisions, stress management techniques, improving your sleep and guiding you through the intricacies of change so you can learn how to take control of your health, and discover what if feels like to trust your body again.

If you're thinking of working with me, the first step is booking a Compatibility Call to make sure we are a good fit. It's like a mutual interview, you see if you would like to work with me and I am checking if you are truly coachable. Otherwise, we will BOTH be frustrated if you aren't seeing whatever results you desire.

Meet Emma

Hi, I am Emma McAtasney, a NCEHS Personal Trainer since 2009. I earned my Pilates credentials through BASI Pilates, a highly respected college-level Pilates teacher training programme which aim is to create and maintain professional standards for the teaching of the Pilates Method to the highest calibre.

In addition, I am a prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist, nutritionist and founder of a boutique Pilates studio in Dundalk, Ireland.

I help my clients eat healthier, ditch fad diets and lose weight for good by guiding them to make small manageable changes that long term have a huge impact on their quality of life!

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