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Diet Culture & Why It’s Toxic To Our Mental Health

July 22nd, 2021


Written By: Beatrice Pacyga, LCSW

Diet culture is a belief system that values thinness, weight loss, food restriction, compulsive exercise and equates all these things with health and worth.

We see diet culture everywhere - in all forms of media, the workplace, at the doctor’s office, in retail and grocery stores - and we are bombarded by harmful messages created by the diet industry. Various diet programs are household names - Noom, Paleo, and Keto, oh my! Diet culture has such a hold on society that it is now a $71 billion dollar industry.

You may be asking yourself, “So what makes all this toxic to our health?” The answer is simple: it is all a lie, based on outdated health metrics and marketing manipulation.

What Is Diet Culture?

Diet culture tells us how to look, what to wear, coin phrases like “does this make me look skinny?”, what-when-and-how to eat, how to feel about our bodies, and even dictates how we use our bodies.

The diet industry affects everyone, however, it has historically targeted girls and women at higher rates. Six out of ten girls and women opt out of daily activities, including socializing or speaking up in school, due to poor body image.

Additionally, while harmful societal norms are only one of many factors that lead to the development of mental health conditions and eating disorders, diet culture influences rising rates of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. Eating disorders impact over 30 million Americans and have the highest mental illness mortality rate.

We need to ask ourselves why we continue to support a failing industry that is directly harmful to our physical and mental health. If someone told you to invest in a company with a 95% fail rate, would you? Probably not.

What Is Diet Culture?

Resisting Diet Culture

In order to combat diet culture, it is also important to understand what diet culture is not. Diet culture does not promote intuitive eating, health at every size (HAES), joyful movement as exercise, or self-love.

Instead, diet culture promotes:

  1. Lifelong weight-cycling, which is terrible for our biological systems. Our bodies crave homeostasis.
  2. Food restriction often results in our bodies going into starvation and famine mode, shutting off necessary systems and functions.
  3. Compulsive dependency on over-exercising.
  4. Placing faith in inaccurate means of measurements. The Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement is one of the poorest indicators of health and its creator (a mathematician, not a health professional) stated it should not be used to measure body fat. It was created to assist the government in allocating resources.

The BMI is highly abused today and does not take muscle mass into consideration. Additionally, we are conditioned to strive for a “normal” or “underweight” BMI, despite a plethora of evidence stating that individuals categorized as “overweight” by the BMI measurement live longer, healthier lives.

  1. Low self-worth and poor body image.

Anti-diet culture asks, “How can we make people healthier, no matter their size?” Anti-diet culture does not equate to anti-health; in fact, pursuing overall health and wellness is the very reason why we must stop supporting the diet industry.

Resisting Diet Culture

Diet Culture, COVID-19, and the “Quarantine 15”

The COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down - the way we worked, socialized, traveled, learned - and yes, even ate and exercised - changed. Many of us became less active as we stayed at home to flatten the curve, and maybe you found yourself baking bread, trying new recipes, or snacking more frequently. The work-from-home routine may have looked more sedentary without the normal commute.

The world changed, and for many of us, so did our bodies. This may have included “pandemic weight gain.” In our most vulnerable time - when many of us were experiencing sickness, grief, isolation, sadness, and fear - a new diet culture term started popping up everywhere: “The Quarantine 15.”

A term similar to the “Freshman 15,” it refers to the possible ways our bodies changed as we navigated a new way of life.

The diet industry was quick to promote this term, and preyed on vulnerabilities during a frightening and overwhelming time in order to make a profit in the name of “getting bikini ready for post-lockdown.”

Remember, the diet industry is a business, and just like any other, it is doing whatever it takes to regain its losses from 2020. When an industry or company is desperate, they will pull out the big guns to get back on track. Sometimes this means harming the consumer.

Your body may not look the same as it did in February 2020. It may look different than it did when you were in college or high school. Your body may have changed, but you have also changed in this past year: we are supposed to change emotionally, mentally, and physically. Our bodies are meant to evolve, adapt and find new ways of existing.

Diet Culture, COVID-19, and the “Quarantine 15”

How To Be Kind To Your Body And Resist Diet Culture

Diet culture is extremely pervasive in our society, but there are choices you can make every day to resist its harmful effects on your mental and physical health. Here are some ways to promote wellness in your daily life.

  1. Ditch the industry diets. 95% fail, and 41% of consumers gain back more weight than they lost. Instead, focus on including a wide variety of different foods in your diet.
    Restriction almost always leads to binging, and it is best to listen to your body. The more you restrict food from your diet, the more you will crave it.
    Consider speaking with a registered dietitian who specializes in HAES about how to incorporate meals and snacks that include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vegetables, fruits, and dairy. All foods fit...yes, even your favorite snack from your childhood.
  2. Follow social media accounts that promote self-love, body diversity, HAES, joyful movement, and intuitive eating. Most importantly, follow social media pages that make you feel good about yourself and your body.
  3. Donate clothes that no longer fit. You deserve to feel comfortable.
  4. Discover joyful movement. Exercise should feel good and should never be about punishment or hating the way we look. We do not need to compensate for eating.
    Physical activity and joyful movement are about loving what our bodies can do for us. Find an activity that feels good and promotes wellness. This will look different for everyone.
    Some ideas are dance, running, yoga, biking, hiking, kayaking, weight-lifting, or participating in intramural sports. The idea is to find something you love and enjoy. Whether you are active every day or a few times a week, listen to your body when it is asking for a rest day.
  5. Find non-weight-focused hobbies.
  6. If you overhear someone promoting diet culture, approach them with compassion and curiosity. All of us have been impacted by the diet industry in one way or another. If you notice someone equating thinness with wellness, encourage them to consider the following: all major health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes that we associate with fat-bodied individuals are also diagnosed in thin-bodied people every day.
  7. Set boundaries around diet culture with loved ones, coworkers, and anyone else. It is okay to tell your friend you do not wish to hear about their latest diet or to request they not comment on your physical appearance. Remember, you don’t look good - you are good.
    Redirect conversations about weight and food to discussions about self-love, balance, joy. You don’t have to have a snack-sized lunch just because your coworker does.
  8. Give out non-appearance-based compliments.
    You are kind. You are so funny! You are adventurous. You are smart. I love the way you brighten up a room. You are a good friend. I feel safe with you. You are such a good listener. Your laugh is contagious. You are good.
How To Be Kind To Your Body And Resist Diet Culture

Resisting diet culture is not easy, and it requires intentional decisions every day, but pursuing self-love, happiness and wellness is always worth it. We spend so much time trying to shrink our bodies, but what really ends up happening is we shrink our lives.

The diet industry does not want you to succeed, it wants you to keep coming back to spend your money, miss opportunities with loved ones, and starve yourself of joy.

You deserve better, you always have, and it is not too late to start living your life to the fullest. The best way to resist diet culture is to be unapologetically you and to take up the space you deserve in this world. You are good.

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic on (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.

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