Have you been looking for an alternative to the endless cycle of yo-yo dieting and stumbled across Intuitive Eating? You may have noticed that Intuitive Eating Dietitians such as myself talk a lot about “diet culture”…so, what is diet culture, exactly?
What is Diet Culture?
What is diet culture, and why does it need to make a grand exit? Let me count the ways!
Diet culture is based on the idea that our bodies are valued by their size and that smaller is better. And that smaller is healthier. Both are 100% false, BTW.
But diet culture is so entrenched in our society that ditching diet culture can feel like swimming upstream with chunky boots on. Tough work!
How did we get into this sticky mess? Let’s cover that, first.
How did diet culture start?
We didn’t always prioritize thinness. Based on the earliest sculptures, voluptuous and well-nourished was the ideal 25,000 years ago. And later, Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of beauty and pleasure was lovingly portrayed in all of her glory, including her stomach rolls.
But diet culture does go way back. And the ideal woman’s body has changed. Diet culture has woven its dark web throughout history, from the first diet book, published in 1558, to corsets changing the shape of a woman’s body to the first low-carb diet in 1825. In the 1920s, thinness became the beauty standard as women sought more independence and freedom.
And I’ll bet that if I asked you to name ten different examples of diets that have been popular over the last twenty years, you’d be able to make the list without breaking a sweat, amiright?
Whew. Diet culture has been around for a long time. Changing shape and continuing to make people feel less-than. What other effects are there?
What are the effects of diet culture?
Diet culture is woven throughout our society and impacts us on a personal level as well as at the community level. Here are a few examples of the effects of diet culture: i.e., thin is the best.
- Obese job applicants are less likely to be hired, even with the same qualifications (this affects women to a greater degree than men).
- Obese individuals have a more difficult time finding clothes that fit at regular shopping malls (and may be charged more).
- Plus-sized furniture also costs more, because most furniture is made for people <250 pounds...who are in the minority in the US.
- Miss America winners have gotten thinner and thinner over the years.
Diet culture is a big industry. I mean, really big. Let’s talk about the money next.
How much does diet culture make?
If you were to guess how much the diet industry is worth, what would you guess?
Thousands of dollars, each year?
...millions of dollars, each year?
While you might win on The Price Is Right (closest without going over) you’d be under-guessing by a far shot.
Here’s the sad news: the diet industry is grossing more than 70 billion (yes, billion, with a B) each year.
How gross is that? Especially considering that the vast majority of diets fail. What a waste of time, energy and money! My, how I wish that money was used to improve the health of our nation instead of harm it.
The truth is, we are powerful. And the more we learn about diet culture, the better we will be at fighting it. We don’t have to take this crap sitting down.
How can we combat diet culture?
Unless you move to a remote cabin in the wilderness and cancel the WiFi, you’re not going to be able to eliminate or avoid diet culture completely. However, we can develop tools to identify diet culture – she’s a sneaky little B – and set firm boundaries. Your body is your house. Your house, your rules, right?
It is common for folks on their Intuitive Eating journey to rebel against diet culture. “I’m sick of your rules! Screw you, I’m eating this donut! And pizza! Ha!” And while anger is a completely normal feeling to process, the issue, in this case, is that your eating choices are still adjacent to diet culture. If your eating choices are designed to give diet culture the middle finger, you’re not making decisions based on what your body is telling you. (More on not rebelling against diet culture on this Instagram post.)
Diet culture is designed to keep us small, powerless and at the mercy of subjective external messages. Keeping you insecure means you are more likely to buy new clothes, new supplements and new diet plans in hopes of feeling better about yourself. But friend, your self-worth has to come from inside, not from the store.
Building thicker skin allows those small-minded messages to roll right off your back. You’ve got better things to do than let those toxic thoughts take up precious space in your heart and mind.
A good place to start is collecting some data...you know dietitians are scientists, right?
Pay attention to how you feel after spending time with your usual friends, family and co-workers. What about after scrolling through social media or flipping through Netflix? If you feel light, empowered and happy, keep it up! If there is anyone who is killing the vibe, do what you can to unfollow, spend less time with or avoid. Protect that positive vibe!
Changing your own expectations and boundaries takes practice, missteps and more practice. At first you will need to be deliberate to protect yourself. It is kind of like wearing tissue paper at first...just a little bit of new skin to keep yourself safe. But over time, the more you do the work of disregarding diet culture messages, that thin skin becomes a suit of armor. More protection keeps you from being triggered by diet culture as you move through your day.
What if we’re surrounded by diet culture
What do you do if you’re surrounded by diet culture - friends, family and social media – and they’re not supportive of your Intuitive Eating journey? Or simply don’t get it?
This can be tough. But with practice, you can feel more comfortable and confident in these situations, too. If you know that a potentially tense situation is coming, practice possible things that the other person might say and how you’d feel good replying. Remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation or defense of your Intuitive Eating.
I have a few tips on How To Talk To Dieters About Intuitive Eating in this blog post. While we can’t usually choose our family or co-workers, we can cultivate our community of friends. I encourage you to spend time with the people who do get it about Intuitive Eating. I’ll tell you about my community – the SociEATy – in just a moment.
Key Takeaways: What is Diet Culture?
So now we know what is diet culture - the completely false idea that your worth is tied to your weight or size and that thin is best.
We can’t avoid diet culture completely, but we can learn to set firm boundaries about which ideas we allow to take space in our hearts and minds.
Nutrition IS important. I’m a Registered Dietitian, I know this! It’s so important that I actually have an entire community devoted to helping you learn Intuitive Eating and implement it. You're invited to join The SociEATy membership community.
Need more guidance? Be sure to check out my YouTube channel for more tips to help in your intuitive eating journey and take the no food rules quiz which will tell you what's holding you back from truly finding food freedom and give you customized resources (and a workbook!) to overcome it!
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