Posted by: Courtenay Vickers RD
Time to read: 8 minutes
What is diet culture anyway?
Diet culture can be defined in many ways. I’ve been an RD (short for Registered Dietitian) for the past 10 years, and adopted a weight-inclusive lens with my practice about 6 years ago. I’ll preface this blog (as I did in my recent webinar) that I am constantly learning more about what diet culture is, how it shows up, and what to do instead.
When asked this question (re: what is diet culture anyway) I often reply by saying something to the effect of: diet culture is the harmful belief that certain body shapes and sizes are better than others, and there’s a “right” way of eating. To which I typically get the follow up question of “but you’re a dietitian, isn’t there a right way of eating?”. My response from here can get quite nuanced, depending on the audience – in short, there is no one-size-fits-all way of eating, because bodies are meant to be incredibly diverse and different! Not to mention everyone’s unique relationship with food, cultural connections and traditions with food, access to food, etc.
One definition of diet culture that I keep coming back to is by Christy Harrison:
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- – Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
- – Promotes weight loss 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.
- – 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 power.
- – Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”
Diet culture in the new year
So, now that we have a bit more of an idea of what diet culture is, here’s a short list of various ways I’m seeing diet culture show up so far in 2024:
- Overemphasis on getting “strong”
- Influx of “clean eating”
- Overambitious fitness goals
- Bigger emphasis on dietary supplements
- More orthorexic tendencies
- Orthorexia = an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating
- Sudden removal of entire food groups
- Increased use of calorie-tracking apps + smart watches
- Health washing + green washing on food labels
- X # of day challenges related to food and/or fitness
- “Watching” what you eat
- More labelling of foods as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy
- Lifestyle changes and wellness journeys
Here’s an interesting fact to highlight diet culture’s prevalence: according to Forbes, the top New Year’s resolutions in 2024 include improved fitness, losing weight, and improved diet.
I think it’s important to note that while there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with these resolutions, I find they are often fueled by diet culture and can perpetuate, worsen, or ignite eating disorder behaviours.
Why I’m concerned as a weight-inclusive dietitian in the eating disorder space
I’m concerned because diet culture can often be a precursor to eating disorders, and can perpetuate disordered eating behaviours. I think it’s important to mention that many factors can spur a full-blown eating disorder, such as genetics, food insecurity, trauma, and more (this is probably a topic for another blog post). And, diet culture is, unfortunately, a common piece that shows up along the way either in the development or recovery from an eating disorder.
Challenging diet culture
Depending on where you are at with your journey to healing, you may have already started to challenge diet culture! I’ve compiled below a short list of ways I commonly find helpful to challenge diet culture (whether you’re starting this for the first time, or perhaps you are further along):
- Learning more about the harms of diet culture
- Setting boundaries (with yourself and/or others)
- Stop labelling foods in binaries such as good/bad, or healthy/unhealthy
- Take time to check in with yourself
- Practice self-compassion
- Get curious about a non-diet approach (or similar)
Here’s a short list of some keywords you may find helpful to guide your own reading and research as you start to learn more and challenge diet culture:
- Intuitive Eating
- Body Liberation
- Health At Every Size®
- Fat Positive
What to do next
A big (non-exhaustive) list of specific things you may or may not want to try instead of participating in diet culture this new year:
- Eat regularly throughout the day. For some, this might look like multiple meals and snacks throughout the day. This might mean seeking help from a trusted support person, or a professional such as a dietitian.
- Integrate challenge foods, if you find there are foods in your life that are holding some sort of power over you. This might be foods that you are fearful of, foods you avoid completely, or foods that you often feel ‘out of control’ around. Integrating challenge foods is something that I typically only recommend once we are getting enough food in regularly first, and then slowly integrating the challenge foods one at a time in a structured way.
- Play with movement in a way that feels good for you and your body (only if this is medically appropriate and accessible for you).
- Work on staying appropriately hydrated. What this might mean is ensuring you are drinking adequate fluids (or high fluid food sources) throughout the day. Watch out for overdoing it with caffeine as this can cause dehydration.
- Prioritize rest! And not just sleeping enough at night, but allowing space to rest during your waking hours. For some this might mean taking a nap, allowing yourself to ‘do nothing’ for an afternoon, or perhaps it’s pausing what you are doing for a few minutes periodically throughout the day to slow down and check-in with yourself.
- Take time to explore your relationship with food and body. This might mean journaling, talking about this in therapy or with a dietitian, or reflecting on your own.
- Cultivate self-compassion ❤️ I truly believe we can’t talk about nutrition without talking about self-compassion. Nourishing ourselves and challenging diet culture is not always an easy thing to do. And at times, it can feel like a struggle. Can we work towards being kind and gentle with ourselves as we navigate all the sticky murky bits?
- Challenge your food rules – especially if you find there are specific rules/patterns/or behaviours related to your eating getting in the way of recovery.
- Re-evaluate your use of the scale and set limits around this. Many find it helpful to hide the scale, reduce the frequency of how often you use it, or get rid of it entirely. If it’s absolutely medically necessary to be weighed, consider these limits or have it done blindly at a clinic.
- Put away diet apps and/or fitness trackers/watches. As a dietitian, I rarely find these pieces of tech actually helpful, and, if anything, they often cause an unnecessary focus and obsession with food/movement.
- Curate your social media to better support your pro-recovery and anti-diet goals
- Pick up a workbook or book related to ED recovery and/or an anti-diet approach
- Improve your sleep hygiene. For some this might mean developing a bedtime routine, sticking to a sleeping schedule, or reducing caffeine intake.
- Try a support group geared towards eating disorder recovery, body image, or intuitive eating (depending on where you are at and what fits best).
- Get professional help from an eating disorder registered dietitian, therapist, social worker, nurse practitioner, family doctor, or psychiatrist.
I hope that by the time you are done reading this, something has stood out to you. Whether it’s a small takeaway, a new learning to ponder, or a new perspective on a familiar theme, I hope this has resonated with those reading.
For anyone wanting to dig a little bit deeper, I’ll end with a few reflective prompts below.
Reflective prompts to help you challenge diet culture:
Whether or not journaling in a pen-and-paper way is your thing, these reflective prompts may be helpful as you work on challenging diet culture and healing your relationship with food and body:
- How has diet culture shown up for you in your life?
- What would it be like to step away from diet culture?
- What’s the scariest part of challenging diet culture for you?
- Who or what might be helpful to you during this process?
- What’s one small thing you can do this month to challenge diet culture in your life?