Health & Fitness

What Is Diet Culture? The Reasons Why Diet Culture Is Toxic

Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, our shapes, the way we eat and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, but to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given to find alternative ways to feel attractive and successful.

The dawn of a new year is when many of us scramble to make resolutions, and in the U.S., these are often earnest pledges to shrink, tone, chisel or otherwise alter our bodies. Like years before, in the first weeks of 2021, new signups for virtual workout subscriptions and searches for “diet” on Google are spiking as millions of us look to detox our poor, puffy bodies of the bad food choices we made over the holidays and start the year fresh—

Wait. Stop. Just there.

“…detox our bodies of the bad food choices we made…”

This language — and the above concept — implies that our bodies have been poisoned by peppermint bark, cookies, latkes, and eggnog, and that an antidote must be administered urgently, or else. It assumes that certain foods are “bad” and what’s more, we are bad for eating them. To be totally transparent, we can fall into that trap here at Good Housekeeping too — we recently published a recipe called “Christmas Crack,” which perpetuates a trend that equates a delicious, sugary treat to a dangerous, addictive drug that could actually kill you. This problematic nickname for a chocolatey candy concoction is a prime example of diet culture and just how easily it can sneak in under the radar.

Diet culture, a set of beliefs that places thinness as the pinnacle of success and beauty, has become our dominant culture — often in ways we don’t even notice since it’s the water in which we swim. “There’s a whole lexicon,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). When we say we need to “burn off” or “make up for” the cheeseboard we shared with friends; when we ponder snagging a bite of our partner’s dessert then immediately wonder, “Is it worth it?”; whenever we ascribe morality to our food choices, giggling that it’s sinful 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 we’ve deemed healthy. “All of that talk is part of diet culture,” says Mysko. And it is so inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture that most of us aren’t even consciously aware of the daily inundation.

Even if you’re not actively on a diet or trying to lose weight, diet culture can crop up in choices we think we’re making for health, to feel or look good, fit in, or even just make conversation amongst friends over dinner. But subconsciously, diet culture “creates this idea — and reinforces it at every turn — that you have to be thin in order to be successful, accepted, loved, healthy: All of these things that we want for ourselves that are just understandable human desire,” says Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., author of Anti-Diet and host of the Food Psych podcast. “It tells us that weight loss is the secret to that. It tells us that weight loss is a way to attain those things.” And it’s a house of cards.

So what is “diet culture,” exactly?

“Diet culture refers to all of the messages and the attitudes around what’s valued about body size and style,” says therapist Judith Matz, L.C.S.W., author of The Body Positivity Card Deck and Diet Survivor’s Handbook. “In diet culture, there is a conferred status to people who are thinner, and it assumes that eating in a certain way will result in the right body size — the ‘correct’ body size — and good health, and that it’s attainable for anybody who has the right willpower, the right determination.” In actual fact, there is no “right” body size, and even if there were, it’s not attainable to whomever does the “right” thing, as evidenced by the 98% failure rate of diets. This stat alone is proof of the no-win norm that we, as a society, have been groomed to abide by.

Diet culture can be found in Barbie’s thigh gap and 18-inch waist, which influences little ones’ perception of what an ideal body “should” look like. It’s Lululemon’s founder saying publicly that it’s a problem when women’s thighs touch. It’s Kim Kardashian explaining how “necessary” it is to squeeze into shapewear beneath a dress, saying, “without shapewear, you’d see cellulite and I just wouldn’t feel as confident.” (Her shapewear brand, SKIMS, allegedly sold $2 million of product in minutes when it launched.) It’s the fact that we’ve all been told (or recited!) that at the first sign of hunger, you should drink a glass of water first in case you’re “actually just thirsty.” It’s the popular article here on Good Housekeeping‘s own website about “1,200-calorie diets” that netted over two million search users in 2019 alone — our second-most-read story of the year — despite the fact that the number of calories falls within the realm of clinical starvation (Holocaust concentration camp prisoners were fed 1,250-1,400 calories per day).

everyday diet culture traps

In one fell swoop, diet culture sets us up to feel bad about ourselves while also suggesting that maybe losing weight will help us feel better. As anyone who’s ever looked into the mirror and wished for a flatter this or a bigger that can likely attest, there’s an unattainable and rigidly narrow Western beauty ideal to which we often compare ourselves. “Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gosh, I look terrific. I feel so healthy, I’m so attractive: I think I’ll go on a diet,’” Matz points out. “It always starts with negative thoughts.”

Instagram, movies, runways, and fashion ads are rife with slim, tall women living a life that somehow always looks better than our own — could it be because of those perfect bodies? The sample size for many designers is 0-2, while a 2018 study by National Health Statistics Reports published by the CDC places the average American adult woman in a size 18-20, and teen girls in a size 12. While what is “normal” varies greatly on genetics, family history, race, ethnicity, age and much more, size is actually not a good indicator of health — you can be smaller-bodied and unhealthy, or larger-bodied and fit. “We’re exposed to the steady stream of images and messages that reinforce diet culture and reinforce the idea that to be happy and successful and well-liked … you have to look a certain way, have a certain body, and follow a certain fitness or meal plan or diet,” says Mysko.

The “average” American woman is a size 18-20; designer sample sizes are 0-2.

The truth is that healthy, attractive, desirable bodies come at every size and shape. But for many people in larger bodies, people in “average” bodies, or even slender folks who don’t feel that they’re thin enough in the exact right places, a lifetime on the hamster wheel of feeling othered “leads to people feeling a lot of shame about their body and feeling that being thin is worth pursuing at all costs,” says Matz. The result: “People choose from hundreds, if not thousands, of diet plans or restrictive food plans.”

But it’s not our fault: Diet culture has long been institutionalized and is part of an oppressive system that’s intrinsically tied in with racism and patriarchy. “Whenever we create standards about how we all should live, these norms always benefit those individuals who are already in power,” says Sabrina Strings, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.

“What constitutes ‘good’ behavior is going to be far more accessible to white persons, to men, to wealthy persons, than people who do not fit into those categories,” says Strings. This includes conventional thinness, and “when you have been told that you should only have [a certain amount of] calories or that you must keep your BMI here, you will always feel like you are doing either good or bad, right or wrong by sticking to these dictates,” Strings adds. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths, [including the concept that] if you just restrict your food, then you’ll be able to attain that weight,” says Matz. The reality, as we’ll get to, is much different.

Why is diet culture harmful?

In short, it keeps us unhappy with ourselves, chasing something we can’t ever catch, and spending loads of money to do so. Here’s how:

  1. It’s a business designed to take your money. According to Market Research, the total U.S. weight loss market grew at an estimated 4.1% in 2018 to $72.7 billion and is forecasted to grow 2.6% annually through 2023. “With that kind of money, with that kind of industry at stake, it’s really hard to get that to go away — even with a growing and powerful movement like anti-diet,” says Harrison.
  2. It distracts from the real issue. Our culture says that if you’re not thin enough, it’s your fault. That’s because it’s easier to put the brunt of the problem on the individual instead of investing in fixing the problem at large. “If you’ve ever visited a community that only has a convenience store as a local means of any type of nutrition, then you will know that people often don’t even have fruit in their neighborhoods … in a low income area,” says Strings.

    “If we lived in a society where neighborhoods were walkable, and people could get access to clean drinking water and plenty of sleep, people would already be far healthier than they are now.” But, she continues, “rather than focusing on these larger structural issues that could have a global impact on a population, we want to target individuals and tell them to change their bodies in ways that are unrealistic and unproductive.”

  3. Scientifically speaking, diets don’t work. “There is zero research out there that shows any weight loss plan or product helps people achieve weight loss … over a two to five year period,” says Matz. “If there was something that was sustainable for the majority of people, we would all know about it.” (There isn’t, so we don’t.) Even doctors often prescribe weight loss as a cure to many medical maladies despite the fact that “up to 98% of people, according to research, regain all the weight that they lost within five years, and up to two-thirds of people end up regaining more weight than they lost,” says Harrison. “Why do 100% of dieters think they’re going to be in the 2%?”

    It’s no coincidence that in November 2020, the CDC reported that more people are dieting now compared to 10 years ago — yet obesity rates have increased by nearly 10%. Diet culture conditioning leads us to assume that more diets must mean better population health, but trending upward right alongside the growing number of dieters, “mean weight, waist circumference, and BMI in adults have increased over the past 18 years,” according to a 2018 study. There’s also evidence that yo-yo dieting (or weight cycling) may be responsible for all excess mortality and cardiovascular risks for diseases associated with being in a larger body. But perhaps the larger problem is that because of diet culture, when we do gain the weight back, we have learned to internalize it as a failure of self.

    98% of diets fail — Why do 100% of dieters think they’ll be in the 2%?

  4. It promotes and normalizes disordered eating. If you were to flat-out ask 100 people, “do you have an eating disorder?”, many would bristle and disagree. But if you were to ask 100 people a series of questions that indicate disordered eating (per NEDA’s screening tool: How afraid are you of gaining three pounds? Do you ever feel fat? Compared to other things in your life, how important is your weight to you? Do you consume a small amount of food on a regular basis to influence your shape or weight?), it becomes clear that the issue is far more pervasive than you think.

    A 2008 survey sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that a whopping 75% of women reported disordered eating behaviors that “cut across racial and ethnic lines,” and occurred in “women in their 30s and 40s … at the same rate as women in their 20s.” That means disordered eating is the norm in the U.S. for women of all ages and colors. It’s a staggering statistic, and one that goes under reported since a lot of these behaviors support the very underpinnings of diet culture itself.

  5. It’s self-perpetuating. Imagine if your vacuum had a 98% failure rate. You likely wouldn’t blame the ensuing mess that grew each time the vacuum didn’t start. (You’d also presumably trade it in for a more reliable model pretty quickly.) But when we diet and, later, gain the weight back, as 98% of people will, we instead turn inward and berate ourselves. Dieters “do what diet culture teaches them to do by dieting,” says Matz, “but then, when it doesn’t work, they blame themselves rather than the diet.” And then we restart the cycle instead of just buying a new damn vacuum.
    1. How can I resist diet culture?

      The first step is understanding the science of the matter: Dieting is biologically set up to fail, and the human tendency to regain lost weight is ultimately a success for evolution. “Our bodies are really designed to protect us against famine,” says Harrison. “The message this culture gets is that you can decide what weight you want to be with enough willpower, but it’s just not true,” says Matz. “Our weight regulation system is beyond our conscious control.” According to a 2010 F1000 Medicine Report, there is an active, biological control of body weight at a given set point in a 10-20 pound range. “When people diet, they mess with that, says Matz. “Diets work in the short-term, but then our weight regulation system kicks in to help us out: To keep us alive.”

      Anti-diet does not mean anti-health.

      Anti-diet culture aims to “dismantle this oppressive system of beliefs … so that people have the chance and the choice to be able to be free of those stigmatizing and body shaming beliefs,” says Harrison. It’s discarding the broken vacuum and investing in one that works beautifully and will last a lifetime. The anti-diet movement tosses out the bones of conventional dieting (i.e.: restriction, rules, omission, strict adherence) and replaces these with flexibility, acceptance, and ultimately peace with food and our bodies. Here are some aspects of anti-diet culture that can actionably put an end to the restriction and guilt cycle of diet culture:

      • Intuitive eating is a practice founded on 10 core principles in which you let your body guide you in what (and how much) to eat. “With intuitive eating, instead of eating from the outside in, instead of following rules from a diet, people learn to use their internal physical cues to decide when, what, and how much to eat,” says Matz. By destigmatizing food choices, intuitive eating steers you back into your own body. Most people have “gotten so used to eating what they should and shouldn’t eat, what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’, they’ve really lost touch with ‘What do I want? What would satisfy me?,’” says Matz.

        Getting reacquainted with your body’s natural hunger cues, cravings, and needs can free you from the learned shoulds of diet culture. The irony: Most find that once you grant yourself permission to eat the things you want when you want, your “fear foods” (you know, the things you declare you “cannot have in the house or I’ll eat the whole bag!”) have less of a siren song. When the scarcity mindset drops, so does the need to overeat out of fear of never having it again. “Remember that we come into this world born knowing how to do this,” says Matz. “Babies, when they’re hungry, cry. So really, we’re going back to the way we were born: Eating.”


        Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight

        • Health at Every Size (HAES) is a movement that encourages the pursuit of health without a focus on weight loss. It’s built on pillars of weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for well-being, and life-enhancing movement, all with the ultimate goal of tuning into your body’s innate guidance to make food and movement choices that help you feel confident, nourished, fulfilled, and healthy inside your body without trying to change its appearance. “It looks at people’s health status, separate from weight,” says Matz, and it’s “really doing a great job of giving people information that … you can be healthy regardless of your size,” says Strings.

          Strings adds that HAES is built upon the belief that you are worthy of love and respect, regardless of your size. In a society that demonizes fatness, it’s a simple but novel concept. As Strings says: “Just to love yourself and to know that you can be healthy regardless of your weight is really a revelation to probably most Americans.”

          Anyone feeling like they are suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder can and should reach out for help immediately. The NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237 is available daily via call or text, and officials also are on standby in digital chats, ready to help you find resources in your area. If you are concerned about a loved one, learn more about how you can help.

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