Diet culture is a set of beliefs and practices that worship thinness and equates body size with health or morality. It is also the lens through which beauty is commonly viewed and defined. In other words, diet culture reflects socially prescribed standards based on whatever is considered “hot” or “perfect” at the time. The saddest aspect of diet culture is that it sets consumers up for failure and disappointment because, truthfully, the “perfect body” does not exist. If we continue to chase it, the only thing we will catch is frustration and a constant fear of not being “enough” as we are.
Much like the fashion industry, the “ideal” has shifted over time and throughout the decades. In the 1500’s, having more body fat did not carry the same stigma that it does today (this is seen throughout famous paintings in that era). Instead, it was once viewed as a sign of wealth and health. Further, depending on the era, women’s beauty standards evolved from voluptuous and curvy to hourglass to supermodel-esque bodies. Today, we see a greater focus on “ripped” physiques and lifting heavy weights.
This is not to say that men’s attractiveness standards have not also changed. In the 60’s and 70’s, a thinner physique was glamorized. Now, the “standard” is large and muscular. This is seen even in kids’ action figures – in the 80’s GI Joe was small-framed; in the early 2000’s, those same figures become much larger.
These standards along with pervasive diet culture lies are a source of constant external pressure that carries the message that we are not good enough. Instead, what we need understand that it is ok to want to make healthy changes to our bodies while accepting that there is nothing “wrong” with how we are currently. This is called body harmony.
Diet Culture Messages to Reject
Diet culture is not limited to the messages included in this article. However, what follows is a list of the most common diet culture lies that tend to throw us off track and have us questioning ourselves and our “enoughness”. Let’s examine these messages and how we can reframe our thoughts around these lies.
- Bread is bad and causes weight gain if consumed. Bread is not bad. It is a staple in many meals. It is also an enjoyable food product and can offer quality nutrients (depending on fiber and micronutrient content). Bread, alone, will not cause weight gain directly. It is the overconsumption of calories that is the real cause of weight gain. Unless you have an allergy to bread, enjoy it as you like. For better blood sugar control, choose whole grain options and pair it with natural nut butter, cheese, or other protein and/or fat.
- Sugar is evil. The message should be that an excess of sugar can be a cause for concern. If someone is consuming excess sugar throughout the day, this can cause dental issues, nutrient deficiency, and blood sugar control problems. It is perfectly acceptable to enjoy sugar in small quantities such as desserts and coffee or tea.
- Always eat clean. The first concern with this statement is the dichotomous thinking – that foods are either clean or dirty or good or bad. There’s no moral value with food. Food is food, it is fuel, and it is nourishment. The second concern is with the word “always”. It is not realistic for humans to always or never do something and carry that on in perpetuity with no “slips”. Lastly, there is no specific agreed upon definition of what “clean” is. Does it mean organic? Does it mean only whole foods, and nothing packaged? It is open to interpretation. Instead, the focus should be on adding more nutritious foods to the diet (fruits, leafy veggies, starchy veggies, and lean proteins) rather than taking away or eliminating foods. Food is not dirty or bad. Food is generally nutrient-rich or energy-dense. Sometimes, it is both.