Thanks to diet culture and all the ways it glorifies thinness, dieting can feel like unlocking new levels in life. The chase to achieve thinness can be exhilarating, especially when rewarded by praise.
The privilege offered to thin people leads to the belief that one must pursue thinness in order to feel truly liberated and worthy.
What leads to this lifelong burden and pursuit? It can begin when family members comment on a child’s body, or because fat characters are always at the center of jokes on TV and are portrayed as lazy, sloppy, clumsy and funny; it can begin when a doctor urges parents to manage their child’s intake to prevent “health problems“ later in life; or when an adolescent starts reading magazine articles about how to “cleanse their diet“ to lose weight; it can be the memories of a mom, aunt, grandmother, brother, father, commenting on how “they shouldn’t eat the piece of cake“ because they really should “be watching their weight“. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but if we stop and think about all of the ways that diet culture is present in our lives, we can start recognizing how very early on, we are told that being fat is bad and that our body shapes are within our control.
There is an entire industry that supports diet culture
The diet industry is an important stakeholder in this world of diet culture. The diet industry is a 40 billion dollar industry that spends a lot of money on marketing. Their ultimate goal is to make people doubt their food choices and question whether trusting in their body is simply something that “thin people“ can be blessed with (1). The aim behind their message is to lead us to believe that we are somehow “broken“ and we need products and services that will “fix“ us. In creating a culture where self worth is tied to beauty, size and appearance, the diet industry also continues to perpetuate the belief that if you lose weight- at whatever cost- you will feel better. In a society that is only becoming more and more obsessed with health, the question then becomes: when does striving to be “healthy“ or “taking care of your health” become dangerous (2)?
The obsession with dieting
Dieting is a behaviour that suggests an intentional, most likely temporary, change in eating to achieve weight loss or changes in body shape (2). Choosing to engage in dieting practices can occur at any time in one’s life, and this mindset or decision can occur when dissatisfaction develops with natural body shape or size.
It’s important to note that dieting is ANY form of regulation, restriction and limitation of any food and drink (3). Perhaps you have heard of diets that present very clear forms of restriction and limitations such as the keto diet, detox diets, cleansing diets, the paleo diet or intermittent fasting. What we may not realize, is that when we strive for perfectly balanced eating, when we cut out food groups, aim to create a “deficit” in our calories, narrow out anything that isn’t “healthy” or “pure”, skip meals or take smaller portions to “watch our diet”, this is also a form of dieting.
The diet industry is selling us the idea that by losing weight, everything will all of a sudden be great in our newly-found thin body. The diet industry is telling us to devote all our time and energy into following a diet, to eat “perfectly portioned“ meals and to be proud of our willpower when we successfully avoid “bad foods”. We are told by the diet industry that our lives will significantly improve as a result of weight loss. Sound familiar? We have been fed this story many times over our lifetime. These are all the stories diet culture tells to encourage us to diet.
The reality: how dieting impacts our physical and emotional well-being
What diet culture is not telling you, however, is that after being successful in losing weight through a restrictive process, most dieters gain back the weight they have lost. This is often a result of the body’s natural survival mechanism when it experiences long term restriction.
After a few months or even years, chronic dieters may find themselves petrified of carbs and sugar and fearful of feeling full. Subtly, weight loss and restriction are at the heart of day to day decision making. Hunger begins to hijack thoughts; dieters start to become more preoccupied with foods they once told themselves they would never indulge in: carbs, fat, “treats“; it may even be fruit if you’re someone who has been sold the idea that sugar is harmful. Dieters may feel the need to sneak in snacks, compensate for the “extra food“ through disordered behaviors. Cravings for forbidden foods also occur. And all of these changes are happening because a dieter’s body is simply signalling for what it needs: adequate energy.
Contrary to popular belief, dieting is also one of the leading predictors of weight gain long term (4). Research has shown that at least one to two-thirds of people on diets regain more weight than they have lost within four or five years (1). Chronic dieters also consistently report guilt, self-blame, irritability, anxiety and depression, difficulty concentrating and fatigue (5). Their self-esteem is decreased by continuous feelings of failure related to “messing up the diet again”, leading to feelings of lack of control over food choices and even life in general (5). These emotional vulnerabilities, in conjunction with physical hunger, can lead to binging or consuming a large amount of food in one sitting, followed by more guilt, the urge to compensate and ultimately, the belief that restriction is the only answer. The dieting cycle begins again as dieters question where they have gone wrong. Despite having no evidence-based or proven benefits, this dieting mentality remains the norm.
The reason why we keep coming back to dieting lies within the subtle, yet powerful culture that fosters the ideation of thinness, that shames those who are fat and encourages them to change the naturally occurring state of their body
When people speak about dieting, they think about juice cleanses or severely restrictive diets. The matter of fact is, diet culture is so present, yet so insidious that we can not always see it (1). When everyone talks about food in terms of whether they are good or bad, bonds over dieting and cleanses fueled by the diet industry, celebrates weight loss at all cost- it can be difficult, if not impossible, to know that this isn’t normal.
The danger in all of this is that one’s body, hunger, and size were never a problem to begin with (1). We have continuously been told that if we live in a larger body, we must forever repent and seek to make our body smaller, whatever the cost. So in order to make peace with food, develop neutrality towards every body, we need to first understand how diet culture is present in our lives and then actively choose to disengage and fight against it.
Stay tuned to read part 2 of this blog: how to disengage and fight against diet culture.
- Upson, S. It’s Time To Drop Out of Diet Culture. EDRDpro. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://edrdpro.com/its-time-to-drop-out-of-diet-culture/#:~:text=Yes%2C%20that’s%20right%2C%20diet%20culture,about%20weight%20shape%20or%20size.
- Dieting in adolescence. (2004). Paediatrics & child health, 9(7), 487–503. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/9.7.487
- kNOwing Dieting: Risks and Reasons to Stop. Uhs.berkeley.edu. (2005). Retrieved 4 November 2020, from https://uhs.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/bewell_nodieting.pdf.
- Tribole, S. (2012). Warning: Dieting Increases Your Risk of Gaining MORE Weight. Intuitiveeating.org. Retrieved 6 November 2020, from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/warning-dieting-increases-your-risk-of-gaining-more-weight-an-update/
- Guerdjikova, A. (2016). Why dieting can be harmful. Lindnercenterofhope.org. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://lindnercenterofhope.org/blog/why-dieting-can-be-harmful/#:~:text=Biologically%2C%20dieting%20can%20lead%20to,and%20lower%20resting%20energy%20expenditure.
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