What is diet culture and why is it harmful?
Diet culture doesn’t have a single definition. Rather, it refers to a set of beliefs that our society holds related to appearance and thinness, and subsequently promotes weight loss. Diet culture tells us that thinness is more important than health, often going so far as to conflate it with moral virtue. It is the reason many people have come to believe that certain foods, such as spinach or kale, are “good” and others, such as chips or cake, are “bad”, and why people often shame themselves and others for eating these “bad” foods.
Beliefs and messages about ourselves and how we should look are also responsible for our self-criticism, poor body image, and harmful behaviors, such as:1
- Self-induced vomiting
- Laxative misuse
- Restrictive eating and other disordered eating behaviors
- Compulsive exercise
Diet culture is a part of everyday life for most of us—it's not just visible in the health and wellness world. We see examples of it in magazines touting quick weight loss and on food labels marked “guilt-free” or “fat-free.” We see it on weight loss apps, social media, and TV. Gyms and popular weight-loss fads, such as cleanses and detoxes, use diet culture to shame you into signing up for a membership or purchasing a product. And modern diet culture has evolved over the years from blatant dieting and a weight-loss focus to “health-driven,” but diet culture is anything but health-promoting—this shift is just a sneakier way of conflating thinness with health, which is, of course, problematic and fundamentally false.
How to combat diet culture in the home
Although it’s next to impossible to entirely protect your family from encountering diet culture and body negative messaging, there are things you can do to empower everyone in the home to celebrate and honor their bodies and engage in joyful movement and eating.
1. Practice and encourage intuitive eating
Intuitive eating involves tuning into your body’s hunger and satiety cues and eating accordingly. This means eating what and how much you want, by listening to your internal cues. When you practice intuitive eating, you are the expert on your body and what fuel it needs. Teach the whole family to engage in this practice without any restrictions.
The benefits of intuitive eating include:2,3,4
- Improved body image
- Improved self-esteem
- Reduced depression and anxiety
- Improved quality of life
- Decreased likelihood of eating disorder behaviors
- Weight maintenance (as opposed to weight cycling)
- Healthier psychological attitudes
- A healthy relationship with food
It’s alright if intuitive eating is a challenge for you or a loved one at first. It can take practice to unlearn all of the harmful beliefs instilled by diet culture and fatphobia.
2. Prioritize joyful movement
Instead of viewing exercise as a goal-oriented activity designed for losing weight, tone muscles, or changing your body shape, encourage the family to engage in movement that makes them happy. This may include taking the dog for a walk, playing at the park together, playing a sport, going on a hike, dancing, or swimming at the pool or beach. It doesn’t matter what you do, but the point is that it brings joy.
3. Get rid of the scale
If you have a scale in your household, get rid of it. Having a scale communicates to the rest of the family that body weight is important, and it can even lead to compulsive weight-checking behaviors, which aren’t healthy, and prioritize weight over happiness and health. Ditch the scale and instead, encourage everyone to focus on how they feel in their bodies.
4. Avoid negative body talk, about yourself and others
This can be a difficult one, especially if you are prone to criticizing yourself (and/or those around you). Many people are quick to insult their bodies, including their shape, size, and weight, without thinking about the message it’s sending impressionable people around them. Focus on eliminating this type of talk from your vocabulary, instead opting to celebrate your body and appearance, as well as those around you, including members of your household.
5. Avoid dieting and set a healthy example
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous one because everything you do serves as a model for your children, and if you are constantly dieting, they may start dieting too. Remember that we are trying to combat the influence of diet culture to create a healthy and body-positive environment. Diets aren’t good for you anyway, and they hijack the body’s internal hunger and satiety signals. Intuitive eating is a far better practice that supports mental and physical health, and research has even shown that those who engage in intuitive eating are more likely to stick with this pattern of eating than they would a diet.3
6. Don’t police food choices
If your spouse or child chooses a certain meal or snack, avoid policing their food choice. This can lead to guilt and shame, and it also reinforces the so-called morality of foods by categorizing them as “good” or “bad.”
7. Encourage critical thinking
It can be easy to fall for messages about how all our dreams will come true and we will be worthy of love if only we get a smaller waist or lose weight. For this reason, it’s vital that you encourage your loved ones, children and adults alike, to challenge and question the messages promoted by diet culture. Create a safe and open environment in which they feel they can interrogate messages they’ve received.
8. Encourage household members to talk openly and honestly
Along with encouraging critical thinking, you also want to cultivate an honest, compassionate, and nonjudgmental household that welcomes everyone to share their feelings, as well as their challenges and successes.
9. Embrace people’s interests and passions instead of focusing on appearance
Too often we compliment each other by noting appearance or weight, and over time, this type of messaging can instill a belief that our self-worth is tied to how we look. Instead, focus on your loved ones’ passions, interests, hobbies, personality traits, and skills. Not only does this show your interest and investment in who they are and what they care about, but it also de-centers appearance.
10. Limit and modulate social media use
If you have children and teens in the house, you will want to talk to them about the power of social media and the influence it has on its users. Talk to them about the algorithm on social media and how it bombards its young and impressionable users with content, including those related to disordered eating, fasting, cleanses, and other dangerous trends.
If possible, limit social media and phone use. And when your child is using social media, encourage them to follow body-positive accounts that celebrate body diversity and work to dismantle diet culture. By encouraging them to follow inspirational young people who are using their voices and creativity to uplift others, you can teach them that human beings are so much more than a number on a scale, and a body type.
11. Teach coping skills for difficulties and challenges
Some people may use food to manage distressing feelings or situations, but this disrupts intuitive eating and can be harmful in the long run. Instead, equip your children with coping skills, such as breathing techniques, meditation, positive self-talk, and journaling, that they can use during challenging times.
12. Promote self-worth as innate
Self-worth is not tied to how somebody looks, how much they weigh, or the size of their clothing. Everybody deserves to love and celebrate themselves, no matter what, and there’s never a wrong time to make sure your family knows that.