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Diet culture is rooted in racism, white supremacy, and colonialism

Toxic diet culture is a pervasive and insidious influence on our lives. Many people may recognize its connection to fatphobia and its harmful consequences on body image, mental health, and eating patterns. But they may be less aware of its racist and White supremacist history and how diet culture continues to uphold White supremacy and perpetuate systemic racism to this day.

7
 minutes read
Last updated on 
April 27, 2023
Toxic diet culture
In this article

What is diet culture and its many consequences?

Diet culture generally refers to a system of beliefs surrounding the value our society places on thinness and physical appearance over health and well-being. Diet culture normalizes the stigmatization of fat people and large bodies and promotes the pursuit of a thinner body size no matter the cost. Unlike fatphobia and weight stigma, which both involve a profound hatred of people living in larger bodies and discrimination based on weight, diet culture has a broader definition, though it encompasses these biases. 

It may be easier to understand toxic diet culture when we look at examples in our everyday lives.

When you or someone you know refers to a certain food as “good” or “bad,” this is diet culture at work. Diet culture harms us by wanting us to feel ashamed for eating foods we enjoy simply because they are labeled “junk.”

The Within treatment program can help you learn how to eat intuitively and stop viewing food as "good" or "bad."

When you or someone you know refers to a certain food as “good” or “bad,” this is diet culture at work. Diet culture harms us by wanting us to feel ashamed for eating foods we enjoy simply because they are labeled “junk.” Further, when we punish ourselves by eating that “bad food” and over-exercising or fasting as a way to “make up for it,” we are continuing to participate in diet culture. Dismantling diet culture means understanding that foods do not have inherent moral value—all food provides fuel and can be a source of pleasure. (1)

Here are some other common examples of toxic diet culture:

  • Any diet, “cleanse,” or “healthy eating lifestyle” that limits food intake, promotes fasting, or omits certain foods, food groups, or ingredients
  • Food labels saying “guilt-free,” “fat-free,” “low-carb,” “keto-approved,” “paleo-friendly,” etc.
  • Advertisements and programs for quick weight loss “cures”
  • The prevalence and success of social media fitness influencers
  • Before and after photos of weight loss
  • Weight loss apps, including those that promote eating and exercise programs that restrict food in any way as “lifestyle changes”
  • Restaurant menus that include calories next to food items
  • Weight loss competitions at the gym or work
  • Feeling ashamed or guilty for eating food you enjoy
  • Complimenting people for their weight loss
  • Conflating weight loss and “being your best self”
  • Society celebrating thin women celebrating body positivity while rejecting people in larger bodies who do the same

Diet culture is so prevalent, infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives, that we are often unaware of just how much we are bombarded with diet culture messaging. We also may not be aware of just how much it increases the risk of lowering self-esteem and engaging in disordered eating behaviors, like fasting, restricting, binging, and purging, which can lead to a full-blown eating disorder.

The intersection of racism and diet culture

Not only is toxic diet culture a harmful influence on self-esteem, body image, eating, movement, and our relationship with our bodies and food—it also has a long and ugly racist history that lives on today as an oppressive system in our lives.

Diet culture is directly connected to fatphobia, as diet culture values thinness over everything else. And fatphobia has its roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. White European colonists labeled Black people as gluttonous, undisciplined, and hypersexual and held that their love of food made them fat. Meanwhile, the colonists considered themselves the superior race because of their “self-control and moderation,” which caused them to be thin. 

Soon, fatness became associated with racial inferiority and immorality in the United States. And subsequently, body weight and size became a way for people to distinguish between slaves and non-slaves, with a common belief being that fat people didn’t deserve to be free. These fatphobic, anti-Black beliefs live on today through weight stigma in a variety of settings and diet culture. (2,3)

Toxic diet culture

How diet culture and fatphobia uphold White supremacy

The harmful, stigmatizing, and racist roots of fatphobia live on today as people attempt to prove their superiority through their restraint, “discipline,” and thinness—a notion that is connected to healthism. Healthism not only views health as a person’s individual responsibility, but it also conflates health and morality, viewing those who can control their weight through exercise and eating habits as superior to those who cannot “control” themselves. Not to mention the fact that healthism, diet culture, and fatphobia send the message that thinness equals good health, which is, of course, incorrect.

Learn how to create a body-positive and anti-diet culture at home.

In today’s society, a thin person has much more privilege than a person living in a higher-weight body. And though many people may not explicitly say they value thinness in order to celebrate Whiteness and be the “superior race,” because they’re not aware of their implicit biases, the messaging is still the same. The “ideal” body is slim, and beauty standards often adhere to historical White beauty norms. People’s desire to lose weight or have a thinner waist comes from the racist need for White people to prove themselves superior to Black people. 

So, every time we participate in diet culture or exhibit fatphobic attitudes, including toward ourselves, we are upholding White supremacy—not to mention thin privilege. 

On the other hand, rejecting diet culture, celebrating bodies of all sizes and shapes, and adopting a Health at Every Size® (HAES®) framework is anti-racist and can help to dismantle detrimental societal beliefs.

Dismantling diet culture

The influence of diet culture, fatphobia, and weight stigma can lead to many negative consequences, including: (4,5)

  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Negative body image
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Psychological distress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Weight stigma can also increase the risk of engaging in disordered eating symptoms, including binge eating episodes, purging, and restricting. (4,5)

Unlearning the diet culture messaging you’ve internalized can be difficult work. But it’s necessary if we want to dismantle White supremacy, celebrate body diversity, and achieve safety and autonomy for everyone. 

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Taking an anti-racist approach to health, food, and body diversity

First, it’s important to understand how systemic racism contributes to toxic diet culture, fatphobia, and healthism:

  • Food deserts disproportionately affect people of color, preventing them from accessing affordable and nutritious food and increasing the risk of binge eating episodes (6)
  • Black families and other people of color often live in neighborhoods rife with pollution, increasing the risk of many health conditions
  • Many people of color may lack health insurance and subsequent access to quality care.
  • Many people of color who do have access to healthcare experience racism (and weight stigma) in healthcare settings
  • Systemic racism causes and exacerbates mental health disorders in people of color

These are just a few examples of the far-reaching consequences of systemic racism and its effect on the mental and physical well-being of people of color, especially Black folks. 

How to take an anti-racist approach

Here are some ways to dismantle your own biases and internalized beliefs in order to take an anti-racist approach to health, appearance, and weight:

  • Acknowledge your own privilege, whether it be white privilege, thin privilege, rich privilege, or beyond
  • Understand the ways in which your privilege has shaped your experience of the world and how people have treated you
  • Educate yourself on HAES®
  • Follow anti-racist and body-positive activists on social media
  • Read anti-racist and body-positive books and resources, as well as listen to podcasts
  • Don't accept diet culture and self-critical talk
  • Speak out when you hear fatphobic comments
  • Understand that eating disorders can occur in people of all shapes and sizes
  • Challenge any eating disorder myths you may hear or encounter
  • Read about the harms of the “obesity epidemic” and medicalizing people living in larger bodies
  • Donate to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and other fat liberation efforts

Major change doesn’t happen overnight—rather, change results from a continued effort and commitment to action. You can expect yourself to make mistakes and take missteps along the way, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you hold yourself accountable and don’t let yourself get distracted by harmful pursuits like dieting or losing weight.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Daryanani, A. (2021). What is “Diet Culture?” UC San Diego Recreation. Retrieved February 14, 2023.
  2. University of California. (2019). Where does fat phobia come from? Retrieved February 14, 2023.
  3. National Public Radio. (2020). Fat Phobia and Its Racist Past and Present. Retrieved February 14, 2023.
  4. National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Weight Stigma. Retrieved February 14, 2023.
  5. Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity stigma: important considerations for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1019–1028.
  6. Hazzard, V. M., Loth, K. A., Hooper, L., & Becker, C. B. (2020). Food Insecurity and Eating Disorders: a Review of Emerging Evidence. Current Psychiatry Reports, 22(12), 74.

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