How diet culture can lead to eating disorders

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From advertisements and food labels to social media and influencers, diet culture is all around us—it’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s so pervasive that it can be difficult to realize the onslaught of problematic messaging encountered on a daily basis. But whether we realize it or not, many of us internalize the messaging from diet culture, such as that we need to lose weight, have a certain shape, exercise excessively, or eat “clean”. And internalizing this messaging can have harmful effects on our mental health, including leading to an eating disorder.

In this article

What exactly does “diet culture” mean?

Diet culture doesn’t have one clear definition, but it typically refers to a group of societal beliefs that overly values appearance and thinness and conflates thinness with moral virtue. (1)

Diet culture messaging, familial beliefs, or other influences like religious beliefs, often dictate that certain foods are “good” while others are “bad.” This belief can contribute to the negative way we speak about ourselves, our bodies, and our eating habits. It’s one of the reasons we may punish ourselves for eating “bad food,” like dessert or salty snacks, by engaging in compensatory behaviors. (1)

In short, diet culture is much more than the prevalence of popular diets—rather, it is a source of societal messages that can influence countless people to engage in harmful behaviors, such as caloric restriction, purging, and cutting out entire food groups, in pursuit of the perceived “ideal” body.

Diet culture is all around us, from food marketing labels like “skinny girl” and “guilt-free” and magazines advertising celebrity weight loss regimens to weight loss apps and social media influencers and trends. 

Diet culture is sneaky—over the years, the messaging has changed from overt dieting to faux health-inspired. Think: “I’m focusing on me and my health and healthy movement” instead of “I’m trying to get skinny.” But the problem remains unchanged: according to diet culture, thinness and health are the same, when in fact they are not.

The problem with diet culture

Diet culture is problematic for many different reasons. For one, health is not dependent upon thinness. Many people of diverse body sizes and shapes can be healthy, but it doesn’t help that the medical community continuously perpetuates anti-fat bias and size-based discrimination, only serving to compound the messaging of diet culture rather than disprove it. 

The reality is, health isn’t a dichotomy—it is multifaceted, exists on a spectrum of physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being, and it is influenced by countless factors.  Health is not determined by body size, and health means different things for different people depending on their age, chronic illnesses, disability status, and other factors. The emphasis on both an unattainable body type and an unattainable standard of “health” in diet and wellness culture is insidious and both can encourage obsessive anxieties and disordered behaviors around food and exercise. 

Additionally, most if not all diets involve restriction of some kind, whether it’s caloric or an entire food group. Following such restrictive regimens can make eating patterns extremely rigid, as well as enforce an unhealthy relationship to food. Restriction is physically and psychologically damaging and can result in a variety of health problems. It can also lead to compensatory binging, leading to a binge and restrict cycle, or result in more and more extreme restriction. In both cases, these eating disorder behaviors are dangerous and unsustainable. 

Lastly, diet culture perpetuates fat-shaming by ridiculing people living in larger bodies and pressuring them to lose weight. Diet culture has led many people to associate higher-weight bodies with laziness and a lack of health. Weight stigma is extremely damaging and contributes to physical and mental health problems, including eating disorders. (3)

How diet culture can influence eating disorders

Diet culture can make us believe that we don’t have value or worth unless we have the “ideal” body—often considered thinness for women, lean, muscular builds for men, and thin, curve-less versions of androgyny for nonbinary people. It promotes a false sense of health and shames us for having bodies that don’t meet these impossible standards, and when we feel ashamed, guilty, and less-than, we may engage in disordered eating behaviors to achieve the ideal—which then leads to more shame. As such, we can get stuck in this cycle and find it hard to break our exercise and eating patterns.

Many diets involve restriction or deprivation of some kind, which is considered disordered eating. Disordered eating doesn’t necessarily mean someone has an eating disorder. It is a broad term that encompasses any type of eating that is detrimental. This could include binge eating, dieting, eating during certain windows, and more. Disordered eating is not a diagnosis—rather, it describes a person’s pattern of eating. 

Examples of disordered eating behaviors include: (2)

  • Binge eating
  • Skipping meals
  • Cutting out an entire food group
  • Fasting
  • Using diet pills
  • Using creatine or steroids
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Using laxatives or diuretics

Some people who engage in disordered eating do meet the criteria for an eating disorder, while others may not. But disordered eating does increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED). 

Diet culture and the set of beliefs we’ve been sold encourage disordered eating for the sake of “health” and desirability. And the messaging of diet culture is so prevalent, that signing onto Instagram or TikTok may result in an onslaught of dangerous, misinformed content about diets, exercise, and weight-loss miracles. (4) This is particularly true for adolescents and young adults who are vulnerable to peer pressure and influence. For example, if a teen girl sees a video of a peer promoting a juice cleanse or detox program, she may be at risk of trying this cleanse. Now, imagine this happening repeatedly, even hundreds of times per day. It can be difficult to ignore the influence of social media when it feels like everyone is exceedingly thin, conventionally attractive, and following extreme food and exercise plans. 

Because diet culture glorifies weight loss “healthy” eating and shames people in larger bodies, this shame and weight stigma can lead to eating disorder behaviors in those who experience such discrimination.

Rejecting diet culture for a healthier relationship with food

Rejecting diet culture is going to take a lot of unlearning since we’ve been exposed to this messaging for our entire lives. But here are some strategies for a shift in mindset around relating to  food and exercise:

  • Practice intuitive eating: Intuitive eating involves learning to listen to the body’s hunger and satiety cues and using those cues to discern when to eat, how much, and what to eat. Intuitive eating is about trusting one’s body to know what is best for it. For people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating, more structure might be necessary at first to eat adequately before the physical cues necessary for intuitive eating are present.
  • Engage in joyful movement: Diet culture associates exercise with punishment for “bad” behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Movement can be mindful and joyful and help improve the mind-body connection. Instead of engaging in regimented exercise, try other movements that are more pleasurable, such as dancing, playing a sport, or yoga. It’s also important to remember that rest is essential, especially when healing from an eating disorder or other illness.
  • Embrace body neutrality: Body neutrality involves having a neutral perspective about one’s body, not thinking about it as good or bad, but rather accepting it for what it is. Many proponents of body neutrality prefer to focus on what their body can do for them, as opposed to how it looks. They cultivate gratitude for how their body serves them.

If disordered eating behaviors have progressed to a clinical eating disorder, these tips will likely not be enough to achieve a full recovery. If this is the case, it is recommended to seek out eating disorder specific support.

Treatment can occur in a number of settings, including inpatient, residential, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, outpatient, and virtual. At Within Health, our virtual program offers an intensive, inclusive experience that caters to people of diverse body sizes, shapes, and weights. Our treatment team understands the negative influence of diet culture, fat-shaming, and weight stigma, and with many different treatment modalities, from group counseling and art therapy to movement therapy and meal support, we are able to help you heal your relationship with food and movement.

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.

Resources

  1. Daryanani, A. (2021). What is “Diet Culture?” UC San Diego Recreation. 
  2. National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (n.d.). Disordered Eating & Dieting.
  3. Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Daníelsdóttir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R. M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity, 2014, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/983495 
  4. Roth, E. (2021, December 18). WSJ's deep dive into eating disorder rabbit holes on Tiktok explains a sudden policy change. The Verge. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/18/22843606/tiktok-wsj-algorithm-change-eating-disorder

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