What is "diet culture"?
Diet culture doesn’t have one clear definition, but it typically refers to a group of societal beliefs that overly value physical appearance, typically pitting thinness or fitness as the ideal, and conflating the achievement of these body shapes with moral superiority.1
These kinds of messages are all around us, from marketing food as “skinny girl” or “guilt-free,” to magazines advertising celebrity weight loss programs, to apps that encourage and track weight loss, to social media influencers and the weight loss trends they push, regardless of health consequences.
As people have become more sensitive toward issues of weight and mental health over the years, the messaging of diet culture has also evolved, changing from more overt dieting tips to messages that are apparently health-inspired. Influencers may now tout "eating clean," "lifting heavy," or doing other things to "focus on their health," rather than declaring that they're trying to get skinny.
But regardless of how it's presented, the core of the idea remains: thinness or fitness are the only "true" body shapes, and anyone not actively working on achieving them is failing at a key aspect of life.
The problems with diet culture
Even when presented sincerely or unknowingly preached as health-affirming, diet culture is loaded with a number of problematic or objectively false ideas that can be dangerous if internalized.
Diet culture and eating disorders: overlapping traits
Indeed, the thinking behind diet culture overlaps with the thoughts that drive eating disorder behaviors in many ways.
Idealizing certain body types
The overall philosophy of diet culture can make people believe that they don’t have value or worth unless they have the “ideal” body—often considered thinness for women; lean, muscular builds for men; and thin, curveless versions of androgyny for nonbinary people.
When people don't have bodies that meet these arbitrary standards, they may feel ashamed, guilty, or angry. These feelings can contribute to low body image and poor self-esteem, as well as mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, which are frequently considered major maintaining factors for disordered eating behaviors.
Promoting disordered eating behaviors
Disordered eating exists on a spectrum, describing a wide range of detrimental eating habits and behaviors that sit somewhere between "normal" eating and eating disorders. But many behaviors that meet this designation are often promoted by diet culture.
In fact, some research has argued that all diets are a form of disordered eating, as they impose certain rules and restrictions around someone's otherwise natural hunger cues or eating behaviors. Other studies have concluded that dieting may cause more harm than good, even in cases when it may be beneficial for someone's health for them to lose some weight.2
Some people who engage in disordered eating do meet the criteria for an eating disorder, while others may not. But it's possible for these habits to eventually lead to full-blown eating disorders. Frequent dieting, in particular, has been identified as a risk factor for developing binge eating disorder (BED).6
Connections with low self-esteem
Both diet culture and eating disorders operate on a basis of low self-esteem. The connection is so strong that some researchers have posited chronic low self-esteem as a necessary prerequisite to developing an eating disorder of any kind.7
And diet culture can also work to further lower self-esteem. In fact, the entire premise of diet culture is that most people aren't in the "appropriate" sized bodies, and their lives won't be complete until they achieve this shape or weight.
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.
Rejecting diet culture for a healthier relationship with food
Rejecting diet culture is a difficult ask, as the concepts behind it have been such a strong and regular presence in media and many Western cultures for so long.
But there are some strategies to help shift your mindset in a healthier direction, when it comes to food, exercise and body image.
Practice intuitive eating
Intuitive, mindful 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. It's about trusting one’s body to know what is best for it.
For people recovering from an eating disorder, more structure might be necessary at first, to help them return to a healthier weight or pattern of eating. But the overall goal of many recovery programs is to help people learn to eat more intuitively.
Engage in joyful movement
Diet culture associates exercise with punishment for “bad” behavior, or marks it as a necessary chore, in order to maintain the ideal body weight and shape.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Movement can—and should be—a joyful experience, and once which can help improve the mind-body connection.
Instead of engaging in regimented exercise, you can try other movements that are more pleasurable, such as dancing, playing a sport, or practicing yoga. It’s also important to remember that rest isn't a sign of failure or giving up, but rather an essential aspect of growth, and part of the natural cycle.
Embrace body neutrality
Body neutrality involves having a neutral perspective about one’s body. In other words, it asks people to not think about their body as good or bad, but rather as something to be accepted 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. Even activities as simple as walking, climbing the stairs, or hugging others can be a source of happiness. Thinking of the body in this way can help cultivate gratitude for what the body is and can do, rather than focusing on the negative mindset of what it "should" be.
Finding help for an eating disorder
If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating behaviors or an eating disorder, it's important to seek out help.
Treatment can occur in a number of settings, including inpatient, residential, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, outpatient, and virtual venues. And each level of care offers its own benefits for patients struggling with all kinds of conditions.