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How diet culture can lead to eating disorders

Diet culture is all around, from advertisements and food labels to social media and influencers. It is so pervasive that it has become normalized almost by default, to the point where it can become difficult to realize just how problematic all the messaging around it is.

That same pervasiveness can make it easy to internalize the ideas behind diet culture, such as the concept that there is only one acceptable type of body, and achieving it, whether through excessive exercise, eating “clean," or other means, should be prioritized over taking care of oneself.

Unfortunately, internalizing these messages, whether intentionally or not, can have powerful—and powerfully harmful—effects on mental and physical health, potentially leading to developing eating disorder symptoms.

9
 minute read
Last updated on 
December 13, 2023
January 31, 2024
How diet culture can lead to eating disorders
In this article

What is "diet culture"?

Diet culture doesn’t have one clear definition, but it generally refers to a group of societal beliefs that overly value physical appearance, typically pitting thinness or muscularity as the ideal and equating 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 or even food restriction, to social media influencers and the weight loss trends they push, regardless of health consequences.2

As people have become more aware of issues around weight and mental health over the years, the messaging of diet culture has also evolved, changing from more overt dieting tips to messages that claim to be health-focused. Influencers may now tout "eating clean," "lifting heavy," or doing other things to "focus on their health" rather than declaring that they're promoting weight loss.

But regardless of how it's presented, the core of the idea remains: thinness or muscularity are the only "true" body shapes, and anyone not actively working on achieving them is failing at a key aspect of life.

Diet culture

The problems with diet culture

Even when presented sincerely or unknowingly preached as health-promoting, diet culture is loaded with several problematic or objectively false ideas that can be dangerous if internalized.

Equating health with thinness
Promoting dangerous ideas
Encouraging problematic thinking patterns
diet culture problems graphic

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 cause people to 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 negative 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 adequate eating and eating disorders. However, diet culture often promotes many behaviors that meet this designation.

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, enjoyment of food, or adequate eating behaviors. Other studies have concluded that dieting may cause more harm than good.4

Some people who engage in disordered eating do meet the criteria for an eating disorder, while others may not. But these habits can lead to full-blown eating disorders eventually. Frequent dieting, in particular, has been identified as a risk factor for developing binge eating disorder (BED).5

Connections with low self-esteem

Both diet culture and eating disorders are often perpetuated by low self-esteem. The connection is so strong that some researchers have posited chronic low self-esteem as a prerequisite to developing an eating disorder of any kind.6

Diet culture can also work to lower self-esteem further. The entire premise of diet culture is that most people aren't in the "appropriate" bodies, and their lives won't be complete until they achieve a specific 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.2 This is particularly true for adolescents and young adults who are vulnerable to peer pressure and influence.

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Rejecting diet culture for a healthier relationship with food

Rejecting diet culture is difficult, 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 regarding food, exercise, and body image.

Practice intuitive eating
Engage in joyful movement
Embrace body neutrality

Finding help for an eating disorder

If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating behaviors or an eating disorder, reaching out for help can be an important step towards healing.

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.

Help is within reach

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, anti-fat bias, and weight stigma. With many different treatment modalities, from group counseling and art therapy to movement therapy and meal support, we can help you heal your relationship with food and movement.

Call (866) 293-0041

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. Accessed June 2023.
  2. Hobbs, T., Barry, R., Koh, Y. (2021, December 17). The Corpse Bride Diet’: How TikTok Inundates Teens With Eating-Disorder Videos. The Wall Street Journal. Accessed June 2023.
  3. Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region. (2017). World Health Organization. Accessed June 2023.
  4. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M.,Larson, N. I., Eisenberg, M. E., Loth, K. (2011). Dieting and Disordered Eating Behaviors from Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Findings from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(7), 1004-1011.
  5. Howard, C. E., & Porzelius, L. K. (1999). The role of dieting in binge eating disorder: etiology and treatment implications. Clinical Psychology Review, 19(1), 25–44.
  6. Silverstone, P. H. (1992). Is chronic low self-esteem the cause of eating disorders?Medical Hypotheses, 39(4), 311–315.

FAQs

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Further reading

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