What is diet culture?

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You’ve probably heard of the term “diet culture” if you’ve spent any time immersed in the world of fitness and health. Diet culture is extremely insidious and pervasive throughout society, and it can have extremely negative effects on many people’s health and wellbeing. Keep reading to learn about the meaning of diet culture and why it persists.

In this article

Diet culture meaning 

Before diving into the problems associated with diet culture, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the meaning of this term. Researchers have described diet culture as a “moral hierarchy of bodies fueled by health myths”. (1) Diet culture is in part perpetuated by widespread discussion of dieting in the media, especially in online forums, social media, and popular books. Dieting for weight loss has become a common culture practice, which is reinforced through norms surrounding food and body ideals. 

Diet culture also goes beyond specific diets and extends to the way that food, exercise, bodies, and health are culturally viewed, discussed, and valued. It has a variety of negative physical, mental and social health effects. Diet culture encourages dieting behaviors, which are associated with long-term health consequences like loss of muscle from repeated weight loss attempts, weakened bones, high blood pressure, and chronic inflammation. Dieting also increases the risk of poor body image and is a strong contributor to eating disorders. (1)

Factors surrounding diet culture

Diet culture can encourage dieting behaviors, but there is more to this phenomenon than specific diets. A recent study found that experts and advocates in the areas of feminism and healthcare perceive diet culture to be linked to the following: (1)

  • Myths surrounding what it means to be healthy, specifically, that thinness equates to health 
  • The tendency to categorize foods as good and bad
  • The belief that women should aspire to be thin (people of other genders often also experience this) 
  • Demonizing larger bodies
  • Assumptions that having a higher-weight body is a result of poor eating choices and lack of exercise
  • Structural inequalities which lead women to believe they must fit a certain body ideal in order to be attractive to men (people of other genders also often experience pressure to conform to specific body ideas to be attractive) 

At its essence, diet culture promotes restriction, obsession around food and exercise, avoiding and stigmatizing fatness, and anxiety about the social, physical, and romantic consequences of failing to perform these behaviors.

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The harmful effects of diet culture

The term “diet” can be used in different ways, and in some cases a specific diet (such as a gluten-free diet for someone with Celiac Disease or a low-protein diet for someone with phenylketonuria) is appropriate to manage personal health needs. However, dieting with the goal of intentional weight loss has been shown by decades of research to be both ineffective and harmful. 

In fact, numerous studies have shown that dieting behavior is associated with weight cycling, in which people lose weight, only to regain it thereafter, in a pattern that is often called “yo-yo dieting.” Over time, weight cycling has been found to lead to negative health outcomes, such as higher insulin and blood sugar levels, as well as increases in cholesterol and blood pressure. (1) Ultimately, if people diet in an attempt to improve their health, they may end up doing just the opposite.

Dieting behaviors often occur in response to the pressures of diet culture. Studies have shown that women who internalize diet culture’s thin ideal show more body-related anxiety when viewing pictures of thin models when compared to models who are not as thin. (1) Finally, one study from the UK found 46% of girls and 27% of boys in teen and preteen age groups made attempts to look like people they had seen in the media. (3)
What all of this means is that people, including children, are receiving diet culture’s message that thinner bodies are more valuable, and attempting dangerous and ineffective behaviors in response to this. Diet culture messaging has been found to increase the risk of eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. In teenage girls, the body dissatisfaction that arises from diet culture norms has been linked to the use of eating disorder behaviors to attempt to manipulate weight. (1)

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. Jovanovski, N., & Jaeger, T. (2022). Demystifying ‘diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘anti-diet,’ feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities. Women’s Studies International Forum, 90, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2021.102558
  2. 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, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/983495
  3. Body image in childhood. Mental Health Foundation. (2020, August 6). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/childhood

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