What is the concept of diet culture in our society? According to Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN:
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness, equating it to health and moral virtue…Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, compelling you to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body… Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, forcing you to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices…Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” damaging both their mental and physical health.”
Diet culture keeps us on dieting cycles by telling us that we are ‘just one more diet’ away from beauty, success, happiness, etc. Diet culture teaches us that our self-worth and abilities are tied to our physical appearance and positions ‘diets’ as the answer to all our insecurities, struggles and problems. But rationally we all know that this is simply not true.
Diet culture makes eating a moral issue, that you are either “good” or “bad” based on what you eat. This moralization of food leads to judgement of people who cannot attain our societies definition of beauty, because if these people would only eat “good foods” they would be able to achieve this beauty ideal. If, however, you are unable to achieve this ideal, then the fault must be yours, you must be lacking self-control or willpower. This is clearly false. There are many factors exist in someone’s weight and body size and implying that it is all based on their ability to diet successfully is harmful and damaging to their self-esteem and self-image.
Categorizing food as either “good” or “bad”, making every bite about how many calories we are eating, removes all pleasure and joy from eating and makes every meal and snack a moral decision with incredibly high stakes. It makes eating so unbearably stressful and demoralizing and contributes significantly to a disordered relationship with food. Not all people who are society’s ideal of thin are healthy and not everyone who is not is unhealthy, and certainly they are not good or bad because of that.
Diet culture is dangerous. It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness. It bonds people over restrictive ways of eating. It’s why people are complimented for losing weight—even if their weight loss behaviors are harmful or unsafe. It’s what has made some parents put young children on diets. It’s what shames people for eating certain foods.
Subscribing to diet culture clearly and significantly increases risk for disordered eating and eating disorders and it is imperative that we find ways to combat the messages it espouses.