Diet culture surrounds and influences us all. Despite the common notion that it only affects people watching their weight, diet culture also has an impact in general. People with a high Body Mass Index are often trolled, bullied and ridiculed. From school to college to work, it is common for overweight people to be labelled as ‘fat’, which leads to self-confidence issues among many.
A distorted body image negatively impacts one’s emotional and physical health. Christy Harrison, the author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, describes diet culture as a belief system that worships being skinny and equates it with health and virtue. In addition, diet culture encourages rapid weight loss and suggests maintaining a low body weight to secure elite social status. There is also the demonisation of certain foods and eating styles while elevating others. People who don’t meet such expectations or match the delusional image of ‘health’ perpetuated by diet culture are disrespected.
Diet culture distorts the image of food
Diet culture views food as fuel. Based on their macronutrient content, foods are simply rated ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, food is more than a source of energy. It has been an integral part of celebrations and culture since ancient times. Only through food can we obtain crucial nutrients—vitamins, minerals, essential fats, antioxidants, phytonutrients, protein, and fibre. A combination of nutritious foods ensures well-being and disease prevention. Nutritional deficiency, impaired bodily functions, disordered eating, and an unhealthy relationship with food result from avoiding nutritious foods for going ‘low-cal’. ‘
‘Detoxifying’ and ‘cleansing’ after a celebration or holiday season are classic examples of foods being perceived only as calories. ‘Purging’ of ‘high-fat, ‘high-calorie’ foods after a feast is classified as disordered eating. It is an unscientific and dangerous process with detrimental physical and psychological effects. The focus on restrictive diets to stay healthy encourages eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Similarly, engaging in physical activities solely to burn calories or ‘earn’ favourite foods is a poor outcome of diet culture.
Psycho-social impact of diet culture
It is critical to understand that obesity and excess weight are complex medical conditions that are not always a result of unregulated calorie intake or inactivity. You may gain weight for a variety of reasons—genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalance, medication etc. Diet culture does not consider the science behind obesity and promotes a thin body as the pinnacle of one’s health.
A person who does not meet these standards is regarded as unhealthy and develops a negative body image, making self-love a difficult journey for them. For such people, weight loss is the only path toward acceptance, happiness, and health. People with poor body image diet to lose weight and not to develop healthy eating habits.
Those with larger bodies, poor body image, or body dissatisfaction compare their bodies to ‘zero-figure’ celebrities who promote weight loss diets without explaining whether the method is scientifically sound, safe, or sustainable. Unfortunately, people who become prey to diet culture lack both self-confidence and fundamental scientific knowledge of health and well-being. They find it difficult to accept that how they look has nothing to do with their health. Health risks are enhanced by poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle, and lack of physical activity regardless of body size.
Practice intuitive eating
The weight loss and weight management market was valued at $192.2 billion in 2019, projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. Decades of research show that diets don’t work long-term. There are relapses and disappointments. However, the ‘diet culture’ based weight loss industry is not ready to give up and keeps coming up with new, trendy diets without scientific backing. Even when we learn that the new diet is unsustainable, extremely rigid, lacks essential nutrients, and may lead to the regaining of body weight, we don’t stop feeling that it is our fault and we are not disciplined enough. The vicious cycle continues. Needless to say, the outcome is shame and guilt.
A combination of intuitive eating and behavioural modifications can help combat the ill effects of diet culture. To avoid diet culture, avoid self-proclaimed health influencers, unscientific news, and weight watcher groups. Become knowledgeable about essential physiological functions, nutrition, and how eating a balanced diet promotes good health. Research the pros and cons of new diets before following them.
Try some key principles of intuitive eating to get out of the diet industry’s trap. These principles ask you to reject diet mentality, recognise hunger and respond to it by eating nutritious foods. These principles urge you to make peace with food while developing a healthy relationship with it, challenge someone who categorises food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, stop eating when full, understand your satisfaction factor, cope with stress without eating and finally, respect your body.
Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)