Diet Culture: Why it is Toxic to Your Mental Health and How to Overcome it
Have you ever found yourself preoccupied with the latest and greatest diet trend, obsessing over the food you eat or do not eat, or judging how your body looks in the mirror? You are not alone.
Most of society has fallen victim to diet culture at some point or another, myself included. I spent many years resenting my thick thighs, wide hips, and pale skin. I wanted to look like the women in Cosmopolitan magazine (which I had been subscribing to since my mid to late teens) – tall, slim, and tanned. How I felt about my body dictated how I would feel and spend my day. Often that meant either wallowing in self-pity and social isolation or spending every waking moment tracking and analyzing what I ate, fitting in exercise at every opportune moment, and trialing every self-tanner on the market. How I felt about my body also triggered a lot of anxiety; I was extremely self-conscious and always concerned with how others perceived me. Diet culture had consumed me.
What is Diet Culture
Diet culture refers to a system of beliefs that equates body shape, size, and attractiveness to health, wellbeing, and happiness. It promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status and the belief that being thin makes a person better than someone who is not. It also emphasizes all-or-nothing thinking and preoccupation with rigid eating standards and exercise expectations and normalizes self-depreciation and negative self-talk(1).
Diet culture can show up as (1,2,3):
Labeling foods as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, clean/toxic, etc.
Exercising to “burn off” calories or “earn” food.
Limiting or avoiding entire food groups believed to be “bad” (carbohydrates, dairy, sugar, etc.).
Meticulously counting macros or calories.
Eating only at certain times of the day.
Feeling guilt or shame for eating a specific type or amount of food.
Trying to suppress your appetite with caffeine, nicotine, diet soda, water, etc.
Avoiding social situations to avoid eating.
Feeling unworthy or unattractive because of the way you perceive your body.
Weighing yourself and altering your behaviors based on the number on the scale.
Placing immense value on thinness, weight loss, and beauty.
Assuming that your body is responsible for the good or bad things that are happening in your life.
Engaging in fat-shaming or body-shaming behaviors, talk, or language.
Envying others for their weight or perceived self-control.
How does Diet Culture Impact Mental Health?
Diet culture can trigger big emotions such as fear, shame, and guilt and has been shown time and time again to be a risk factor for poor body image and self-esteem, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and other mental health issues, including anxiety and depression (4).
Some of the ways diet culture can negatively impact mental health include:
Fueling anxious thoughts about what you should or shouldn’t eat, planning meals or exercise, or “mistakes” you made with eating.
Experiencing blame, shame, and guilt when your dieting efforts do not yield desired results
Perceiving and internalizing weight stigma or fatphobia
Obsessive food or body thoughts Interfering with relationships
Preventing you from taking risks, trying new things, or doing the things you love because you don’t feel like you have the “right body” for it.
Holding you back from being fully present during memorable moments, such as weddings, vacations, or lunch with a friend because you are preoccupied with thoughts about food or your body.
Turning to risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, laxatives, purging, or overexercising to compensate for eating.
Distracting you from work, school, or other responsibilities.
The bottom line:
diet culture makes people so fearful of food and anxious about losing control that they cannot truly participate in their life. It robs us of our time, energy, money, and joy and occupies precious brain space that could be better utilized for positive self-care and other interests that are more meaningful and fulfilling (5).
Moving Away from Diet Culture
Diet Culture is pervasive and deeply rooted in society. For this reason, avoiding it is impossible. However, there are ways that you can limit your exposure to diet culture, advocate against it, and begin to heal your relationship with food.
Reconsider how you spend your time online
Unfortunately, social media is yet another form of harmful messaging that continues to perpetuate unrealistic expectations around body image standards. Tabloids, advertising campaigns, magazines, and other forms of media have always tried to influence what the ideal or preferred body looks like. Still, now we have access to it at our fingertips 24/7. Media usage and comparing oneself to another have been linked to lower self-esteem, self-consciousness, and depressive tendencies (6).
To limit your exposure to diet culture, start by unfollowing or avoiding any social media accounts, forums, groups, etc. that you find triggering or making you feel like you are not good enough the way that you are. Instead, follow accounts that celebrate body diversity and bust diet culture.
Notice how diet culture shows up in your life and call it out for what it is (2)
Pay attention and make a list of the different ways diet culture shows up in your day-to-day life. How has this affected you? How has it interfered with your life? Have you stopped doing or enjoying something because of diet culture, fatphobia, or fear of judgment? Begin to challenge your thoughts and beliefs and shift your behaviors.
Explore your beliefs about health
Do your beliefs about health include all parts of health, including social and emotional?
Practice body neutrality (3)
Body neutrality is the idea of honoring your body as it is now and shifting your focus to what your body can do right now, in the present, rather than what you want it to look like. It takes your mind off trying to manipulate or control what you look like and instead shifts your mindset to become ambivalent about the way you look and focused on respecting the things you can do now.
Move away from binary thinking (5)
Binary or all-or-nothing thinking refers to the human tendency to simplify things into two mutually exclusive categories, such as good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, clean or toxic, etc. This type of thinking may make us feel safe, however, its inflexibility prevents us from learning, growing, and changing. These black and white labels can also evoke shame and guilt when linked to a person’s self-worth. For example, eating a food one has labeled as bad can make one feel like a bad person.
Instead, practice living in the grey area and using more neutral and non-judgemental terms to describe food, such as nourishing, delicious, comforting, fun, and satisfying.
Explore intuitive eating (3)
Studies have shown that intuitive eating improves several markers of psychological wellbeing including higher self-esteem, better body image, more body appreciation and acceptance, more enjoyment of food, and lower rates of disordered eating and eating disorders. Intuitive eating is a non-diet, self-care, approach to nutrition, health, and wellbeing that is characterized by flexibility, curiosity, and body trust.
The intuitive eating framework consists of 10 principles, including:
Rejecting the diet mentality
Honoring your Hunger
Making peace with food
Challenging the food police
Discovering the satisfaction factor
Feeling your fullness
Coping with your emotions with kindness
Respecting your body
Movement – Feeling the difference
Honoring your health with gentle nutrition
Intuitive eating honors both physical and mental health to get you back to a place where eating can again be simple, pleasurable, and satisfying.
Coming Out on the Other Side
My personal struggle with body image began when I was about 16 years old and lingered until my mid to late 20s. I can’t remember exactly when or how it happened, but I remember looking at my favorite white top, which was now stained with self-tanner, and thinking… “I am so TIRED”. I was tired of chasing unrealistic expectations. I was never going to be a tall person, I was never going to have a thigh gap, and I was never going to have a flawless tan. Deep down I knew it all along, but I finally began to accept that these were all physical characteristics that were outside of my control – I was genetically prepositioned to look this way.
Long story short, something within me began to shift; I unsubscribed from Cosmopolitan magazine and ditched the self-tanning lotions, creams, wipes, and mousses. I continued to make food choices I thought to be healthy but stopped tracking my calories in journals and apps. I continued to exercise but didn’t panic when my plans were disrupted and started to make time for other activities that were not physical. I started to get my time back and thus opportunities to explore what really brought me joy.
The wheels started turning, but I wasn’t quite there yet. Making peace with food was by far the most difficult part. Although I had stopped counting calories and tracking my intake, I was still diligent on portion sizing, restricting what I thought to be “junk” foods, and stringent on food timing. It wasn’t until my late 20s when I was deep into my thesis research on weight bias and I discovered HAES (health at every size) and intuitive eating, that my relationship with my body and food truly began to change.
Fast forward to today and, although I still have bad body image moments, I can appreciate, respect, and celebrate my body for what it is, what it can do, and where it has taken me. I am confident in my ability to listen to and trust in what my body needs, and happily consume fun foods without feelings of guilt and shame. Most importantly, I no longer let my preoccupation with body image hold me back from fully participating in my life.
Diet culture can feel like an unavoidable pressure everyone must endure. However, dieting is not the only way to pursue health, and being thin does not automatically mean healthy. Rejecting the status quo and choosing to heal your relationship with yourself and your body is much more fulfilling.
If you struggle with disordered eating, an eating disorder, or are concerned about your health, body image, or eating habits, reaching out to a qualified health care provider; talking to a therapist, or reaching out to a trusted loved one can make a profound difference.
Intuitive eating is the foundation on which I practice and serve my clients at The Daily Grind Nutrition. If you want to learn more about how intuitive eating and healing your relationship with food may benefit your mental health - let's chat! Book a free discovery session.
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