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Diet Culture: Examples of its Influence in Our Society

April 15, 2019

 

If you've been following my blog, you know that I've mentioned "diet culture" in multiple blog posts, and that I previously struggled with disordered eating - followed by doing some internal housekeeping and becoming a non-diet dietitian and a health coach who specializes in Intuitive Eating and uses a Health at Every Size (HAES) perspective.  You know that I frequently talk about why dieting doesn't work for most people, and how focusing on our behaviors - versus a number on a scale - can be empowering for our well-being - and is a great way to measure our progress.    

 

So today I'm switching gears and am providing a bit more explanation as to what diet culture is, in addition to discussing some examples of its influence in a variety of situations.  Please know that it's completely understandable if - as you're reading this - you experience different emotions.  Some could be sadness, frustration, anger, defensiveness, etc.  We're all in this together!  Unfortunately, starting as children, our Western culture has provided us with lots of unflattering portrayals of larger bodies in cartoons, children's books, movies, etc.  And these negative characterizations continue throughout life - meaning that it's highly likely that you might identify with some of what's written in this post.  I'm happy to chat about any thoughts or feelings that might come up as you're reading this!  I am humbly writing this post as someone who has experienced a lot of thin privilege throughout life, and whose thinking continues to evolve thanks to my wonderful clients and mentors who teach me so much.  

 

WHAT IS DIET CULTURE?

I'll share a bit of my interpretation of diet culture.  Diet culture is a set of beliefs revolving around the idea that "thin" bodies are the most desirable, valuable, and "healthy."  Diet culture also conveys that eating a certain way is "good" or "bad" - and that a person's worth increases when eating "healthy," or when living in a small body.  It's worth noting that diet culture has frequently presented an image of health as living in a able-bodied, small, white body.  As Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, writes, "Diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that's just and peaceful for people in ALL bodies."  If you would like to learn more about diet culture's history and form of oppression, listen to Christy Harrison talk about this topic in this podcast starting around the twenty-two minute mark.      

 

Diet culture's influence can of course be found within the diet industry.  While the diet industry tells you that all your dreams will come true when you obtain a small body and eat a certain way, it doesn't tell you that dieting doesn't work in the long-term for most people; can be harmful emotionally, physically, and mentally; is a strong risk factor for developing an eating disorder; is a strong predictor of weight gain; and that weight cycling - which is associated with yo-yo dieting - is linked to worsened cardiovascular health and premature death.

 

Among many things, diet culture's influence can lead to developing weight bias - which is having unfavorable thoughts about people due to their body size or weight.  Weight bias can then result in weight stigma - which entails putting labels on people due to their body size and discriminating against them - which may be harmful to those individuals' emotional, physical, and mental well-being.  In fact, weight stigma is an independent risk factor for chronic health conditions.  Weight stigma can then lead to internalized weight stigma, in which a person begins to believe that the labels that have been thrown at them are true - which may be particularly damaging to the person's overall health.  Internalized weight stigma is associated with chronic dieting, eating disorders, decreased desire to exercise, etc.         

 

DIET CULTURE'S INFLUENCE CAN BE FOUND IN MANY PLACES

I've listed below just some of the many places where diet culture's influence can be found.  As you'll see in some of the following examples, diet culture's influence can lead to size discrimination:

 

Grocery stores

  • An employee complimenting a shopper for being "so good," at the checkout line when deciding that the shopper is buying a large amount of "healthy" ingredients. 

  • A grocery shopper taking pictures of the food in his or her cart - and posting it on Instagram with a "clean" eating message or "If I can do it, you can too" statement. 

  • An individual looking into a grocery cart containing sweets, and thinking that the shopper is being "bad" for purchasing those items.  

Healthcare

  • Health professionals elevating smaller bodies - and making the assumption that a smaller body is "healthy" solely due to its size - while viewing a larger body as "unhealthy" solely due to its size. 

  • A patient comes in with a broken arm, and is told to lose weight.

  • Not diagnosing or treating a condition due to being distracted by a person's higher weight - and solely suggesting weight loss.  Also missing a diagnosis as a result of thinking that a thin-bodied person is "healthy."       

  • Health practitioners viewing patients in larger bodies as undisciplined and "noncompliant with treatment." Some of the most disciplined people that I know are people in larger bodies.

  • Labeling a thin-bodied dietitian as "good," and a dietitian in a larger body as "bad." Spoil alert: There are so many ROCKSTAR dietitians in smaller AND larger bodies. 

  • Not taking into account the impact that the discrimination that we may experience because of our skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and body size can have on our health.  

  • Not being mindful of how a person's genetics, stress levels, level of self-care, and socioeconomic status can influence one's wellness.

Workplace:

  • I was just getting ready to take a bite out of a baby carrot when a former coworker asked me, "Do you know how many carbohydrates are in that?!" You would have thought I was about ready to eat something poisonous!  My response was, "Yes! And they're delicious!" You get the point. My carrot was being labeled as "bad" because it contained carbohydrates.  I LOVE carbs, and appreciate that they're the gold standard for providing us with energy!

  • It's legal to terminate a person's employment based on weight in 49 states in the United States.  Here's some more information about size discrimination.  Some research also indicates that higher weight employees have less job opportunities, and are paid less in contrast to people in lower weight bodies - particularly women.  

  • Weight loss challenges at work - which reinforce the idea that being smaller is desirable and healthier.  Even if we're not thinking about how this challenge makes some higher weight people FEEL (Receiving the message that there is something wrong with their bodies, and therefore there needs to be a contest at work to fix them), it's worth noting that weight/body size is often a misguided indicator of health.  If companies want to empower their employees' health, it would make more sense to focus on things that create positive and sustainable change, like health-promoting behaviors that feel right to the employees - which can empower a person's health at ANY size.  It's also worth noting that the perceived weight stigma that higher weight individuals experience in general - which they are enduring in this work-related example by the way -  "doubles the risk of high allostatic load." Allostatic load refers to physiological dysregulation in the body, such as lipid/metabolic, glucose metabolism, and inflammation.  So in other words, weight loss challenges may contribute to harming an employee's well-being.  Some research further indicates that reducing weight stigma may empower a higher weight person's health by actually decreasing the physiological dysregulation in the person's body. 

Gyms

  • While there are some gyms cropping up that promote a more inclusive, body positive vibe, many gyms continue to elevate smaller bodies and the idea of exercising to obtain a smaller body. 

  • There are stories of some fitness instructors leading a group class and talking about "burning off" a certain food by doing that workout.  This insinuates that we can't consume a food and enjoy it, that it must be "burned off" in order to have a small body, and projects the idea that exercise should be used for weight loss - versus for the purpose of doing something that we enjoy, helps us feel well, and promotes heart health.

  • The "clean" eating messages are plentiful, as are people being labeled or labeling themselves as "good" or "bad" - depending on whether they made it to the gym.       

Restaurants: 

  • Clients have shared stories of strangers making comments to them about what they're eating and the quantity of food that they're consuming - which is a result of diet culture's influence.  This includes being "good" and "bad" for eating certain foods and amounts of food.   

  • Some restaurants do not offer chairs without arms or a big booth with a movable table, making it more difficult for people in larger bodies to fit into the chairs or booths.  People of all sizes have the right to take up space. 

TV, radio, movies, books, and magazines

  • The majority of the characters on TV and in movies are thin-bodied - portraying smaller bodies as the most desirable.  According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), "The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness."

  • Many pictures of higher weight people are headless in news stories - which is dehumanizing. 

  • There's an abundance of magazine articles and books dedicated to the latest fad diet, "clean" eating, and tips for how to trim down.

  • From children's cartoons to movies throughout our lifetime, people in larger bodies are portrayed as at best - silly and funny - and at worst, lazy, sloppy, etc.

Social media accounts

  • There's a large number of "clean" eating accounts, fitness posts revolving around the goal of being thin-bodied, demonizing a variety of foods, the promotion of different diets, etc. 

  • Bullying people in larger bodies takes place regularly - including threats of violence.  

Clothing stores

  • While the number of plus-size clothing stores and fashion forward options are increasing, there is so much room for improvement.  Around 67% of American women are plus-size, wearing size 14 or higher - and yet so many stores fail to provide plenty of options for smaller and larger bodies. 

  • Being charged more money for plus-size clothing.  People who wear a size 11 shoe are charged the same amount of money as people who wear a size 6 shoe.  As one fashion designer states, "We rarely see tall and maternity editions of clothing being priced differently.  It's cruel and unfair to single out one body type."   

 

This list goes on and on.  Now that you've read this list, it can be helpful to tune into how and when diet culture is influencing our thinking.  This can help us avoid discriminating against others - and help improve our attitudes towards ourselves as well.  The good news is that once we know more, we can do better.  We need to work on lessening diet culture's influence, and promoting equality for ALL bodies. 

 

In an upcoming article, I will propose a few actions that you can take to lessen the impact that diet culture has on your own life.  Until then, I invite all of us to challenge our thinking, and the thinking of others - so that we can reduce diet culture's influence on our society.  

 

If you would like to learn more about the one-on-one sessions that I provide, click here

 

 

 

 

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Hi! I'm Jill, a non-diet RD, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, food blogger, and owner of  Cultivate Joy Nutrition.

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