Diet Culture is toxic.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive deeper. To me, “diet culture” doesn’t encompass everyone who talks about food or gives food recommendations. After all, food is medicine and can be used therapeutically to prevent or reverse disease in many cases. BUT there are gray areas and slippery slopes to look out for whenever food is the topic of conversation, and we should be on alert. Our emotions are often tied up in what we eat- and this is likely the root of (white) diet culture and the reason why we are so susceptible to its influence.
It seems like aside from religion and politics, food is the next most polarizing and controversial topic- I mean, we “fight” with strangers on the internet about what to eat! Since it is SUCH a hot topic, it lends itself to marketing strategies that allow people to profit off of the vulnerabilities of those with health, fitness or aesthetic goals. If we can detach our minds from the idea that foods belong in moral categories such as “good” or “bad,” “virtuous” or “indulgent,” we can then maybe see food for what it is intended to be: nourishment for our bodies to survive and thrive. This doesn’t mean that all food is optimally nourishing, because we know that isn’t true. But if we can see foods as either serving our health or not, then we can make more logical judgments on how much and how often certain foods will be a part of our normal routine. Now let’s head back over to diet culture.
Diet culture implants the idea in our brains that the only way to be happy, healthy, successful, desirable and respected is to be thin and fit. It is basically the mindset that insists we need to manipulate and change the way we look by manipulating and changing the foods we eat, constantly and indefinitely. For the most part, this historically means pressure to eat less and exercise more. The focus is on aesthetics, expectations, and moral high grounds, and the “victims” of diet culture are often women (though men do fall prey as well with slightly different stipulations). Underneath the “empowering” facade of “looking your best” or “fitting into those jeans again” is the fundamental idea that who we are right now is not enough. That our work ethic is tied to how hard we “work” on our image. That our worth is dependent on our size. This is not to mention the fact that the tactics often recommended to reduce our size are not sustainable or even based in science, thus further setting us up for failure. This physical failure is often interpreted as a moral one as well, which leads the believer to blame themselves and feel shame.
So where did these crazy expectations come from? Well, the media tends to determine what is attractive and valuable in our society, and for decades on decades it has idolized thinness, small clothing sizes, and more recently has expanded to include unrealistic fitness expectations. But to back up further, we cannot ignore the fact that diet culture has roots in white supremacy. This connection may confuse some at first, but hear me out. As far back as during the slave trade, one way white people considered themselves superior was because they were able to control their appetites and remain thin- and fatness was ultimately associated with blackness.* To ensure their superiority and claim their privilege, white women especially strived to maintain a thin image. We now know that the culture of “clean eating” can be considered inherently prejudiced because it is a privilege in itself to be able to choose less packaged, more expensive food items vs. just getting food on the plate to survive. Proportionally, grocery stores with healthier items are more readily accessible to affluent and predominantly white communities vs. the “food deserts” of inner city or predominantly black or minority communities. People of color are not only being indirectly instructed (through our culture and society’s expectations) to conform to this ideal of thinness, but they’re also being denied access to the very things that might help deliver that outcome.
The images we have been told to idolize and strive towards are often white models. Quite possibly first image influence in many of our lives was Barbie (1959). And even when black Barbie dolls were introduced (9 years later for Barbie’s friend Christie, and 21 years later for the first official African-American Barbie), they still were just brown skin on the original Barbie shape and didn’t include more realistic sizes until 2016. Yep, it took 57 years to be more inclusive with body sizing in the most popular doll company in the world. Think about what that did for body image for girls over those 57 years, when nearly every other image they were shown was similar. I cannot speak to the black and brown skin experience regarding how those women and girls were made to feel in this world of “skinny white girls,” but even as a relatively small-bodied white girl myself, I STILL struggled. So I can only imagine what larger bodied or others not fitting that image were pressured to feel. I am still working on educating myself on this topic and, specifically, the link between racism and diet culture. As I gain insight, I am planning to share that awareness.
Almost all of us have been made to feel ashamed of the body we are in at one point or another, and I would wager that size has played the biggest role in that feeling. Why should we live in a world where instead of accepting who we are as we are, we are chasing an arbitrary “goal weight” set for us by people we don’t know, who don’t know our individual nutritional needs, or who are literally profiting off of our misery?
Imagine spending so much time and effort on the most boring thing about yourself. It turns out that is very often the case with women and their weight. We should know, logically, that a person’s size says very little to nothing about who they are as a person (aside from the psychological impact it has on their potential self-esteem and confidence). And yet we obsess, and count, and STRESS over aesthetics, and we harm ourselves physically and emotionally in the process. What if, and hear me out, we just loved ourselves?
I am not perfect in my body image mindset, and I don’t know that I ever will be. It’s easier to write on paper that I accept and love myself and my body than it is to truly not care what other people think of it. But I will say I have come a LONG way. Two big shifts have made the biggest difference for me, so I will share them here.
First, I discovered the holistic nutrition field. I had been indoctrinated into the “calories in, calories out,” low-fat, and “eat less, exercise more” mentalities for as long as I can remember, so when I stumbled across a book called “The Calorie Myth” by Jonathan Bailor, I was intrigued. This book was 10 years of research in the making, and it basically breaks down the science of why not all calories are created equal and how you can actually eat as much volume of food as you want if it is nourishing and serving you. I don’t 100% agree with every recommendation in the book, but it was like someone turned on a lightbulb in my brain. I began reading every nutrition-related book I could get my hands on. Authors like Liz Wolfe, Diane San Filippo, Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. David Perlmutter, Dr. William Davis, Gary Taubes, and more showed me how everything the media and diet culture is telling people about weight loss and health are wrong and harmful. Instead of demonizing fat, we should be embracing it but considering the source. For the first time in my life- at 28- I was introduced to the idea that quality matters infinitely more than quantity when it comes to food. And I was in love with this idea (and still am).
I came to believe that food is medicine, food is fuel and the right foods can make all the difference in our health. I struggled for almost 10 years trying to diet and exercise my way to being thin like I was in high school, and only after I shifted the focus to nourishing my body did those last 10 pounds melt off me without even trying. Please don’t read this to mean I finally cracked the code. By the time this happened, my whole mindset had shifted and I was no longer prioritizing weight anyway. I honestly haven’t looked to the scale much since.
The second shift for me, which was an even bigger one, was becoming a mom. I love being pregnant (after the first trimester), and I love having a growing belly. I made attempts to prevent stretch marks, but when I got them I didn’t fret too much. I knew I was getting big, but I was in such awe at the miracle of pregnancy that I embraced it. I gained 45 lbs with my first pregnancy and close to that with my second. I know this because they track it and remind you of it. I heard doctors say to stick to 35 pounds of weight gain or less, but I didn’t and still don’t care about that. I knew then and know now (during my third pregnancy) that each body is different, and I fully expect to gain 45 again and be amazed at what the female human body can do.
After my first pregnancy, I was aware of “expectations” about fitting into my jeans again and that people would ask how long it took to return to “pre-baby” weight. I was aware enough that I remember being able to put those jeans on after 6 months. But something was different. I didn’t quite care as much about getting back there in a short amount of time. I wanted to look and feel good in my clothes, but I let go of the “ideal body” idea and I focused on the gratitude of being able to create, carry and birth a human, and all that comes with it. By the time I was pregnant the second time, I was even more full-on about loving and accepting my changing body. Afterwards, I focused on healing (physically and hormonally) as my number one priority (aside from focusing on the babe) and I knew in my heart and based on extensive reading on the topic that if I healed my body the right way (slowly and with nourishing foods), I would return to my healthy self and set myself up for balanced hormones for the future. I expected I would return to the best shape for me and that would be that. And that’s what happened. I really feel that focusing on health and healing and NOT size and fitness allowed me to set my body up for success for the rest of my life. This meant LOTS of rest, good food, and family time and NO pressure to work out or restrict calories.
I want to recognize that I do live in a body that is considered small to average in this country. I know this because of the comments I get about being “tiny” or “skinny,” which still make me uncomfortable because they carry baggage with them from my years as a scrawny adolescent to my years of dieting. For reference, I am 5’6″ and my baseline weight is around 130 lbs. I still don’t see my non-pregnant self as “skinny,” but maybe now it’s because it’s not my goal. As a young teen, “skinny” was an insult because it was usually preceded by “too” and came along with a pre-pubescent shape on a lanky frame, and now it signifies weakness to me and lacks the image of vibrant health I want to embody. I no longer want to be skinny, I want to be healthy. For me, my natural set-point is probably smaller than the average American, and there are unfair privileges that come with that. But I now recognize that everyone is different, and size does NOT equate to health. We all know people who are thin and unhealthy, and we also all know people who exude vibrant health while living in a larger body.
In order to break away from diet culture and what it has taught us about work ethic, perceived laziness, morals and virtue, we need to accept that we are individuals and we are meant to be different. Worth is not tied to size. Just like we often tell our youth, apparently adults need to hear that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We are all here on earth to love and respect and help each other, and cutting ourselves and each other down based on our looks is not the way to be. And can we PLEASE stop commenting on other people’s bodies!?! WHY do we do it? Even “have you lost weight?” is a loaded question with implications and pressure attached. Just this week I have had THREE different people tell me that I “look big for 26 weeks pregnant.” Are you kidding?! I am pleased to say I disagree and think I am growing a human and am doing fine. Would you walk up to someone and say they look large for their age, height, amount of time postpartum, etc. TO THEIR FACE? Then why on earth are we doing it to pregnant women? Just stop. Please.
Being in the wellness space is a tricky line to balance right now. There is now a divide between wellness educators, health coaches, nutritionists, etc. whose focus is weight loss and those whose focus is health in the form of disease remediation, disease prevention and food freedom. Without thinking much of this specific divide, I have consistently landed in the second camp since I began my education on nutrition. After obtaining my Nutritional Therapy Practitioner certification in 2018, I never wanted my focus with clients to be weight loss. Honestly, it’s boring. Yea, sure, weight loss can lead to remediation of diabetes, joint issues, heart issues and overall improved health- but only if it’s done the right way. And to me, the right way is to throw out the weight loss goal from the jump and focus on health first. Often, when changes are made to dietary habits based on function and health, weight loss comes as a side effect (as it did for me back in 2014). If people focused on how they feel and on their biomarkers from bloodwork (if they’re monitoring a diagnosis) to guide them, they would naturally make healthier choices in their daily lives regarding foods. When you make the majority of your food choices based on how those foods make you feel (in both the short and long term), you no longer will feel restricted or deprived like you might think you would. Instead, you will feel more alive, nourished and supported in your day to day life and you will chase that “high” of energy and vibrance. And when you do achieve this food freedom, you will also feel free to make food choices that traditionally aren’t considered “healthy,” but still have a place in your life because they provide balance, joy and togetherness with others that sometimes food (and drink) experiences can bring. You find what works for YOU, and that’s what food freedom is all about.
Personally, I can honestly say I eat whatever I want. I am not bragging as a “naturally skinny” person with no consequences for poor food choices. I am bragging as a person with food freedom who prioritizes my happiness over aesthetics. Happiness in this sense is well-rounded health: mental, physical and emotional. For my mental and emotional health, I eat intuitively. If I crave something, I honor that craving whether it be for apples, broccoli or chocolate. Living this way makes me happy. I have no feelings of deprivation, and therefore no sneaky snacking or bingeing occurs, because without moral ties to food there is no need to sneak. Plus, food tastes better when you’ve been looking forward to it (it’s science). For my physical health, the majority of my meals include well-sourced meats, fish and eggs as well as plenty of veggies and whatever filling starches seem to fit the meal. I know the majority of my meals are balanced and nourishing based on accurate nutrition information (more on this later), and that will support my physical health and hopefully prevent disease in the process.
Once I knew what was healthy for MY body, I very, VERY slowly stopped wanting foods that didn’t serve me. It’s a long process for most people, so you must give yourself a lot of grace here. But over time, many processed and “fake” foods just become unappealing, usually with the exception of a few old faves. One of the first things for me that I started to dislike was diet soda. Now, if I want a soda treat, I go for full sugar versions because I truly can’t stand artificial sweeteners. Next came fast food. I do not even consider most drive thrus because they simply do not appeal to me, but occasionally they do and if I want it, I have it. And then sometimes I feel gross after and make a different choice next time. We live, we learn. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not.
And just how did I come to know what foods worked for me? Well, I started listening to myself and even tracking symptoms when appropriate. I started to naturally plan meals cooked at home based on what foods make me feel energized and satiated, with input from my nutrition research, which turned most of what I thought I knew about what was healthy on its head.
My philosophy on what people “should” eat lies in bioindividuality, or the idea what we are all different and need to figure out for ourselves which foods make our body thrive the most. One diet simply cannot cover all the individual needs of each person. At the same time, I have pretty strong views about humans eating like omnivores (because we ARE omnivores) and how an optimally healthy diet for humans doesn’t exist without at least a little bit of animal protein and fat included. SO. Right there I’ve pissed off a bunch of people, I’m sure! But my views are based in science, both ancestral and modern, not on insights based in religion or animal rights protection. We each choose a way of eating that works best for us, and for many this must include moral, environmental and religious considerations because we are human. I understand that, we all need to sleep at night. I choose to eat (for the most part) based on how a human body was designed to thrive evolutionarily, with environmental considerations as well.
I hope this long-winded account of diet culture has been helpful and has put the concept into perspective for some people (or at least one person?) Of course, since it is still systemic in our society, I will be judged by others for not looking perfect or for piling up my plate at parties or for standing by the food table. But to that I pay no mind anymore. As a nutritionist, I know that not all food choices serve to prevent disease or promote nutrient absorption, but I also live in the real world where “Grandma’s pie” exists (or insert your food-love-language-item here). I hope to foster my philosophy of food freedom to anyone who wants to claw their way out of the toxic depths of diet culture in America and join me because there is more to life than obsessing about food, and there is so much more to food than individual nutrients and moral attributes.
Honestly, if you read this far, THANK YOU. And your feedback is welcome!
*Information regarding the link between diet culture and racism:
- Christy Harrison: Diet Culture’s racist roots with Sabrina Springs.
- Sabrina Strings: Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.