How to Cut Back on Diet Culture

Over the last few years, body positivity movements on social media have encouraged individuals to love their bodies and move away from fad diets and marketing schemes that prey on the insecurities of girls and women. Despite these efforts, however, we cannot deny that diet culture remains pervasive in our society, as the global weight management market was worth $189.8 billion USD in 2018 and is expected to rise even more in the coming years. Direct promotion of diet culture has been replaced by microaggressions and subtle messages that encourage individuals to lose weight, and these messages often slip right under our radars. Furthermore, while body representation in clothing advertisements is becoming noticeably more diverse, we are less vigilant about recognizing other aspects of our lives that continue to reinforce diet culture.

I believe that it’s highly unrealistic for us to completely eliminate all forms of diet culture within ourselves and society. We live in a constantly evolving world where our accessibility to information, facts and opinions poses as many problems as it does solutions. However, we can compensate for the harmful messages that others promote by consciously controlling what we’re aware of and what information we relay to others. Thus, we must look inward to reflect on how we unconsciously feed into diet culture and amend our thoughts and actions to change the presence of diet culture in our lives.

Before I continue, it’s worth noting that every individual has different needs, and you know your body best, so combating diet culture may look different for everyone. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some ways in which you can eliminate your implicit compliance with and promotion of diet culture.  

Assorted toast Photo by Ella Olsson from Unsplash

  1. 1. Consider all determinants of health

    women with different body types

    It’s incredibly easy to fixate on the physical determinants of health that we can measure through individual behaviour. These factors include the diets and exercise regimes that we subject ourselves to. However, there are a multitude of other factors that contribute to our emotional, mental and physical health, including but not limited to the following: income, accessibility to healthcare, educational opportunities, air quality and exposure to pollution, genetics and pre-existing health conditions, mental health status, and visible minority status. So the next time you criticize yourself for your eating and exercise habits, give yourself a break and consider the other factors that may be contributing to your circumstances.

  2. 2. Appreciate the many perks of eating

    people gathered around a table

    Being hungry is only one of the many reasons we eat. When we’re stressed, sad or bored, we eat to comfort ourselves. When we’re tired from studying but need to keep going, we eat to give ourselves energy. When we hang out with friends and family, we eat to enjoy our food in the company of others. Evidently, food serves comforting, energizing, and bonding functions, and to base our food intake solely on nutritional value is neither sustainable nor healthy. By acknowledging that there are times when hunger is not the reason you’re eating, you can stop worrying about each individual calorie that you consume and instead focus on the mental and social benefits that come with sitting back and enjoying your meal.

  3. 3. Acknowledge the shortcomings of a one-size-fits-all approach

    woman eating fresh fruit in a sports bra

    Diet culture encourages us to aspire to look like the beautiful celebrities we often see represented in the media, yet these standards are largely unattainable and may drive individuals to diet for a body they will never be able to develop. Try not to beat yourself up if an influencer outlines their meal plan and it looks nothing like yours. Chances are, they’re either not disclosing their full food intake because they’re being paid – for one reason or another – or they simply have different needs than you do. It may not even be healthy for you to eat like the people around you, so rather than comparing yourself to others’ habits, focus on what is best for you. If you’re concerned about your health, start with identifying why you feel unhealthy and what aspects of your life you want to change. Then, rather than resorting to unfounded dieting methods, research scientific findings or sit down with a trained medical professional to figure out a practical way to live a healthier lifestyle.

  4. 4. Strive to meet your own standards rather than the standards of others

    myths about gymming, women in fitness 3

    It’s important to consider why you truly want to diet. If you want to change what you’re eating because it will make you happier, good on you, but don’t feel like you need to cut out certain foods entirely or eat less altogether to develop a healthier and happier lifestyle. Alternatively, if you want to diet to change what you see on the outside, try to remind yourself that your worth is not defined by your physical appearance. It’s natural for us to want to change our bodies when we’re constantly bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards that encourage us to do so. However, we must acknowledge that societal beauty standards are constantly changing – which is how diet culture keeps us hooked – so rather than conforming to the constantly evolving image of what others define as ideal, it’s best to do whatever makes you happy. More importantly, regardless of the flaws that we want to change in ourselves (or those that the diet industry wants us to want to change), we must always remember that we deserve to eat, and eat well at that.

  5. 5. Remember: There are no bad foods

    We’re constantly flooded with messages about the best ways to diet: eat kale, limit your carb intake, stop eating sugar and red meat, don’t drink your calories, eat superfoods like quinoa, take supplements, lift weights, and the list goes on. We’re told that foods like cake, pizza and potatoes are “bad” and should be avoided at all costs. However, the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” foods that has emerged in our society is entirely fictional. Not only does labelling food “good” or “bad” make us miss out on the physical and emotional benefits of eating what we like, but it also makes us feel stressed and guilty when we do indulge in “bad” foods. These feelings are counterproductive because they make us feel worse about ourselves and may drive us to engage in even more unhealthy eating habits. Moreover, eating a slice of pizza doesn’t diminish our value as people, nor does it mean that we have failed at living a healthier life. Diet culture creates an “us versus them” scenario that pits “good, healthy” foods against “other” foods, the latter of which refers to any foods that don’t fall under whatever new diet fad is sweeping social media. When we ignore these arbitrary labels and take control over what we’re eating, we take power away from the companies that profit from our self-doubt while reassuring ourselves that our worth is not dependent on whether we refrain from eating a slice of pizza. As Chris Mohr, co-founder of the nutrition consultation company Mohr Results, said: “If that pizza isn’t an everyday occurrence and it brought friends together, encouraged conversation, laughing and connection, the otherwise ‘bad’ food becomes nurturing for your soul.”

  6. 6. Eat intuitively

    girl peeling shrimp in Norway

    Intuitive eating is one of the best ways to help eliminate diet culture from your lifestyle. It may seem counterproductive to stop counting calories and delete apps like MyFitnessPal, but your body knows what it needs. Some days, your body continues to need food after you’ve hit 1400 calories, and other days, you’re going to eat a few cookies or have an extra scoop of ice cream that you don’t necessarily “need”. Stop trying to justify eating chips; just eat and enjoy them! You don’t need to promise yourself that you’ll make up for those Oreos or make yourself feel better about that second bowl of cereal by working out later that day; your life is not made up of tallies and scores. Trust your body’s ability to let you know exactly what it needs, because at the end of the day, you’re the sole expert on your physical, emotional and mental well-being.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to become a better, healthier version of yourself. However, you can accomplish this at your own discretion while acknowledging that you’re already a great person who deserves self-acceptance, love and respect. Remember that what you “should” eat should not be determined by others and may fluctuate depending on specific circumstances. Most importantly, be sure to remind yourself that what you choose to eat does not determine your right to feel valued and appreciated by others and yourself.