The Dangers of Diet Culture

Is it just me, or do you find yourself falling into toxic conversations with your girlfriends about how much you’ve eaten that day?  Tina maybe mentions that she missed breakfast, and Stacy comments that this is the only meal she’s eaten all day. And then there’s you, someone who ate two other meals and maybe a couple snacks, left feeling like you must be gargantuan or something for not skipping a meal like the other girls.

But, here’s the thing, those other girls are likely exaggerating and all of them probably had snacks or big meals — just like you or any other girl would. So, why have we normalized flaunting diet fads and competing over who ate the least that day? 

Diet culture has become an incredibly toxic problem for our generation, but no one seems to talk about it. Because diet culture constantly tells us to be dissatisfied with our bodies; it pushes us to follow diet plans to try and achieve an unattainable body type. But, here’s what no one tells us: fad diets DO NOT work. In fact, numerous medical studies have proven that dieting (aka unhealthy and restrictive eating) is one of the most effective predictors for weight gain. 

I know what you’re thinking: none of this makes sense. Dieting equals less food which should equal weight loss, not weight gain. 

Wrong.

The reason why dieting is ineffective for up to 65% of people is because your body has a genetically determined weight, or “set point.” Unfortunately, diet culture usually endorses excessive dieting, which causes you to consume fewer nutrients than your body needs to function properly. While this does result in temporary weight loss, it also results in you dropping below your body’s set point and supports restricted (and therefore, disordered) eating habits. Once you drop below this point, your body begins to send signals telling your brain that you are starving. To combat these signals, your body increases your cravings for high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods —  the foods that provide the most readily available energy. As a result, you will most likely binge these types of foods to satisfy your starving cells, causing you to gain back the weight you just lost.

Original graphic created by Rachael Villari

This constant cycle of weight loss and weight gain is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and altered immune function. So ultimately, at the end of your diet, you would still maintain about the same weight you started with, and you would have to put your body through unnecessary wear and tear with possibly fatal consequences.

And, the saddest part of it all: diet companies capitalize on your inability to diet effectively.

Diet companies tell their customers that “success” is equal to losing weight and achieving the ideal thin body that media promotes. Given that our bodies naturally fluctuate between weight loss and weight gain during dieting, it is almost guaranteed that you will not fit this model once your body goes into “starvation mode” as it begins to crave high-energy-containing foods. Since diet culture teaches us to perceive this natural weight gain as failure, we are led to think that the only logical option is to start the diet over again, but with more commitment this time. 

Something even more concerning than this is that diet companies also promote disordered and unhealthy eating. 

First and foremost, current nutritional science does not support the idea that calorie counting leads to weight loss; in theory, you could go an entire day without eating any nutrient-rich foods while also staying within your desired “calorie/point goal.” A calorie/point goal is a concrete number of calories (e.g. 1200 calories), or points (which are determined by the number of calories in a food item), that you must stay under while following the diet. 

Additionally, diet program companies pride themselves on the fact that you can eat whatever you want on their point/calorie plan, as long as you don’t exceed a certain number of points/calories per day. For example, let’s say you want to eat that slice of ~amazing~ pepperoni pizza. Sure, it’s within your allowed calories for the day, but it will cost you most of them. You consequently decide you’ll just make up for these lost calories by eating less later in the day.

Wrong again.

There are so many problems with this scenario in regard to your mental and physical health. First, pizza is allotted a large number of points/calories, which makes you feel guilty about eating it in the first place. Rather than enjoying that cheesy goodness, you’re more concerned about planning your food for the rest of the day and staying within your calorie limit. Feeling guilt about food is a known factor that induces the onset of eating disorders. Second, by eating less later in the day to “make up” for eating the pizza, you are actually slowing down your metabolism, making it harder for you to lose weight in the long term. 

Therefore, it is, sadly, no surprise that 35% of regular dieters develop eating disorders, with teens and young adults being the most vulnerable demographic. Dieting programs trigger body discomfort, food obsessions, and low self-worth, causing you to engage in unhealthy mental and physical “pizza” battles. 

So please, rather than attempting to follow some bogus diet that might subject your body and mind to irreparable damage, just follow the advice of the queen, Emma Stone, herself:

“You're a human being, you live once and life is wonderful, so eat the damn red velvet cupcake.”