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Health

You Aren’t the Problem; Diet Culture is.

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

“Calories Count. Check then Choose.”

As I read those words, a pit sunk into my stomach. The phrase was written on a sticker, which happened to be conveniently placed above the credit card reader on the vending machine. I glanced at the others and realized that the sticker was not just on my current vending machine but every vending machine in the building. Immediately, I pulled out my phone and searched the phrase in Google, hoping to gather a reason for why it was there. The results? Coca-Cola paired with the government, food service operators, and vending companies to promote the choice of “Low-Calorie Options.” 

Now, you may think this is a kind gesture: A big company with a big platform and ability for impact urges us to be healthy individuals in a healthy society. However, a simple sticker may have a more harmful intention than what meets the eye. 

So, let’s unpack. As mentioned earlier, Coca-Cola began the “Calories Count Vending Program” to urge consumers to make the ‘right’ choice with their beverages. They distributed vending machines with the “Calories Count” sticker, paired with the visible caloric values of the available drinks. This was all done with the same justification: they want their customers happy and healthy.

But does the company really care?

The simple answer is no. A look into the context of the campaign shows two other motives and one easy disguise. First, Coca-Cola was under fire at the time for contributing to America’s increasing obesity rates. Second, Americans are less interested in drinking soda than in the past. So, Coca-Cola is facing backlash, and consumers are moving their business to healthier choices – what do they do? Turn to diet culture. By running the “Calories Count Vending Program,” Coca-Cola was able to delegate their accountability for ‘smarter’ choices to its consumers while softening their reputation to be considered caring. The reminder of calories and the encouragement to check them suggests that it is our responsibility to maneuver to the ‘healthier’ option. This makes sense… unless it comes from the mouths of corporations that simultaneously mass-produce beverages for global distribution without concern for the nutritional benefits. 

The “Calories Count Vending Campaign” is a frightening example of diet culture in American society. The company quickly diminished its role in obesity by blaming the consumers while suggesting that low-calorie drinks are somehow healthier. Unfortunately, this theme is all too common and far too disguisable in day-to-day life. 

what even is diet culture?

If you’ve ever opted for the low-calorie option, chosen a healthier product for the aesthetic, bought weight-loss products, or even categorized food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you have been tricked by the diet culture monster. Diet culture is the hidden set of rules within our society that tells you that your worth is associated with your vanity. Essentially, diet culture places a moral value on the products we consume and criticizes us if we do not align with what is considered ‘good.’ Whether it’s companies blaming obesity on your ‘poor’ choices or influencers promoting wellness cleanses, diet culture works to prove that unless you are thin, you are not worthy or healthy.

That day at the vending machine, the sticker deterred me from getting any food. The second I read it, my mind could not escape the numbers. And while it’s not the world’s responsibility to cater to eating disorder triggers, it is also not the world’s responsibility to measure the importance of my calories. Calories don’t count in my life, and I would prefer to keep it that way. So I urge you, the next time you say “this has too many calories” or categorize food as ‘junk,’ recognize the impact that diet culture had in making you feel that way. 

Here are 2 reminders I keep for myself that I hope will help you too: 

  1. Food does not have moral value! It is not good or bad; it just has more or fewer nutrients.
  2. Thinness does not equal health! Nourish your brain, body and soul every day – that is where you will find health.
Madigan Mourning is a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is majoring in Psychology and has a passion for behavioral research. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Madigan is learning to maneuver her new life in the big city. She is constantly exploring ways to connect, communicate, and spread love to those around her. It's not always easy, but it is always an adventure.