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The Truth About Diet Culture and Body Shame

Health means mental and emotional health and physical well-being, and enjoying a meal with friends and loved ones is a big part of a satisfying life. But diet culture doesn't support that. Frequent restrictive dieting sets you up for overeating and loads of guilt. Plus, it's not a long-term solution to weight control. But what is?

If you're like most women, you've probably been "on a diet" at least once in your life. Maybe twice. Maybe half a dozen times or more, or you're either on a diet or off at any given time. The struggle to be thin and therefore attractive and worthy is the name of the game in diet culture.

Men aren't immune. Although they're not as quick to jump on fad diets as women are, men get the message to be lean, mean, muscle machines. Those much-coveted six-pack abs, big biceps, and powerful thighs require a low body fat percentage for muscle definition. And that means a special diet to lean out or bulk up. Still, men's participation in the quest for an ideal body is far lower than women's; thus, diet culture mainly involves women.

Enjoying delicious, nutritious food and getting regular exercise is essential to good physical and mental health. However, there's a difference between a healthy, well-balanced approach to nutrition, fitness, and weight — and an obsession.

What Does Diet Culture Mean?

Diet culture, according to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, "entails anything suggesting that 'healthy' has one specific size and look." The proliferation of programs and products like diet books and prepared foods meant to assist with weight loss plus the marketing and advertising that goes with it.

Advertising campaigns for any product or service put a spotlight on a problem — real or created — and propose a solution. In diet culture, the "problem" is being overweight, and the "solution" is to buy the product. The concept captures widespread attention and creates pressure for anyone with the "problem" to do something about it.

Many women strive to be attractive and defining "attractive" as thin is exactly what diet culture promotes. What's more, the commercial success of any diet product depends on body shame and the insecurity of potential buyers, which is created via the media in all its forms, including TV, magazines, and social media.

Diet culture has created an industry worth over $192.2 billion in 2019 and is forecast to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. That estimate doesn't include related items such as body shapewear — the modern version of corsets.

Medical health concerns are not a part of diet culture. It's true that obesity contributes to and even causes health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Any responsible physician will encourage and help a patient reduce weight to control disease progression. That said, a physician who treats an overweight or obese patient with less than respect and differently from patients at a recommended weight is part of the problem.

Diet Culture Is Destructive

Have you ever looked in a mirror and hated your body because of your weight? If so, you can thank diet culture that says slim is in, and any amount of fat is a big no-no.

You might push the negative thoughts away until it's time for a bathing suit. Then there's the embarrassment with your spouse or partner because your body doesn't measure up. Diet culture depends on shame and creates it by constantly portraying fat as ugly — think "before" and "after" photos or the media frenzy when a celebrity gains or loses weight. It promises that losing weight means happiness, and the diet industry couldn't profit without it.

The destructive effects of diet culture run the gamut from minor to devastating. Cutting a few calories and upping a workout routine to lose weight are on the healthy side of the scale. On the other end, frequent restrictive dieting, rapid weight loss, and repeatedly regaining weight, along with body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia, and bulimia.

The problem with diet culture is that it

• Equates weight with health, morality, and worth

• Fosters thin privilege and plus-size discrimination

• It makes air travel difficult, embarrassing, and expensive for people who weigh over a certain amount

• Destroys self-esteem and self-confidence

• Profits from fatphobia, fat-shaming, and bullying

• Makes money via psychologically slick advertising for products with unproven claims and few, if any, benefits

• Causes mental and emotional health problems

• Generates food and dieting obsessions

The important thing to remember is that there's nothing wrong with you if any of this sounds familiar. What's "wrong" is diet culture. Diets alone don't work. Part of being healthy and maintaining or losing weight is exercise.

Diet Culture Doesn't Promote health

Contrary to diet culture beliefs, being overweight doesn't mean you're unhealthy any more than being thin guarantees a five-star physical exam. Granted, the more overweight or obese a person becomes, the greater the risk for obesity-related health conditions like high blood pressure and fatty liver disease. But people obsessed with dieting also risk health problems. "Yo-yo" dieting — frequent weight loss and gain — in particular may cause more health problems than a consistent state of overweight or obesity.

Furthermore, "health" means mental and emotional health as well as physical well-being. Eating and enjoying food or "breaking bread" with friends and loved ones is an integral part of a satisfying life. Food is the traditional glue that holds families, neighbors, communities, and entire cultures and nations together.

When eating means obsessive calorie counting and portion control or stress and guilt, it's no longer a connection to others. But diet culture isn't concerned with your health. And feeling worried or ashamed of your weight only decreases your overall quality of life.

If you're a victim of diet culture, how can you undo the damage? How can you get off the diet roller coaster and achieve or maintain a healthy weight if that's your goal?

Being Healthy vs. Obsessed With Numbers on a Scale

It's not easy to ignore diet culture when you're surrounded by it. It's like unlearning something you've been taught is the correct way to live. Isn't it normal to want to be thin? (Hint: not really.) But just like any relationship, you can improve your relationship with food over time.

Know What You Eat

Changing your relationship with food can't happen overnight. But one way to start is to become fully aware of your eating habits and patterns. Consider keeping a daily diet journal for two or three weeks.

Be mindful of how much you're eating, what types of food you typically eat, and how often. What triggers overeating? What creates a craving? What foods do you genuinely enjoy?

Eat Well and Feel Good

Instead of worrying about weight, think about the nutrients your body needs. Ask your doctor or a nutritionist for some recommended reading. If you do your research, make sure the sources are trustworthy (university and hospital websites are usually reasonable and government health sites). Knowing the facts can be a big confidence booster.

Remember that eating healthy, nutritious food should be enjoyable, not stressful. Plus, fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, and lean protein sources don't need to be boring. Take some time to learn new ways of preparing nutritious food you'll enjoy. And exercise! Join a spin class or get a trainer to show you the best way to do circuits. Prefer a stationary bike and yoga? A fitness network can help.

Make Enjoying Food and Exercise Your Goal

Restrictions create cravings, and when you're diet-obsessed and under stress, what you crave might not be exactly what your body needs. Eating a balanced range of healthy foods with occasional treats can reduce cravings. Listen to your body, eat intuitively, and think about what you want.

You can apply that approach anytime, especially during holiday meals when it's easy to overdo it. Try swapping some traditional dishes with equally delicious but more healthful alternatives, like roasted sweet potatoes instead of a butter-drenched sweet potato casserole. Or a yummy apple crumble instead of calorie-loaded pecan pie.

If you're obsessive about exercise, see if you can bring it down a notch. Exercise is essential, but make sure you enjoy it. Do what you love, eat what you enjoy, and love your body no matter what size it is. That's the start of saying Buh-bye! to diet culture and making healthy choices that work best for you.

Photo by I yunmai on Unsplash


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