The coming of a new year is highly anticipated and often brings with it soaring expectations of the all too familiar phrase “new year, new you.” The expectation with this phrase may be accompanied by feelings of stress and anxiety around how you’ll achieve this so-called “new you”—will you need to embark on a new diet? Adopt an intense exercise routine? Or give up something you enjoy? What brings the belief that with a new year you must change some part of who you are or what you look like? There isn’t one single group, company or individual responsible for this belief. Instead, you can blame it on something we call diet culture. Diet culture can be defined in different ways depending who you ask, but in general it refers to a culture that places a person’s worth and value on their size and outward appearance. It encourages the belief that smaller bodies are better, healthier, and can be achieved through diet and exercise, if one tries hard enough.
The truth is bodies of all sizes can be considered healthy. It’s important to know that many factors play a role in determining the size and health of someone’s body, including genetics, environment, food security, and access to equitable healthcare. Body size and health are not connected the way diet culture would have you believe. Further, diet and exercise are so minor in the overall picture yet are held in such high importance by the companies that profit off them. We know that food and movement can play a role in supporting the physical and mental health of our bodies, but the emphasis should be on having a healthy relationship all with foods rather than on calorie/macronutrient intakes. Along the same lines, finding a form of movement that you enjoy and look forward to is far more valuable than feeling pressured into a rigid exercise routine that you dread.
Bottom line is, we know that ads fueled by diet culture are wrong and just plain inaccurate, but they are still out there. And being surrounded by restrictive diets and rigid exercise trends is more harmful than helpful in supporting your health, so what can you do to focus on the things that matter? How can you tune out messages of diet culture in the new year? We’ve got three things that can help:
1. Remind yourself who diet culture really benefits (spoiler: it’s not you).
Companies that promote diet culture typically make it seem like they really care about you—your wellbeing, your happiness, your health and longevity. Despite this outward facade, it’s important to remember that these companies are in business for one thing and one thing only, which is to turn a profit. They do this by taking advantage of the increased pressures from society for you to make a “lifestyle change.” The diet and weight-loss industry is estimated to be worth $71 billion in 2020 (this enormous value is already down from the previous year, with 2019 reporting a worth of $78 billion), and they didn’t become successful by helping people feel good about their bodies. They strategically found a way to make people believe they could always achieve more—gain the “perfect body,” and find success in every aspect of their lives purely—by altering their bodies to fit society’s standards. So, when you see ads promoting the “perfect” diet and exercise programs, keep in mind that they are developed to be profitable, not to improve your health and wellbeing.
2. Anticipate seeing diet/fitness ads and prepare healthy coping skills to use.
It’s inevitable that you will see ads on TV, social media and other outlets promoting the belief that you must invest in changing your body size. These ads can be persuasive and a bit extreme, making substantial claims that your health, life and happiness will change if you purchase their product or membership. We know these ads aren’t likely to benefit your mental health and may influence you to begin comparing yourself with paid models who have been edited and polished for their photoshoots and commercials. Instead of falling into this trap of comparison, have some effective coping skills ready to use when you see these ads.
- Positive affirmations: If a thought comes up from a diet ad, ask yourself if it is a helpful or unhelpful thought: does it make you feel neutral or positive about your body? Or does it make you feel poorly and responsible for changing it? If the answer aligns with the latter, having a list of affirmations ready to use can be an effective way to help challenge and cope through the negative thoughts that may arise.
- Grounding: This can be a great technique to use to break an unhelpful thought cycle and refocus your mind and body. Use your five senses to focus on what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell, and really take the time to be mindful of each sense.
- Breathing exercises: Seeing diet ads may trigger some feelings of stress and anxiety, and using breathing exercises can be a helpful way to calm down those responses. Start by breathing in slowly through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, paying close attention to how each inhale/exhale feels throughout your body.
3. Join communities or follow individuals that are supportive of body acceptance and positivity.
One of the best ways to tune out the influence of ads promoting diet culture is to surround yourself with people, groups and messages that support the body acceptance movement and positivity. Clear your social media feed of accounts who support the promotion of diet and fitness ads and instead create a feed where you can browse and feel supported and accepted as you are. Follow body-positive and inclusive accounts that show diverse body types and share messages that support you in challenging the “new year, new you” mindset. You can also talk with people you’re close with about how these diet culture messages affect you—you never know who might be feeling the same way.
New year messaging will likely never be fully free from diet and fitness ads. Understanding their aim and knowing how to refocus your thoughts after seeing them is the best way to stop them from affecting your own mental health. Remember what is truly important for supporting your health when it comes to food and exercise: a healthy relationship with all foods and joyful movement that helps you feel good both physically and mentally. Remember, if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, Center for Discovery can help you on your recovery journey.
Madeline Radigan Langham is a registered dietitian who works with adolescents in mental health residential treatment. She is passionate about advocating for weight inclusivity and a non-diet approach to help people heal their relationships with food and their bodies. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors and spending time on trails with her family. You can find more of Madeline’s thoughts and work at radnutrition.net or on Instagram at @mradnutrition.