The saying goes that sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Diet culture is similar, in that it permeates our culture so much that sometimes it’s hard to recognize. It’s embedded into our conversations, our food choices and the headlines we see on any given day.
As Christy Harrison puts it, “It can be hard to spot, and yet in Western culture, it’s everywhere.”
Diet culture leads to food restriction, which leads to binge eating, which generally leads to guilt and shame and more binging. We also know that scientifically speaking, diets don’t work. Even the diets that are disguised as “wellness” or “lifestyle changes.”
Not only do diets not work, but they may actually do much more harm than good. Those of us who have binge eating disorder or bulimia have experienced the relationship between binge eating and diets first-hand. Those of us with anorexia may have started with a popular diet, which started us on the path to food restriction.
Diet Culture: A Life of Binge Eating and Diets
The research on diets is clear: they don’t “work”. A 2014 review of literature showed that dieting leads to weight regain. A 2007 article in the American Psychologist stated that “there is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits.” The research has shown us for decades that diets don’t work, and yet they still permeate our culture. Why?
One reason is money. The diet industry is worth more than $60 billion. Over the past 75 years or so, as media has become visual and food has become more readily available, our culture has decided that thin is in. Thinness is associated with wealth and success. In our collective quest for thinness, diet culture decides what diet is of the moment. In the past, it was low-fat. Today, it’s keto.
The diet industry is also supported via the moralizing of food choice: food is given a moral value, and we feel pressure to eat “good” foods, not “bad” ones.
We also are a culture steeped in the thin ideal, a concept that encourages us to try and shrink our bodies at all cost. We constantly believe that our bodies don’t measure up to the ideal—an impossible ideal, I might add—and we are told that we constantly need to be working on our bodies to adhere to this ideal. Although some inroads have been made toward body positivity, we’re a long way from being willing and able to embrace bodies of any size.
Diet culture steals our joy. And it’s a lie. A lie a lot of people believe, including our loved ones, but a lie. How do we heal from diet culture?
Healing from Diet Culture
The first step in healing from diet culture is recognizing it. It’s a hard realization at first. It’s natural to feel angry, sad, excited, nervous, and a host of other feelings when you realize that diet culture exists and that you can reject it.
Once you recognize diet culture, start removing it from your life. Stop following popular diet brands on social media. Leave Facebook groups focused on changing the shape of your body or what you eat. As you cleanse your social media feed, begin to follow new folks. Look for people who are actively fighting diet culture. Look for people of different sizes, abilities and backgrounds. Diet culture is entangled with other forms of oppression, including racism and ableism. Following people with diverse experiences challenges your internal beliefs, which leads to growth and change.
One step in healing from diet culture that I’ve been working on is my wardrobe. I have a higher-weight body. It’s not a “socially acceptable” size. My weight has changed over the years, and my clothes reflect that. It’s time to let go of the clothes that no longer fit. They aren’t serving anyone living in my closet. Maybe my body size will change, maybe it won’t. Either way, I should have easy access to the clothes I own that make me feel good about the body I have today. I deserve that. And so do you. If you’re holding on to “maybe someday they’ll fit” clothes, it might be time to let them go.
The most important step I’ve taken to heal from diet culture is starting intuitive eating. Intuitive eating means letting go of the idea that some foods are good and some foods are bad. All foods are morally equivalent. It’s been strange to give myself unconditional permission to eat, and I’ve had to fight the diet culture thoughts that tell me that I can’t eat certain foods at certain times.
I’m learning what foods make me feel the best. I’m learning how often and how much I need to eat, and that it’s okay to eat more some days and less on others. I’m learning that eating is a form of self-care, and I deserve to care for myself.
Binge eating and diet culture played a role in my past, but they don’t have to determine my future, or yours.
If you are concerned that diet culture has led you or a loved one to develop an eating disorder, Center for Discovery is here to help. Contact us today to learn about unique treatment programs for every individual to get on their way to eating disorder recovery.