For too long, diet culture has attempted to rob us of true health and happiness. It’s time to ditch restriction and define health on our own terms.
What is diet culture?
At its most basic, the word “diet” only refers to the foods and beverages we consume regularly. However, in our society’s obsession with thinness, the term has evolved into a verb that is often associated with restriction.
Diet culture, therefore, refers to a culture that sees thinness as the best, most attractive, and healthiest way to be. It is a culture that conflates weight with health, even though these are two separate concepts. And it can be sneaky too, attempting to repackage itself as “healthy living” or “clean eating.” By living in this society, we are subjected to its values and goals from all directions, including from those around us and from the media we consume. It’s time to fight back against this unhelpful—and often dangerous—diet culture.
The dangers of diet culture
Since diet culture promotes unrealistic standards, it can prompt stress and anxiety about one’s body, as well as guilt and shame surrounding food. This can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders (see sidebar). Low self-esteem, depression, and poor mental health are also associated with diet culture.
Of course, being fixated on our bodies and believing that our value is dependent on how thin we are can also mean we have less time and energy for things that add true value and happiness in our lives.
Diet culture and our children
Sadly, diet culture can also extend to our children, and leave a lasting impact on their relationship with both food and their bodies throughout their lives. As parents, it’s important to help our kids foster a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Here are some tips:
- Don’t force children to finish everything on their plates or eat past the point of their natural fullness.
- Eat as a family as much as possible, and get kids involved in cooking and food shopping.
- Don’t use food as a bride, reward, or way to show love.
- Avoid labelling foods as “good” or “bad” (or “junk”) or stigmatizing any food group.
- Be a positive role model. Refrain from discussing your body, or your eating habits, negatively in front of your child.
What does health look like for you? It’s a big question, and it probably has less to do with your weight than you might think. Here are some tips to help you become truly healthy:
- Define your individual health and wellness goals. For example, a goal might be to be fit enough to play with your grandchildren. You might find it helpful to do some journaling to determine your goals.
- Make peace with your body. Chatting with a mental health professional may help you in this process.
- Eat in a way that makes sense for you. This means factoring in your culture, religion, unique health conditions and/or allergies, and preferences. (See the sidebar on intuitive eating for more information.)
- Prioritize your emotional and mental wellness. This can include meditating, making time for friends, and getting enough sleep.
- Make healthy choices for yourself out of love, not shame. For example, participate in movement that you find fun, and add fruits and veggies to your diet that you enjoy eating.
- See your general practitioner for regular checkups. Individual health involves knowing your own body, as well as gleaning insight from professionals.
- Confer with other health professionals, too. For example, you may benefit from physiotherapy for a chronic injury that is preventing you from living your best life.
Somewhere between normal eating and an eating disorder lies disordered eating. Disordered eating can include behaviours that may occur in an eating disorder, but these are typically less severe. Here are some common behaviours:
- restrictive eating
- binge eating
- skipping meals
- having inflexible eating patterns
- avoiding certain foods or food groups
Disordered eating is linked to anxiety and depression. It is also a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. If you believe you may be struggling with disordered eating, reach out to your health care practitioner or a mental health professional.
Embrace intuitive eating
Living in diet culture can alter our bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues. Enter: intuitive eating. This non-dieting way of eating aims to help us rediscover our internal cues and eat in a way that’s healthy for our bodies, rather than fixating on losing weight.
Eating intuitively means recognizing your hunger and fullness: eating when your body tells you to and stopping when it tells you to. It also means incorporating the foods that you might have previously thought were off limits or experienced guilt or shame around. Like mindful eating, intuitive eating also encourages us to fully enjoy the experience of a meal without distraction. Joyful movement, or exercise that is centered around finding ways to move your body that makes you happy, is also embraced by the intuitive eating philosophy.
Supplements for strong bodies
In addition to a healthy diet, supplements can help keep our bodies strong and functioning at their best. Not every supplement is right for every body, though, so check with your health care practitioner first. Here are some common everyday supplements:
- a multivitamin
- vitamin D
- omega-3 fatty acids (like fish oil)
An annual tradition?
Approximately half of US adults attempt to lose weight each year, and an estimated 41 percent of New Year’s resolutions are centered around weight loss.
Most diets don’t work long-term, as most people end up regaining any lost weight. Continually gaining and losing weight (known as weight cycling) is linked to poorer health.
This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of delicious living magazine.