What Is Diet Culture?

Person counting calories in a salad

Getty Images / Oscar Wong

Diet culture is the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than physical, psychological, and general well-being. It's the idea that controlling your body, particularly your diet—by limiting what and how much you eat—is normal.

Diet culture also normalizes labeling foods as good or bad and thinking of food as transactional—something that you either earn or don't deserve depending on how you've eaten and worked out. Not only is food labeled, but people may label themselves as good or bad for consuming these foods.

People who have been conditioned to accept diet culture as a normal way of life may have a poor self-image, regularly participate in negative self-talk, and believe that being thin makes a person better than someone who is not.

Diet Culture and Disordered Eating

Diet culture is one factor that contributes to disordered eating habits. This generally occurs from a lack of focus on nutrition while prioritizing low-calorie foods. It can also affect how someone views exercise since activity can be viewed as a way to work off so-called bad foods or used as a way to earn food.

Food is More Than Fuel

The idea that food is only fuel and must be earned is a toxic notion that can create disordered eating and eating disorders. Food is much more than fuel. It is a social and cultural part of our lives. Solely focusing on food as fuel—or good vs. bad—isolates you from enjoying and embracing food as a deeper and more meaningful part of your life.

This effect is often seen after a major holiday when advertisements and articles push for detoxes or cleanses to “reset” or purge your body of “bad” food choices. Not only are these practices unscientific and potentially dangerous, but they also push the idea that enjoying food must come with a consequence.

Moreover, not all physically beneficial components of food provide fuel. Food is full of nutrients, phytochemicals, water, antioxidants, and other essential factors that contribute to an overall thriving body but provide little in the way of actual fuel.

While the aspects of foods that supply us with energy—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—are vital, they are only part of the bigger picture regarding nutrition.

Avoiding nutrient-dense foods in favor of low-calorie foods, or restricting your food intake so that you do not obtain the correct amount of nutrients for optimal functioning, causes you to miss out on important qualities food has to offer.

There is no clinical definition for disordered eating, but it is most often described as a pattern of abnormal eating behaviors and thought patterns around food that do not yet fit the criteria for an eating disorder. This includes extreme dieting.

Diet Culture As an Unhealthy Obsession

Labeling yourself as good or bad based on the foods you eat can lead to worsening disordered eating habits and may lead to a severe eating disorder.

Trying to rigidly stick to consuming only food deemed as good, as virtuous as it sounds, can be considered an eating disorder called orthorexia.

Orthorexia is considered an extreme form of clean eating—an obsessive focus on what the person believes to be the correct healthy diet. This obsession leads to interference with everyday life, including social, emotional, and more.

Some characteristics of orthorexia include:

  • A restrictive diet
  • Rituals based around eating
  • Avoidance of foods not considered “good” or healthy

Diet culture contributes to orthorexia because it encourages avoiding foods or restricting your diet. Examples include avoiding gluten when you do not have an intolerance or allergy, extreme versions of veganism, extreme low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets, detoxes, cleanses, and avoiding all GMOs or non-organic foods.

While some of these practices have merit, when they become an unhealthy obsession with ties to how you view yourself, they can become an eating disorder.

Orthorexia can lead to other disorders such as anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorders, including body dysmorphic disorder. Eating disorders can result directly from the poor body image that occurs due to diet culture and the glorification of thinness.

Body dysmorphic disorder causes people to become fixated and obsessed with their outward appearance and what they see as flaws. It is often seen in people with eating disorders.

Diet Culture and Body Image

Diet culture belief systems view thinness as equal to health and send the message that body types outside of a narrow range are considered unhealthy. While losing weight can sometimes be a healthy choice, the methods used to obtain weight loss are not always healthy.

News stories and social media often glamorize celebrity weight loss stories without questioning whether the methods used were healthy or sustainable. This practice creates the idea that thinness and the pursuit of weight loss is the path towards acceptance, happiness, and health. 

Bodies that fall outside the range of the thin, accepted norm can absolutely be healthy. Appearance does not provide a comprehensive picture of an individual's health. A poor diet and lack of exercise lead to increased health risks, regardless of body size.

How to Combat Diet Culture

While altogether avoiding diet culture is impossible due to its pervasive nature in all aspects of society, there are ways that you can both limit your exposure to diet culture and advocate against it.

Avoid Some Forms of Media

Avoid any type of social media, forums, online groups, or programming that makes you feel like you are not good enough the way that you are. Media usage has been shown to increase feelings of poor self-image, which is a prominent aspect of diet culture.

Practice Body Neutrality

Body neutrality is the idea that you should focus on what your body can do right now, in the present, rather than what you want it to look like. It takes your mind off of trying to manipulate or control what you look like. Instead, it shifts your mindset to become ambivalent about the way you look and focused on respecting the things you can do now.

Practicing body neutrality can help you step away from diet culture and food labeling, instead helping you work towards honoring your body as it is now.

Educate Yourself on Health

Reading and educating yourself on what overall health is might help you gain a deeper understanding of how focusing solely on thinness and food restriction can be detrimental to your health. It also helps you understand the broad range of ways to be healthy, including diverse body types and eating patterns.

A Word From Verywell

Diet culture can feel like an unavoidable pressure everyone has to experience. It's important to know that dieting is not the only way to pursue health, and being thin does not automatically mean healthy. If you struggle with disordered eating, an eating disorder, or are concerned about your health, body image, or eating habits, speak to a qualified health care provider.

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