As January rolls around again, most of us feel an immense pressure to lose weight as one of our New Year’s Resolutions because diet culture is at its most insidious and toxic. But what is diet culture? According to Christy Harrison, a registered dietician, diet culture is a system of belief that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue” and “promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status”.
An example of diet culture at university is ignoring unhealthy habits such as excessive drinking, lack of sleep, eating fast food and rarely exercising until they cause you to gain weight. It is only when we notice the “freshman 15” that we consider changing our habits. But weight is not equivalent to health and there are healthy and unhealthy people of all body sizes.
On the contrary, it is great if you want to eat foods that are nutritionally dense to improve your health, but when your “clean” food choices are driven by guilt and begin to negatively affect the way you feel then that may be a sign of diet culture closing its grip or even disordered eating. Diet culture also promotes exercise as punishment for eating, so try and remind yourself of the health benefits of exercise instead of viewing it as a way of burning calories.
So how can we resist diet culture, especially when it is most prominent this January? As registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert warns “no qualified health professional will ever promote meal replacements over a balanced diet for weight loss. Never.” You should also be sceptical of fad diets that offer instant weight loss or a “magic” fix. Also, it is worth remembering that the body detoxes itself, so there is no need to waste your money buying potentially dangerous detox and skinny teas.
Stop using harmful diet culture phrases such as “I feel fat”. Fat is not a feeling; it is a description. What you mean when you say this is that you feel ugly or disgusting. Instead, try saying “I do not feel good about my body today”. Stop praising people for losing weight because it could be depression, an illness or an eating disorder. Diet culture congratulates people for losing weight no matter how it is done, so avoid commenting on people’s bodies unless you know for certain their weight loss journey is a healthy one. Stop calling food “naughty” or “bad”. Food does not have a moral value attached to it. Food is fuel but it can also be used for comfort and socialisation.
These are just a few of the many ways of fighting back against diet culture but the list is not exhaustive. For more information the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website is useful and charities such as BEAT and MIND provide information on eating problems and eating disorders.