Personal Story: Grappling with 'Diet Culture'

You may have heard the terms ‘diet culture’ before and scratched your head, wondering what these terms mean. I have also been exploring what exactly is meant by these terms ‘diet culture’ and want to share what is meant, as well as add my perspective.

Definition of ‘Diet Culture’ by Christy Harrison, anti-diet Registered Dietitian.

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

·         Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

·         Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

·         Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

·         Oppresses people who don't match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.

Here is another great article describing Ten Harmful Diet Culture Phrases You Should Probably Stop Using.

I can fully stand behind the idea that diet culture promotes an unhealthy expectation of what health looks like and gives an inherent value to physical appearance and shape of the body, without regard to how mental, emotional, social or spiritual health (yeah, I do think that’s a thing!) may be affected. I’ve seen first-hand the harmful effects of these expectations with my clients, resulting in constant negative self-talk and a good dose of shame and guilt. I’ve also heard my own personal internal voices, striving for a “perfect” diet and feeling like I can never quite do it “right.”

And yet the part of rejecting ‘diet culture’ that I can’t fully stand behind is the idea that following food guidelines inherently mean that an individual is engaging in diet culture. I am an individual who may be viewed as following a lot of “food rules.” I’ve been living a gluten free life for the past 17 years (diagnosed with celiac in 2002) and can see what a powerful impact proper nutrition can have on my (and many others) physical, mental and emotional states of being. I’ve also been found to be intolerant of dairy and eggs, and have an intense painful gut reaction to large amounts of garlic and onion. Eating in a way that does not support these guidelines affects me in a significantly negative way.  My gut, brain, thyroid and energy levels all come crash when I rebel against these guidelines set forth by my body.

I have tried pushing the boundaries, exploring and adding these foods (besides gluten) back into my meals, and I get the same negative results again and again. I have learned (at least for the time being), that the best way to support my body is to let it guide me. I don’t feel like I have given my power away to any dogmatic “right way” of eating or idea of moral superiority, but I am tapped into what is happening and found a way to support myself. I encourage individuals to do the same: to get the blood work necessary to understand what’s happening in their bodies, and to listen. To allow the intuitive wisdom of the body to guide them, and to continue to tap into what emotional, mental, social & spiritual needs co-exist. To me, intention is everything.

For me, the key in distinguishing “diet culture” behaviors from what is ultimately healthy and supportive to an individual is her/his intention. This is an exploration – not a hard and fast rule, but a conversation to open up and to honestly assess what is driving someone’s behaviors. Where have you seen diet culture pop up in your (internal or external) world and how has this landed for you?