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  • Sarah Rose

The Toxicity of Diet Culture

Diet culture is defined as a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue. Since thinness=health=moral virtue, losing weight is a means of attaining higher status while simultaneously demonizing certain foods or ways of eating. Diet culture is why we consider some foods, such as pizza or cake or butter "bad" but consider other foods, like kale or salmon "good."

According to diet culture, the ideal body is a thin body, thereby oppressing and shaming people who don't fit into the thin ideal. Diet culture heavily perpetuates the belief that our physical appearance is inextricably tied to our happiness and worth.

One interesting, though insidious, characteristic of diet culture is that it's everywhere. We are obsessed with becoming smaller and prettier, without really understanding why. We are told we can always fix something, and we can always do better. There are constantly new products being marketed to us in the name of health: goji berries, kelp, tumeric, kombucha, mushrooms, detox teas, smoothies, vitamins, protein powders, workout plans, surgeries, et cetera.

Each new health tonic is a product someone made to turn a profit. Very rarely are these products necessary. Very rarely do they provide any concrete benefits. Mushrooms, smoothies, kombucha, et cetera will probably not harm you, but the simple act of ingesting them doesn't make you measurably healthier, either. More importantly: consuming foods you consider healthy does not grant you the social capital to condemn those consuming foods you consider unhealthy.

Such judgement is everywhere, and stems from a place of privilege and fear. Privilege, because not everyone can afford a $5.00 bottle of kombucha or a $7.00 package of airy kale chips. And fear, because the underlying reason we categorize foods is the fear that food will harm us in some way. I've been working with an Intuitive Eating Dietitian, who has introduced a "food neutral" approach to eating. I had to slowly let go of the idea that food was "out to get me." I had to trust that my body would know what to do with the food I gave it, and that was a profound and enlightening realization. Worrying about food serves absolutely no purpose.

Since diet culture idealizes thinness, those who live in larger bodies- that were not meant to be small and cannot healthfully become small- experience unintentional and intentional bias everywhere. Large bodies are considered "bad" bodies. The complex genetic and biological underpinnings of our bodies' shape and size are ignored in the name of willpower, dieting, and disordered "lifestyle changes."

My dietitian continuously points out in our sessions that my body is smarter than me. My body, she says, wants to be a certain weight. Only through intense restriction was I able to change that, but that restriction boiled over into every facet of my life. To let go of food rules means letting go of restriction, a tool I've used for years to feel more in control of my life. Food neutrality is a scary consideration, especially in a world where food rules are everywhere, where working out to the point of exhaustion is idolized, where ordering a $28.00 smoothie is condoned, but consuming a $2.00 order of fries is frowned upon.

Traci Mann, who teaches psychology at the University of Minnesota, recently published a book entitled, Secrets from the Eating Lab, that is full of scientific evidence about how dieting is enormously ineffective.

She states that there are three biological changes that occur when we diet:

1. Our brains become overly responsive to food due to restriction. The things we try to resist become harder to resist because we are resisting them.

2. Our hormones change. As we lose body fat, the hormones that make us feel full decrease, while the hormones that make us feel hungry increase.

3. Our metabolisms slow down. Mann writes, "Your body uses calories in the most efficient way possible. Which sounds like a good thing, and would be good thing if you were starving to death. But it isn't a good thing if you're trying to lose weight, because when your body finds a way to run itself on fewer calories there tends to be more leftover, and those get stored as fat, which is exactly what dieters don't want to happen."

Only about 5% of dieters who lose weight keep that weight off long-term, a success ratio so low you'd think many of us would be deterred. However, an estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, spending $33 billion on weight loss products. Yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans are categorized as overweight or obese.

The diet industry thrives on failure: on you failing, on me failing, on everyone failing. If there was a diet or diet product that "worked," to make everyone thin, the entire diet industry (pills, protein shakes, surgeries, nutrition "coaches," diet plans, diet books, food products, exercise products, obviously-flawed infomercial ab wraps) would not exist, and someone would lose out on a lot of money.

In a recent session with my dietitian, I wondered if giving up all food rules or associations with good and bad foods would cause me to gain weight or become unhealthy. The point of intuitive eating, she said, is not to worry about weight, but rather to listen to your body and give it the foods it wants until it's satiated. That food might be mangoes, sushi, chocolate cake, or broccoli. We cannot outsmart our bodies, and trying to only leads to misery, disappointment, weight fluctuations, and hormonal chaos.

"Gaining weight is a fear you're going to have to let go of, " she said, "I know I'm inviting you into scary territory, because the world outside this office is going to contradict everything I'm telling you."

As I left her office and walked back to work, I popped a podcast in my ear, and the first thing I heard was an advertisement for Noom, a "non-diet" weight loss company. I walked by a signs advertising Subway (Eat Fresh!), and a bench advertisement for liposuction, featuring the torso of a thin white woman. My dietitian was right, diet culture really is everywhere.

However, simply being everywhere doesn't make something toxic. Diet culture is toxic because it tells us what and when to eat, instead of listening to our bodies. It's toxic because it holds up a body ideal that is unobtainable and unhealthy for many people. It's toxic because it places blame on us when our bodies don't live up to it's standards. Diet culture is like an abusive partner who cheats and blames it on you. Despite what diet culture will tell you, your body is not (and never was) a problem.

P.S. Tuning out all the messages about food, diet, exercise, and weight loss is incredibly difficult if you're even tangentially engaged in the world around you. Friends, family, coworkers, and strangers will engage you in conversations about food and weight loss. You will see and hear overt and subvert advertisements that might make you feel guilty for occupying your own body. Check out the Intuitive Eating Workbook for help letting go of diets and diet culture.

xoxo

Sarah McMahon