Diet culture is a set of myths and expectations around food and weight, which typically equate thinness to health and categorize foods into “good” or “bad” types.
Diet culture creates a moral hierarchy of body sizes and shapes, which typically idealizes thinness and creates fear and negativity about fat. Social media, consumer products, and health fads may all contribute to diet culture.
This article looks at what diet culture is, how it may affect people, tips for challenging it, and how to seek support.
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Some feminist scholars see diet culture as a patriarchal method of discipline or control. However, diet culture can affect all genders. Racialized ideals may also play a part in how society sees body size in relation to health.
Diet culture has a focus and moralization on thinness, food restriction, and control around food and weight.
Diet culture may affect people in the following ways.
Negative body image
Young adult males also report seeking validation on social media for their appearance. Diet culture, in the form of fitness images intended to be inspirational, thin bodies, and aspirational food images, may reinforce body dissatisfaction and body shame.
Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is an eating disorder in which people have a fixation on eating foods they consider pure or “clean” and rigid eating patterns, which include avoiding any foods deemed “unhealthy.”
A 2023 study of people using social media who self-identified as having ON found that participants perceived diet culture as reinforcing and normalizing harmful ideals and behaviors around health.
Mental health difficulties
Elements of diet culture may aim to motivate healthy lifestyle choices for people, and
However, many of these images idealize one body type, thinness, and high levels of fitness.
Diet culture in the form of social media, celebrity endorsements, or influencers may overshadow or be in opposition to the advice of healthcare professionals.
Healthcare professionals may also turn to these methods to promote a health campaign, which may unintentionally promote negative body image, disordered eating, or unhealthy fitness behaviors.
The Butterfly Foundation, an Australian charity tackling eating disorders and body image issues, suggests the following tips for overcoming diet culture:
- Radical self-care: Practice self-care by putting oneself first and listening to oneself rather than ideals or behaviors fueled by consumerism.
- Self-acceptance: Learn to accept one’s body regardless of size, shape, or weight.
- Focus on nourishing the body: Switching the focus from weight loss to nourishing and looking after the body may be a more positive perspective.
- Find like-minded connections: Look for like-minded communities who reject diet culture, and avoid following media that makes people feel negative about their bodies.
- Seek out positive, empowering messages: Read books, articles, or blogs that promote positive messages of body acceptance.
- Resist diet culture: Call out or challenge ideas of diet culture in everyday life, such as a conversation that focuses on dieting, and begin an alternative conversation that feels more positive.
Participants reported that the benefits of intuitive eating included increased headspace, new hobbies and interests, and an improvement in being able to listen to themselves and act on it.
The role of healthcare professionals
Healthcare professionals can also play a role in challenging diet culture by encouraging overall healthful behavior changes while being conscious of social determinants of health that influence these approaches.
They may suggest behavioral changes, such as regular exercise; eating a nourishing, balanced diet; getting good quality sleep; and finding healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety.
For more help with this, people can speak with a healthcare professional, such as a dietitian, with experience in a “Health at Every Size®” approach.
If people feel they are experiencing negative body image, mental health difficulties due to diet culture, or disordered eating, they can speak with a healthcare professional for support. Symptoms that could indicate someone needs help include:
- compulsive dieting
- obsession with weight
- nutritional deficiencies due to dieting behaviors
- purging behaviors, such as using laxatives to lose weight
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides a screening tool that can help people determine if they need to seek professional help.
Diet culture is a set of cultural myths around food, weight, and health. It focuses on thinness as an ideal, and labels foods and behaviors as either “good” or “bad.”
Diet culture may have negative consequences on a person’s well-being, including poor mental health, negative body image, and disordered eating.
Challenging diet culture by focusing on self-care, intuitive eating, and surrounding oneself with positive messages about weight and food may help.
If people are experiencing negative body image or disordered eating, it is important to speak with a doctor, mental health professional, or reputable organization for help.