Have you found yourself on and off of diets your whole life? Are you constantly comparing yourself to images of perfect people on social media? Do you follow “Fitness inspiration” pages online? Are you in a constant battle with the scale? Do you use the terms “good”, “bad”, “treat”, “junk” or “cheat day” in relation to food? If so, you might be caught in the grip of diet culture. Read on to discover why the diet train doesn’t work and how you can heal your relationship with food.
What is diet culture?
The diet mentality is the belief that other people know better than we do what food our body needs. It’s the idea that there are rules to follow surrounding food and that some foods are good while others are bad. It often involves the elimination of certain foods, a strong focus on weight loss and a method for tracking foods that go into your body and the calories that come out. (1)
Chances are, unless you’ve been living in a bubble you’ve come across and been influenced by the diet culture. It’s an ingrained part of our culture and it’s become worse in recent years with the influence of social media. (2)
A diet is supposed to represent a person or society’s preferred foods and habitual eating patterns. The term diet used to refer to the foods that were available to your community. This was often based on seasonal patterns and food availability.
Now, instead of referring to the foods a culture does eat, the term diet refers to the foods that you should eat. The term diet has become prescriptive and restrictive all at the same time. This is what you should eat and this is what you should avoid.
It’s important to note that dietary changes recommended for health reasons are not a part of diet culture. If you have a food allergy or intolerance then avoiding certain foods is for the benefit of your health. The same thing goes for diets prescribed by doctors and medical professionals. Diet culture is wrapped up in looking a certain way or seeing a certain number on the scale and not in the benefits to your health.
Why the diet train doesn’t work
There are numerous problems with diets. The largest one being that diets remove our own trust in ourselves and our bodies when it comes to decisions around food. We no longer believe that we know when we’re hungry and when we’re full. We rely on other people to dictate the terms of our hunger to us and this causes us to lose touch with our instincts.
Diets affect our self-esteem
Diets also change the way we view our bodies. Diet culture dictates that you need to look a certain way in order to be happy, successful and loved. This can wreck havoc on your self-esteem and you may feel as if you’re not “enough” as a person if you don’t lose weight or look the way society values. (3)
While it’s true that some foods are healthier for us than others, diets fail us by telling us that we cannot eat certain food groups. When you’re told that you cannot do something the basic human instinct is to rebel, and this is where binge eating comes from. We use words such as “treat” and “Indulge” and “cheat day”. This glorifies certain foods and since we can’t have them, we want them all the more. When we do “indulge” we’re more likely to eat far too much of the food than if we’d just had a nibble when we first thought about it. (4)
Diets make weight loss harder
Diets cause you to obsess over food. The “bad” foods are always on your mind and you may avoid certain social situations such as parties where you know they might be present. For example, if there’s a treat in your office break-room you might avoid the room altogether. Throughout the day you’ll be obsessing over the food that you “shouldn’t” have. Then, you might decide you’ve been “good” all day by avoiding it so you allow yourself to have a bite.
The problem is, as soon as you begin eating it’s often difficult to stop. The more you eat, the more you feel guilt and the worse the cravings get. You might find yourself justifying the continued binge because “you’ve already messed up your diet, so what’s the point?”
Related: What is clean eating?
What you can do instead
The opposite of diet culture is intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is what our ancestors would have done and it’s what young children and toddlers do to this day. When you eat intuitively you trust in your body’s signals for hunger and fullness. You eat when you are hungry and you stop when you are full. There’s no pressure to clear your plate or guilt if you eat a sweet food every now and then. Food is fuel for your body and you choose foods that you enjoy that will nourish your body. (5)
It sounds wonderful. No guilt, no off-limits food, no counting calories and no stress. But how do you put intuitive eating into practice? It can be hard to break away from those restrictive eating patterns; because, diet culture is so ingrained in our lives.
The best thing to do is seek help from a nutritionist. They can help you examine your relationship with food. A nutritionist can help you look at your food habits and choices to see why you’re making the decisions you’re making. They can help steer you out of the diet mindset that’s focused on body image towards an intuitive eating mindset focused on fueling your body with the nutrients it needs.
In the meantime, it’s important to practice mindful eating. Tune into your body’s signals. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Am I hungry?
- Am I feeling any strong emotions?
- How long has it been since I’ve had a glass of water?
If you can, record your thoughts surrounding food in a food journal. These can help your nutritionist understand what your body might be trying to tell you.
Your self-worth shouldn’t be tied into the food you eat or the size of clothes you wear. If you’re struggling to escape the grasp of diet culture then above all else, you should be kind to yourself. Food is fuel for your body that keeps you healthy and strong not the enemy.
If you’re struggling to battle against the diet culture, click here to speak with a nutritionist
Kaitlyn Bain is a professional health and wellness writer with a passion for helping her clients educate their readers on healthy lifestyles.