To some extent, we all know that diet culture is a troll. But many people aren’t aware of just how damaging it can actually be to mental health. But first, what is diet culture? Here’s a great definition from choosingtherapy.com:
“Diet culture refers to a rigid set of expectations about valuing thinness and attractiveness over physical health and emotional well-being. Diet culture often emphasises “good” versus “bad” foods, focuses on calorie restriction, and normalises self-depreciating talk” (Arzt, 2021).
From this definition alone, we can start to see the harms that diet culture inflicts upon our relationship with food, our bodies and our mental health.
Another dangerous aspect of diet culture is that it attaches physical appearance, eating and exercise habits to self-worth. People who eat ‘clean’ and exercise everyday are regarded by society as better people. Since when is a person’s worth determined by such irrelevant external factors? That’s diet culture for you.
So how exactly does diet culture affect mental health?
Unfair stigmatisation: people who are not perceived as thin or fit by society’s standard are stereotyped as lazy and undisciplined (ultimately judging them as immoral, since discipline and work-ethic are considered morally virtuous characteristics) (Laing, 2021).
Harmful coping mechanisms: because of the pressure to fit in and save ourselves from the discrimination that comes with not being ‘thin enough’, many people resort to coping mechanisms. According to Lexie and Lindsay Kite (2020), these coping mechanisms can range from chronic dieting and other forms of disordered eating (binge eating, rigid food rules, anxiety around eating certain foods, skipping meals, etc.), self-harm, substance abuse, decreased sexual assertiveness (and not saying no when you mean no, and opting-out of discussing contraceptive options), constantly hiding/fixing your body, decreased physical activity and over-exercise (exercise-bulimia).
Adverse mental health outcomes: not ‘fitting’ in can result in overwhelming painful feelings and mental health conditions including shame, anxiety and depression. In response to these painful feelings, some people respond with the coping mechanisms discussed above.
These examples might seem extreme to you, but even if you are not experiencing these effects in their more extreme form, diet culture affects all of us. It takes a conscious effort to look at how diet culture beliefs have infiltrated your personal belief system and subsequently, your daily behaviours.
RAISING AWARENESS OF HOW DIET CULTURE AFFECTS YOU PERSONALLY
A good way to create more awareness is to write in a journal. Pay attention to your thoughts about food and your body - do you judge your food choices? Do you feel better about yourself for eating healthily and terrible about yourself when you eat a burger and chips? Diet culture thinking points the finger back at you. It’s good to aim to make healthy food choices most of the time. But if eating something less nutritious triggers negative self-talk, guilt and shame, that’s the diet culture speaking. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to notice the micro-aggressions of diet culture in your daily life. Another example of the subtleties of diet is when you feel that quick, sharp rush of negative emotions when you see a part of your body that you don’t like or frequently talking about your healthy eating or exercise routine with friends. There’s more to life than how you eat and what your body looks like.
With that said, I’m signing off for today. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments below and make sure to sign up to my newsletter so you never miss a new post on my blog.
Arzt, N., 2021. Diet Culture: Definition, Examples, & Impacts. [online] Choosingtherapy.com. Available at: <https://www.choosingtherapy.com/diet-culture/> [Accessed 1 February 2022].
Kite, L. and Kite, L., 2020. More than a body: your body is an instrument, not an ornament. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pp. 175-176.