For those aware of it, November December and January are months filled with "diet culture" messages from media and even within our own personal relationships. I've been working with my female athlete clients on how to be resilient to diet culture messages throughout this time ... but if you are like how I once was, you might not know what "diet culture" is. How can we be resilient to something if we don't even know what it is?
WHAT DOES "DIET" MEAN?
Let's start with breaking down the word DIET. In Webster Dictionary, diet is a noun to name the kinds of foods that a person, animal, or community habitually eat. With that definition, there are endless possibilities of what a diet could be. Its customizable! There are no judgements or assumptions about if this diet is good, bad, right, wrong, healthy, unhealthy etc. It just is what it is. A lion's diet is one of meat! A human's diet is one of both animal and plants.
Using this first definition of diet, we could then assume that the term "diet culture" is simply referring to whatever the culture or population or community is eating. Again, without any judgements as to what is good or bad, we can simply say that the diet culture in the United States may be different than the diet culture in Japan as we have different cultural influences that affect our food choices. Japanese generally eat more fish & fermented foods than Americans due to their location and food traditions. Whereas the US has a far more diverse collection of foods with influences from Japan, as well as Korea, Mexico, Italy, England, Ireland and more!
However, most people in today's western society would have different definitions for these terms. Most people use the word diet as either a noun or a verb to describe a specific type of restrictive diet, such as the Ketogenic diet, the Paleo diet, the Whole30 diet usually in an effort to lose weight or obtain an outcome of health. Even in the community of female athletes, many use the term to describe their specific sports nutrition diet for an intentional purpose of health, performance, or weight. Today's society also use the word diet as a verb, an act of restricting oneself to smaller amounts or specific types of food, again most often done in order to lose weight.
This second definition of diet, the one specific to restriction or following a specific style of eating in the pursuit of weight loss, is precisely what professionals have deemed "diet culture." It's literally the culture of diets and dieting.
However as professionals try to address the health and wellbeing of American citizens we are learning that this culture of dieting, and a focus on weight loss and restricting food may actually not be helpful in achieving health outcomes; it may actually be harmful. A restrictive diet may not properly nourish the body leading to nutrient deficiencies; A focus on weight loss may cause negative body image and decreased sense of self-worth. In my line of work with female athletes and young athletes, dieting is actually strongest predictor of adolescents developing an eating disorder (1)! These concerns highlight that "diets" in the restrictive definition is actually harmful. I'll unpack more of this in the next section but bottom line, the term "Diet Culture" is now used to define the negative and harmful cultural influences around food & body.
DEFINING DIET CULTURE
There's no specific Webster Dictionary definition of exactly what the term "diet culture" means, however a 2022 Australian study attempted to narrow it down. Researchers conducted an online qualitative study on 118 participants, mostly females from Australia, but also some from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand (2).
Over 50% of participants were self-identified anti-diet activists, and 37% were health professionals including mental health workers and dietitians (2). The study aimed to get a clearer understanding of the holistic meaning of the term "diet culture" and how this can be used in academia and research.
Results of the study characterized the term "Diet Culture" in three major themes:
Theme 1: "Diet culture as health myths", including but not limited to the myths that a person's weight shape or size dictates their health; The ideas that a smaller body size equates to being healthy and that a larger body size equates to being unhealthy; Notions that weight-loss is a positive way to attain health; Further, that certain foods and food behaviors are good or bad as it correlates to health (2).
A few specific examples of theme 1 would be the notion that turkey burgers are healthy and beef burgers are unhealthy; or that because somebody has fat on their body they are indeed unhealthy humans; or that somebody is benefiting their health by going on the Whole30 diet. Diet Culture may have you fooled that these statements are true when in fact, they are not. Let me share just a few reasons why:
Did you know that the lowest all-cause mortality rates are actually in the "overweight" BMI category of 26-29.9 (3) This is evidence that larger bodies, compared to the "normal weight" BMI category are not all inherently unhealthy.
Did you know that people in an underweight BMI below 18.5 have the highest mortality risk, along with those above 35 (3). Evidence that lower body weight is not always inherently healthier.
Did you know that 95% of people who go on a restrictive diet gain back all the weight within 5 years. Evidence that going on a diet in pursuit of weight loss is not a positive way to attain health after all. Further, people who report intuitive eating (a style of eating that is not going on a diet) are actually less likely to be overweight/obese; evidence that not going on a diet may help with weight management better than those who do diet (5)!
In conclusion, diet culture is full of health myths!
Theme 2: "Diet culture as a moral hierarchy of bodies", including but not limited to the idea that thin is ideal and at the top of the hierarchy while fat is undesirable and at the bottom of the hierarchy; the idea that where you are now is not good enough, and one should always pursue a thin body no matter the sacrifice to your social, physical, or mental health; and conflation of thinness to health, beauty, and moral superiority(2).
A few specific examples of theme 2 would be that Ariana Grande is more desirable than Adele because her body size is smaller; or further, that Adele became a better person when she did lose weight. Diet Culture may have you fooled that these statements are true when in fact, they are not.
Without referencing scientific proof of this, but rather using common sense, I think its safe to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people find Adele more attractive than Ariana, some vice versa, some equally, and some find neither attractive! It's truly not dependent on their size. They are both incredibly successful, talented, rich, famous etc. regardless of their differing body sizes. This is proof that your body size does not dictate your worth in this world.
Theme 3: "Diet culture as a systemic and structural problem", including the idea that patriarchy, racism, and capitalism contribute to myths of body weight, shape and size; the sexualization of women by men, the idea that women must look a certain way to be accepted/loved/valued; the lack of [racial] diversity in media; the multi-billion-dollar diet, fashion, and beauty industry fueled by advertising, social media and more to directly profit from women's pre-existing insecurities and sell a 'solution' or 'fix' (2).
A few specific examples of theme 3 would be social media filters making people's skin look flawless, contributing to the sales & purchase of more make-up and beauty products; or trends set by the Kardashians and Jenner's dictating what is "sexy", and what fashion is purchased, and what booty boosts, lip fillers, or diet pills we should invest in.
Did you know the weight loss and weight management diet market size was valued at $192.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027 (6)... a very substantial and growing market. Yet, obesity, anxiety, and depression all continue to rise. This market is clearly ineffective at making people healthier or happier in their bodies and lives.
It's a lot to unpack.
Maybe you don't resonate with all of it. Or maybe you do resonate with ALL OF IT. But somewhere in there, I'm sure there's a thing or two that most girls & women in "modern western societies" have experienced.
Whether its a new book titled something along the lines of "Eat This, Not That to Perform Better & Be Healthy" - encouraging Theme 1...
Or a comment from a girlfriend saying "Wow you look great, did you lose weight?" - encouraging Theme 2 ...
Or the incessant Instagram ads promoting booty lifting thigh slimming gym spandex to look sexy - encouraging Theme 3...
Diet Culture sneaks its way into most of our lives, despite the fact that evidence is pointing to its lies and harmful effects.
DIET CULTURE IN FEMALE ATHLETES
Diet Culture is also very present in the lives of female athletes for the same reasons as above and some additional nuanced reasons.
For example, female athletes may receive pressure from coaches or trainers to be a certain weight, assuming it will benefit performance which may or may not be true! When this pressure is added to an athlete they may restrict their food to achieve a smaller body size, or leaner physique, which depletes their body's energy and nutrition and results in worse performance!
Very often, athletes who diet for weight loss can easily fall into the category of RED-S, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, with detrimental effects to their performance and health. You can learn more about RED-S here.
Female athletes may also feel pressure to obtain or maintain a certain image due to a revealing or tight fitting uniform; often a sexualization of women's sport that is not performance-focused. Or female athletes may confuse their food choices with their identity as an athlete, believing that choosing a certain food displays their discipline or commitment to their role as an athlete.
Once again, these are all diet culture messages and have little to do with a female athlete's performance! But because of these harmful and untrue messages, up to 62% of female athletes in aesthetic and weight-class sports are at risk of developing eating disorders and 35% and 58% of college athletes are at high risk of anorexia or bulimia, respectively, across all sports (7). Many of my clients have experienced these diet culture messages in athletics and their harmful effects which is one of the reasons they seek out my services, especially the Female Athlete System of Transformation!
I hope that this blog opened your eyes to what diet culture is and how it may be negatively impacting you and those around you. The first step to combating diet culture is being aware of it! Stay focused on your personal health and performance as a female athlete. To learn more about diet culture, tune into the Female Athlete Nutrition Podcast, specifically episodes linked below!
Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649
Natalie Jovanovski, Tess Jaeger, Demystifying ‘diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘anti-diet’ feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities, Women's Studies International Forum, Volume 90, 2022, 102558, ISSN 0277-5395, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2021.102558. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277539521001217)
Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, Graubard BI. Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2013 Jan 2;309(1):71-82. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.113905. PMID: 23280227; PMCID: PMC4855514.
DIETERS 95% STAT - Grodstein F, Levine R, Troy L, Spencer T, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ. Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight loss program. Can you keep it off? Arch Intern Med. 1996 Jun 24;156(12):1302-6. PMID: 8651838.
Camilleri GM, Méjean C, Bellisle F, Andreeva VA, Kesse-Guyot E, Hercberg S, Péneau S. Intuitive eating is inversely associated with body weight status in the general population-based NutriNet-Santé study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 May;24(5):1154-61. doi: 10.1002/oby.21440. Epub 2016 Mar 17. PMID: 26991542.