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What is Diet Culture?


F​or 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?



W​HAT 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.


U​sing 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.


D​EFINING 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.

  • D​id 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.

  • D​id 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!