Felicia Newell, RD, MSc
*Trigger warning. Discussion of disordered eating and one paragraph on calories just for perspective.
First of all, what is diet culture? It is a term that has been tossed around as of late, and for good reason. The diet industry has been around for decades, growing exponentially each year (currently a TRILLION dollar industry). Yet, more and more people are struggling with food and their bodies and disordered eating rates are at an all-time high (which is more dangerous than any food itself).
Diet culture means different things to many, but in a nutshell, it refers to society’s decades upon decades obsession with maintaining idealized physical appearances and beauty standards. Which has become even more dangerous recently due social media being so widely accessible.
Diet culture is advertisements on TV and social media promoting ‘perfectly’ sculpted, often not real and unattainable body types. It tells us that the beauty and sex appeal conveyed by celebrities and social media influencers can be achieved only if we both restrict our diets and workout religiously as they claim to do.
Diet culture is fat-phobia and body shaming people of any size or shape. Its people in larger bodies getting inadequate healthcare and just told to lose weight, with the same symptoms as someone in a thin body who would not be told to lose weight as a solution.
Diet culture is children growing up hearing their parent(s) talk about their body in a negative way, and obsessing over food, causing that child to internalize those messages (“I can only have 8 almonds”, “I ruined my diet today, I guess I’ll start over tomorrow”, “Don’t take a picture of me I’m too fat”).
Diet culture is unregulated wellness influencers and ‘experts’ sharing misinformation and disinformation calling normal, nutritious, more easily accessible foods ‘toxic’ and ‘poison’ although many don’t have the education and understanding to be communicating these messages. It’s that these messages get more views and engagement than the truth because it touches people’s pain points.
Diet culture is the millions upon millions of people worldwide that struggle with disordered eating and body image issues due to being constantly bombarded with ads, images, and messages (from media, friends, family) that they’re not good enough as they are, in their current body, with their current food choices. It’s the shame and fear surrounding food and the way we look – the food that gives us fuel, life, and should also promote joy and happiness instead of guilt; the body that is our home and does so much for us.
It’s so much more than just these examples.
With the holidays and the new year coming, these messages from diet culture tend to become even more rampant, as people try to balance being social, enjoying gatherings and traditional foods, with ‘fear’ of gaining weight or not losing weight, and eating ‘bad’ foods.
What this culture tells us during this time of year is that we should not indulge. We should remain true to the restrictive diet practiced all year long (or that we feel we should be practicing). If we indulge in holiday treats and meals, we will endure consequences (gasp…weight gain), and then feel shame and a sense of urgency to make a complete overhaul in the New Year.
Although many find it hard to distinguish between the two, there is a strong difference between diet culture and actually living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Diet culture emphasizes our superficiality and vanity. Conversely, a healthy, balanced lifestyle centers upon internal well-being. It emphasizes our happiness. It is okay to WANT to lose weight, or WANT to have the salad, but if we are doing it out of fear, shame, guilt, feeling like we ‘have to’, this is where it becomes problematic.
However, there has been a shift in recent years. Even the fact that the term ‘diet culture’ has been coined is a good sign that people are now rising up and fighting against these deeply rooted obsessions and beliefs. So luckily, there is hope. More and more people are focusing on developing a healthy relationship with food and their bodies because the vicious cycle of diet, restrict, binge, guilt, repeat does more harm than good, and thankfully more people are starting to realize this.
So, how do we overcome diet culture, develop a healthy relationship with food, and enjoy the holidays (and beyond)?
It’s not easy because change doesn’t happen overnight, but here are some good places to start.
1. ‘Detox’ your social media
Hopefully we have all learned by now, that ‘detoxes’ and ‘cleanses’ are a waste of money and a by-product of diet culture (if not, there are many articles out there by dietitians that will explain it, such as this one). Hint: your liver and kidneys are perfectly capable of removing any waste from the body; anyone who says otherwise or calls food ‘poison’ or ‘toxic’ is a huge red flag.
Sadly, there is an overwhelming amount of misinformation and disinformation (they know it’s false and still spread it because it gets more engagement/pushes their agenda) on social media and beyond. Research shows false information spreads more easily than the truth because touches pain points and preys on desperation. People will use unqualified credentials such as ‘hormone health specialist’, or ‘nutrition coach’ when they only have had limited (and most of the time non evidence-based) or no training at all in nutrition other than they lost some weight or have a fit, ‘idealized’ body.
Even many doctors spread misinformation, who do not get much education at all around nutrition, yet people take it as gospel because they are highly educated. Some do go above and beyond to get extra nutrition training and provide excellent advice, or they know their scope and refer to a registered dietitian.
These messages/articles/videos/posts spreading misinformation get millions of views, likes, and comments, and can sound compelling, so it can really shape peoples beliefs and lead to disordered eating.
Therefore, these ‘wellness influencers’ are actually the ones that are ‘toxic’ and we should be ‘detoxing’ them from our feeds and our lives.
Here are some tips how:
Unfollow accounts that foster comparison and make you feel like your body is wrong or in need of changing. Sometimes these people may be well-meaning, but if their content consistently causes you any type of discomfort, guilt, shame, or negative feelings, let them go. Plus, all the content (yes, even videos) can be, and often are, HEAVILY edited. You never truly know what’s going on on the other side of that picture or when the camera stops rolling. So try not to let what someone says or does on social media (particularly related to food and fitness) have a major impact on your life.
Fill up your feed with ‘body positive’ influencers of all shapes, sizes and colours (including BIPOC influencers and creators), who promote the idea that health can exist at any size. People in larger bodies can be healthy, and people in smaller bodies can be unhealthy. Health is complex and fat-phobic, body shaming content is actually what is unhealthy.
Follow evidence-based professionals on social media that spread true, factual, balanced information on social media. I know this can be tough to distinguish fact from fiction, but some guidelines to follow include:
Anyone sharing something that sounds too good to be true (“fix your gut or hormones” with this product or by avoiding these foods), or really alarming (again X food is poison, toxic), is likely promoting misinformation either because they are misinformed themselves and believe it, to increase engagement, or sell a product.
If someone is sharing a bold claim (e.g., X damages hormones or causes cancer), they better have some solid evidence to back it up. Not having any is a red flag. Evidence shouldn’t only be mice studies or observational studies (because correlation doesn’t equal causation). The best evidence to look for in making a recommendation is randomized controlled trials, or meta-analyses or systematic reviews that are published in high quality journals. Good health professionals know this.
Some of my favourite evidence-based, realistic professionals to follow who do a great job of debunking misinformation with evidence:
· @dr_idz (Instagram and Tiktok)
· @bdccarpenter (Instagram and Tiktok)
· @foodsciencebabe (Instagram and Tiktok)
· @andydoeshealthy (Instagram and Tiktok)
· @fn.health/@fnhealth (Ig/TikTok – it’s me hehe. Due to my workload I have less time to post educational videos but am trying, I do post recipes though).
2. Instead of focusing on avoiding or restricting, focus on adding more nourishing foods to your diet
Hopefully many people have also learned, or at least are starting to learn, that traditional ‘diets’ do not work. They don’t work a lot of the time in the short-term, and they 90% don’t work in the long-term.
When I say ‘diet’, I am referring to restrictive diets such as 1200 calories or less (or even 1500 calories or less for some people), keto, low carb, paleo, whatever next new fad there is. Many of these diets are unrealistic, unnecessary, and unsustainable, and they work in the short-term because they’re so restrictive that they lead to a calorie deficit. They keep people in a vicious cycle of restrict-binge-shame-repeat (for the most part) and do not fix the underlying issues that many of us have with food and our bodies.
When we focus on excessive restriction (of calories, of carbs, fat, sugar, etc.), many things happen that work against us. Here are a few examples how:
Psychologically, telling ourselves we can’t have something, tends to make us want it more. This can lead to hyper-fixating on the foods we are trying to restrict – just one aspect leading to the restrict-binge cycle.
It’s not realistic for our lifestyle, and also not necessary in order to achieve the results we want (results that will be different for each individual).
To put it in perspective, a two year old needs 1200 calories daily to survive. Someone in a hospital bed in a coma would need 1400+ calories to survive (and often times more if they are tall, have more muscle mass, etc.). Most people need 2000+ calories daily for weight maintenance (unless very short, sedentary, elderly, etc.)
Do we need to focus on calories? No, of course not. This is just to put it into perspective, because many of these diets restrict calories so much that the body has no choice but to slow down the metabolism, so they tend to only work for a short-period of time.
Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘clean’ (implying other foods are unclean) ties a moral value to that food and to ourselves for eating either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods and usually guilt or shame when we eat the foods that are bad. Guilt and shame most often lead to demotivation, and demotivation is never helpful for supporting positive behaviour changes.
It is okay to want to have a goal to eat more nutritious foods because we know the benefits when it comes to improving our health, digestion, energy levels, how we feel, disease prevention, building muscle, weight loss, etc.
But we do tend to overcomplicate developing a balanced lifestyle, and get overwhelmed when we think of ALLLL the changes we should make, want to make, society makes us feel like we should make.
In order to reduce this overwhelm, focus on making small, realistic, manageable changes. This is going to look different for everybody, but take a look at your diet as a whole and pick 1-2 areas to work on at a time. These small changes add up to bigger changes over time.
Here are some examples of simple goals to add more nourishing foods:
Increase fibre by adding higher fibre foods to meals and snacks you already have throughout the day (because we know fibre helps us stay full and satisfied for longer, promotes healthy digestion, and so much more and many people do not get enough). Such as:
Add pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, almonds, chia seeds (any nut or seed) to oats, cereal, yogurt, salads, or just have a handful of nuts with a snack.
Add avocado and hemp hearts to toast, or ricotta cheese with sliced peaches and hemp hearts.
Add nut butter to fruit, yogurt, oats, etc.
Add green peas, beans or lentils to soups, casseroles, rice dishes, pastas, etc.
Add 1-2 more servings of fruits and veggies daily. You can do this by adding to a meal where you already have a fruit or veg so it’s easier to add a bit more, or make the habit of adding it to a meal or snack where it is not usually there.
Set reminders to drink a ½ cup water (or other fluid) throughout the day. A ½ cup is realistic so you’re more likely to follow through. Try adding it to another habit you consistently do. For example, if you always make coffee in the morning, make it a habit to have a 1/2 cup water then. If you consistently cook breakfast or supper, have a glass during that process. Set reminders to take small sips at work.
3. Work on developing a healthy relationship with food and your body and allow yourself to ENJOY the holidays, your life, and beyond
There is a difference between wanting to have a more balanced diet, and becoming obsessed over certain foods and ingredients to the point where it causes fear and leads to strict rules around eating (aka disordered eating).
If we do have an unhealthy relationship with food and/or our body, it is likely due to years and sometimes even decades of being entrenched in diet culture. When it comes to developing a healthy relationship in these areas, it’s important to know that we do not need perfection in order to see these changes, and these changes to not have to happen overnight. Give yourself time, patience, and compassion when you’re not perfect, because nobody is, nor should we strive to be.
So everyone’s journey to reaching their goals, whether it’s a balanced diet, weight loss, muscle gain, eating disorder recovery – while developing a healthy relationship with food and their body – can and should look different. We are all unique, with unique past experiences, traumas, perspectives.
The first two points in this article are also excellent strategies to working towards a healthier relationship with food and your body, and here are some strategies that you can try, especially throughout the holiday season where diet culture and disordered eating tend to.
1. Acknowledge and accept diet culture’s presence in our society and in our lives. One step towards acknowledgement is recognizing your own fatphobia and/or thin privilege. Genuinely think to yourself the real reason you are afraid to eat the cookies so proudly baked by a friend, or enjoy your favourite holiday meals. Are you more fearful of gaining weight and being further away from society’s idealized body image than anything else? If so, you have been directly impacted by diet culture. Remind yourself that can exist at any size, people of all body sizes deserve happiness, and shame does nothing good for anyone.
2. Avoid negative talk about food and bodies, including self-talk, and from friends and family members.
During holiday get-togethers, shut down negative talk about your body or other people’s bodies, as well as around foods. This can be difficult. We all know at least one family member that either makes comments about their own body or others’. Of course, try to be respectful about it to keep the mood light, but phrases such as, ‘Let’s keep the attitude positive about food/bodies.’, or, ‘Lately I am trying to have a positive mindset about food/my body/bodies in general.’ ‘I am allowing myself to enjoy foods without guilt this year’ ‘I’m learning to accept and love my body the way it is’.
For that inner negative self-talk (because we’re harsher on ourselves than we are on others), try reminding yourself that words matter – negative words cause harm and demotivate. If you wouldn’t say that to the person you love the most, it certainly isn’t helpful to play it on repeat to yourself. Replacing these negative thought patterns and mindsets with positive affirmations can help motivate you to make the positive changes you want to make. It may sound cheesy but it’s true – it’s psychologically proven that our thoughts influence how we feel, which influences how we act (our behaviours), which influences results.
3. Remember your worth is not an outcome of what you eat. You are no more worthy if you eat a salad with chicken than if you were to eat three slices of sweet potato casserole. You don’t need to ‘healthify’ ingredients to make your traditional holiday favourites – you can use the flour and the sugar – it is the overall diet that counts the most, and with anything in life the dose makes the poison. More importantly, you are not cheating yourself or anyone if you enjoy holiday foods – you are creating memories and traditions. You, and your healthcare team, are the experts of your body and health. Not friends, family, or random people on the internet.
4. Incorporate mindful eating strategies. Mindful eating focuses on your eating experiences, body-related sensations, and thoughts and feelings about food, with heightened awareness and without judgment. For more examples on mindful eating strategies, visit here and here.
5. Focus on flexibility versus rigidity. Flexibility means the absence of strict rules surrounding eating and food habits. Don’t over-complicate nutrition and healthy eating – social media does that enough for us. Focus on gentle nutrition strategies such as mentioned above (increasing fibre, protein, fruits and veg in a way that feels easy and realistic). “Go with the flow” and accept deviations from what you or society might perceive as a ‘healthy diet’ as a natural part of life, instead of viewing those deviations as a judgment of yourself or your worth. Eat without guilt, and learn what habits make you feel good and help you achieve your goals.
We are all unique and your goals and what changes you choose to make will be different than others, and that is okay. If you need help setting goals, understanding your nutrition needs, evidence-based realistic advice, or even just for support and accountability, working with a registered dietitian (aka me, through Cyno!) can go a long way.