Diet culture is everywhere. Diet culture meaning, the societal pressure to pursue a ‘beauty standard’ of thinness, and the promotion of weight loss as an absolute goal. In the UK, it’s very normalised within our media to promote weight loss as a need for health, despite existing evidence proving that weight loss is not a necessity for optimal health (please see further down). It’s no wonder that 64% of the UK population have been ‘on a diet.’1 This article is written in contrast to everything which makes you feel the need to diet…please read on to discover how you can start the art of un-dieting.
What is a diet?
There are many different types of diets, with new trends emerging all the time. You’ve probably heard of the most popular trends; Atkins, Paleo, Keto, Slimming World, Weight Watchers, 5:2 Diet etc. etc. They all differ slightly but have several things in common; they all have rules. They all involve restriction of some kind and they all claim to get the best results.
What is the problem with this, you ask? Well, my first response would be to ask what your specific reason for dieting is. Diet companies claim to care about our health, yet a lot of them are advertised with either thin or muscly models on the cover, which is promoting the idea that your self-worth can only be based on how thin you are or how well defined your abs are. This suggests that health is based on weight. This is just not true. You can be in a large body and have completely healthy biomarkers (healthy cholesterol blood levels etc.), just like you can be in a thin body and have a lot of health problems. It is concerning how powerful the diet industry is, considering that there is evidence to show that weight focussed health interventions have no benefits and potentially some harm.
What about genetics?
Our natural weight is based on our genetic blueprint. This means that if everybody ate and exercised in the exact same way, we would still all look completely different and be an array of different sizes! How boring would the world be if we all looked exactly the same? Yet this is the ideal which diet culture is promoting. It places everybody under the same umbrella. In the real world, we all have different lifestyles. We come from different cultures, we grew up eating different foods and we all have different physical activity levels. This means that the amount of energy we all need to sustain our bodies and live healthily, will vary massively. So then, doesn’t the idea of giving everyone a set diet plan with a set number of calories to eat seem a bit crazy? It’s completely unrealistic.
The harm in weight cycling
The scary thing about dieting is that we are led to believe that these diets promote optimal health, whereas in reality, they could actually be doing you harm. Weight cycling refers to regular weight fluctuations caused by yo-yo dieting, as in losing weight through a diet, putting it on again, then losing it on the next diet etc. There is a large amount of evidence which directly connects weight cycling with worrying health outcomes, such as chronic inflammation, hypertension, lower muscle tissue, some cancers, and even, a higher risk of mortality. Ironically, these are all conditions which get blamed on being a higher weight. It’s time to recognise that the actual process of dieting itself is what is causing the harm.
There is a real risk of psychological harm from dieting. Chronic dieting is a proven risk factor for progression to an eating disorder,8 particularly binge-eating disorder and bulimia.4 This is not surprising considering the nature of diet culture, which relies upon your belief that weight loss is the best thing for your health. Chronic dieting means constantly living with food restriction of some kind, which is going to have an impact on your mental health, the size of the impact depending on how long you’ve been dieting for. For example, a common outcome for dieters is binge-eating. This is an understandable outcome because of the way in which our bodies work. Our body needs a certain amount of food. If we are under-eating, it doesn’t accept ‘we are on a diet,’ it sees it as ‘we are starving, it must become one of our main aims today to seek out food.’ Therefore, the natural biological response is to constantly think about and crave food, and these cravings get stronger the longer you go without satisfying them. When you eventually do ‘give in’ and eat what you’ve been craving, your body doesn’t know when you’ll allow yourself to eat that ‘forbidden food’ again, so it won’t want to stop eating until you run out of food, leading to a likely binge. Does this sound familiar? Even without reaching the stage of an eating disorder, dieting can cause a lot of distress and discomfort in everyday life.
Why is diet culture everywhere?
I can tell what you’re thinking: if dieting is so harmful, why is it allowed to be promoted everywhere? I have a very clear answer to this question: money. For example, in 2019 the dieting industry in the US was worth $72 billion. A lot of these companies are so large and powerful that the truth about the harm caused by dieting cannot be heard above their noise. Have you ever thought about the fact that dieting companies are preying on your self-esteem to make money? As humans, we always tend to blame ourselves. This happens with diets. When a diet fails, as 95% of diets do, we blame ourselves. We call ourselves ‘weak,’ we berate ourselves for not having enough ‘willpower’ and we tell ourselves that we will do better on ‘the next one.’ This is all without even contemplating that maybe it’s the fault of the diet itself? That the diet being sold is a faulty product which is unattainable and is being sold on the false premise that you ‘should’ be losing weight. Have you ever pondered the fact that if a diet was ‘successful,’ you’d never need to go on another diet again? But how would that be good for business? Diet companies want their customers to constantly feel the need to go on another diet, so they can keep making money off you. Are you feeling angry yet? It’s literally an industry which is relying upon you feeling bad about yourself.
So, what next?
It’s time for the art of un-dieting! If you’ve been dieting for a long time, it’s likely that you’re really fed up and thinking about what to eat day to day feels like a constant battle in your mind. I get it, I’ve been there myself. It sucks. The good news is that it is possible to heal your relationship with food and find your mojo again. It just takes time. So, if you’re reading this and you feel ready to ditch the diets once and for all, where can you start?
Have compassion for yourself. It’s not your fault that you got stuck in a diet cycle. So many of us have been there. Diet culture is everywhere, and we’ve normalised it in our society. Do not beat yourself up for it.
Throw yourself an unfollow party. It’s not possible to completely get away from diet culture in day-to-day life, it’s always going to be there, whether on your tv or on the side of a bus going past. However, you can control the vibe on your own social media feed. Unfollow any account which preys on your insecurities (and makes you feel rubbish) and start following accounts which make you feel good. Some good places to start: @bodyposipanda @the_health_nutritionist @pixienutrition @hattiereeshealth @immaeatthat @themindfuldietitan @intuitiveeatingldn
Sit down and ask yourself: what do you actually enjoy eating? If you could eat anything right now, what would it be? Sometimes after dieting for so long, we can forget about those foods we find really satisfying. It’s time to connect enjoyment with food again.
Look into processes to help you connect with your body again, such as intuitive eating. This evidence-based process is all about learning how to have a good relationship with food, with no rigid meal plan or food guilt in sight!
·If you feel that you need extra support, it is out there! Look into working with a weight-inclusive registered nutritionist or dietitian, who can be there as a useful guide to heal your relationship with food and with yourself.
Book a free complimentary call with Hattie today and start to embrace the un-diet culture.
Hattie is an Associate Registered Nutritionist who provides a non-diet ‘whole-self approach to nutrition, basing each session on individual needs. It is her passion to help clients heal their relationship with food, through a combination of techniques such as Intuitive Eating and Nutrition Counselling.
1. Mintel Press Office (2021). Brits lose count of their calories: Over a third of Brits don’t know how many calories they consume on a typical day. Available at: Brits lose count of their calories: Over a third of Brits don’t know how many calories they consume on a typical day | Mintel.com
2. Richmond, T.K., Thurston, I.B. and Sonneville, K.R. (2021). Weight-Focused Public Health Interventions—No Benefit, Some Harm. JAMA pediatrics.
3. Tomiyama, A.J., Hunger, J.M., Nguyen-Cuu, J. and Wells, C. (2016). Misclassification of cardiometabolic health when using body mass index categories in NHANES 2005–2012. International journal of obesity, 40(5), pp.883-886.
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