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How Diet Culture Can Perpetuate Eating Disorders

From social media and influencer culture to food labels and celebrity magazines, diet culture is present at seemingly every corner we turn.

Diet culture messaging permeates our daily lives, both consciously and subconsciously, shaping our perceptions of health, beauty, and self-worth. While many are beginning to recognize the harmful impact of diet culture on both physical and mental well-being, the messaging is still pervasive and can contribute to the development of disordered eating tendencies.

Here’s what you should know about the dangers of diet culture messaging, its detrimental effects, and most importantly, how to reject this toxic mentality to build a healthier relationship with food and our bodies.

What is Diet Culture?

In essence, diet culture refers to the wide range of societal beliefs, values, and practices that prioritize thinness and fitness as the ultimate standard of beauty and health. Diet culture tends to promote restrictive eating patterns, often through fad diets, with the end goal of achieving or maintaining a certain body size or shape.

In many instances, diet culture falsely promotes the idea that weight loss is always desirable and achievable through willpower and discipline, which is highly misleading and completely inaccurate. Not only can this type of messaging lead to body dissatisfaction and psychological distress, but it can also be extremely dangerous for those susceptible to eating disorders.

Importantly, as people have started to recognize the harmful link between excessive dieting and mental health, much of diet culture messaging has now shifted from blatant dieting tips to sneaky, “health-conscious” advice. It’s essential to be aware of this hidden diet culture messaging, as it tends to be more abundant and often camouflages itself to appear completely healthy and normal, when in fact it’s just as dangerous due to the remaining focus on achieving an ideal body weight, shape, or size.

The bottom line is: Any messaging that promotes thinness or a certain body shape as the “ideal” type of body is an example of diet culture, no matter how it’s presented.

Examples of Diet Culture

Unfortunately, we are constantly being surrounded by diet culture messaging, whether we recognize it or not. Here are some ways that diet culture is often perpetuated in society that you may or may not have thought about:

  • Food labels marketing products as being “skinny” or “guilt-free”
  • Magazines commenting on celebrities’ weight loss or weight gain, usually accompanied by either praise or shame
  • Weight loss apps that encourage users to track all food and calories
  • Apps that rank foods into “good” or “bad” categories, or otherwise score foods based on weight loss
  • Fad diets and weight loss trends promoted by social media influencers
  • Companies selling diet pills, meal replacements, and “fat-burning” supplements that claim to facilitate weight loss quickly and effortlessly
  • Healthcare professionals prioritizing weight loss over other health indicators, leading to weight stigma and inappropriate dieting recommendations

How Diet Culture Can Lead to Eating Disorders

Both diet culture and eating disorders are often, though not always, rooted in low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction, and the appearance-driven mindset that drives diet culture messaging is highly reminiscent of many of the ideas and thinking behind eating disorders.

Even in cases where food and exercise advice is given genuinely with health and wellness in mind, diet culture has still flooded our judgment with problematic and inaccurate ideas about what is considered the “ideal” body for health and beauty. And when this type of messaging of internalized, it can be highly dangerous and potentially lead to disordered eating tendencies or a full-blown eating disorder.

Let’s take a look into some common ways that diet culture messaging can perpetuate and potentially lead to eating disorders.

Equating Thinness with Health

Diet culture often promotes the false belief that being thin equates to being healthy, which is one reason why weight stigma has become highly prevalent in the healthcare space and beyond. This mentality often doesn’t accept that health is multi-faceted and can mean different things to different people. It also often completely ignores other factors that may affect health like genetics, lifestyle, and so on.

This type of dangerous and inaccurate messaging can often lead individuals to pursue extreme weight loss measures under the misguided belief that achieving a certain body size will automatically make them healthier, disregarding their actual nutritional needs and overall well-being. In reality, people can be healthy in a wide range of body shapes and sizes, and thinness should never be a determinant of health.

Rigid Food Rules and Restrictions

Similar to many disordered eating patterns, diet culture often imposes strict rules and restrictions around foods, categorizing them as “good” or “bad” based on their perceived nutritional value or caloric content. This rigidness may also take shape through counting calories, avoiding social events with food, and various other changes in eating habits.

This type of black-and-white thinking can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety surrounding food choices, which may potentially trigger disordered eating behaviors. Rigid adherence to dietary rules can escalate into a full-blown eating disorder if individuals become increasingly preoccupied with food, weight, and body image, to the detriment of their overall health and quality of life.

Exercise as Punishment

In diet culture, exercise is often framed as a means to “burn off” calories or compensate for eating certain foods, rather than as a source of joy, strength, and overall well-being. This approach to exercise can perpetuate an unhealthy relationship with physical activity and body image, where individuals feel compelled to engage in excessive exercise as a form of punishment or to control some aspect of their body size and shape.

This mindset can fuel the development of compulsive exercise behaviors, which are related to many different eating disorders. As exercise becomes increasingly driven by compulsive urges instead of genuine enjoyment or health benefits, it’s a sign that it’s being influenced by harmful diet culture messaging around what’s considered the “ideal” body.

Ditching the Diet Culture Mentality

Diet culture is around us everywhere, influencing us both consciously and subconsciously, so learning to reject the diet culture mentality can often be much easier said than done. However, to stray away from the thinking behind diet culture messaging, there are some practical strategies to keep in mind when rebuilding a healthy relationship with food and body image.

  • Embracing self-compassion: Focus on appreciating your body for its strengths and capabilities rather than its appearance or size
  • Practicing intuitive eating: Listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and honor your cravings without judgment or restriction
  • Reject food rules and restrictions: Allow yourself to enjoy a variety of foods, without labeling them as “good” or “bad”
  • Engaging in joyful movement: Find physical activities that you genuinely enjoy rather than exercising as a means of punishment or compensation
  • Challenging societal norms: Question unrealistic beauty standards and challenge weight-based assumptions about health and worthiness on social media and in social circles
  • Surrounding yourself with support: Seek out relationships and spaces that promote body neutrality and self-acceptance

One of the best ways to ditch the diet culture mentality and learn to recognize its harmful messaging is to surround yourself with a supportive community that understands what you’re going through.

The RecoVERY Community is designed to support individuals with all types of eating disorders with continuous community support, live meal support groups, and more beneficial recovery resources. Work toward rejecting diet culture in your recovery by joining the community for free today!

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and looking for support, schedule a free consultation to learn more about how our team can help.