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The Harmful Effects of Diet Culture and Social Media

We’ve all come across diet culture at one point or another. Whether it’s been through interactions with friends or reading through a magazine, there are plenty of instances where people’s internal beliefs about food and body image are revealed. In the past two decades, diet culture has prevailed more than ever due to one main factor: social media.

Although fad dieting and societal body standards have existed for much longer than two decades, social media has given diet culture a much larger pedestal to stand on. In turn, diet culture is consistently perpetuated and reinforced through social media and the media as a whole. 

Let’s dive into what exactly diet culture can look like, the dangerous effects of diet culture in social media, and how we can all work to ditch the diet culture mentality. 

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture is a phenomenon perpetuated by societal standards for beauty that value thinness and body shape over one’s health and well-being. The principles of diet culture often emphasize restrictive dieting, labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” and over-analyzing body size and shape.

In essence, diet culture displays an unrealistic image of what we all “should” look like, according to society’s standards for beauty. These negative food and body beliefs are not only reinforced by individual users on social media but are also commonly seen in the marketing of food, beauty, and wellness-related products.

On top of this, we often see diet culture in various other forms of media, such as magazines, movies, TV shows, and the list goes on. For example, magazines will often showcase photos of celebrities “off-duty” and critique their appearance and body shape or size.

Shifting to specifically social media platforms, here are some of the ways you might see diet culture being reinforced:

  • Influencers posting their current diet, juice cleanse, or restrictive regimen that promises other users weight loss
  • Diet programs promoting weight loss by having users track calories and eliminate certain foods
  • Online publications reviewing celebrities’ diets and food choices to let readers know how they “kept the weight off”
  • Food companies marketing their products as being “guilt-free”
  • Users posting misrepresentative photos of themselves to appear thinner or in a desired way (either through digital editing or posing)

The Dangerous Effects of Diet Culture in Social Media

Disordered eating has become so pervasive in our society that we may even engage in behaviors that we don’t perceive as being disordered. However, it’s evident that social media plays a major role in how people form beliefs around food and body image. Let’s discuss some of the dangerous effects of diet culture that are reinforced through social media.

The Thin Ideal

The thin ideal is a concept (mostly among women) that centers around the desire for a perfectly slim body with little body fat. Social media plays a major role in promoting the thin ideal by mainly circulating posts of individuals who are deemed attractive or “ideal” according to society’s standards. These types of posts promote the idea that happiness and success are linked to thinness, which is highly problematic.

Research finds that frequent exposure to thin-ideal media often leads to higher levels of body dissatisfaction. Over time, these body concerns can become so deeply ingrained that it may eventually lead to disordered eating behaviors or an eating disorder.

Size Does Not Equal Health

Diet culture has created a distorted image that equates thinness to health – which is not the case. A commonly used measure to determine body fatness is BMI (or body mass index). While BMI may be a useful tool for identifying the relation between height and weight, research shows that it isn’t a good predictor of health outcomes.

Numerous factors may influence your natural body size including age, ethnicity, gender, and muscle mass. For this reason, it’s nearly impossible to predict someone’s health by looking at their body size alone. Healthcare experts who recognize this fault have developed a health-at-every-size approach, which promotes size inclusivity and intuitive eating principles.

Limiting Food Rules and Restrictions

When examining diet culture in social media, you’ll likely notice that many trends are centered around highly limiting food rules and restrictions. Any diet that dramatically lowers daily calorie intake, completely cuts out certain foods, or doesn’t allow you to eat the foods you love can be emotionally and physically draining.

Depriving yourself of certain foods or entire food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies which can negatively impact your health. Studies show that even if severely restrictive dieting may lead to short-term weight loss, most individuals don’t maintain that weight loss over time – and often gain back all the weight, plus 10% more. This type of restrictive dieting is a common preliminary behavior for individuals who develop binge behaviors or compulsive overeating.

Therefore, restrictive dieting is a false representation of what healthy, manageable weight loss can look like. An estimated 35% of individuals who engage in dieting behaviors progress to pathological or disordered dieting. Of this group, roughly 20-25% also go on to develop a restrictive eating disorder.

Compulsive Exercise

Most people only associate diet culture with thoughts and behaviors around food, but compulsive exercise is also perpetuated. In the world of diet culture, exercise is seen as punishment – something you do to compensate for eating “bad” or “unhealthy” foods. Viewing exercise as a way to avoid fatness not only feeds into the diet culture narrative but also induces feelings of body dissatisfaction.

When one engages in compulsive exercise, it can severely affect both physical and social impairment. Using exercise to compensate for food often means we aren’t listening to the body’s internal signals which may result in physical injury or stress on the body. In addition, exercise addiction may lead to low self-satisfaction and heightened anxiety. So remember that exercise should be fun and enjoyable – not something you do as a punishment.

How to Reject Diet Culture on Social Media

There are a number of ways that we can work toward overcoming the beliefs diet culture has instilled. Since social media is such an influential way diet culture has prevailed in society, the first step is taking an honest look at the media you consume.

Take some time to go through each of your social media feeds and unfollow any accounts that are triggering or promoting diet culture-related content. Then, fill your feed with accounts that highlight body-positive and inclusive thoughts and imagery. 

Here are some of our favorite pro-recovery Instagram accounts to follow:

  • @virgietovar
  • @your.melanated.dietitian
  • @fedupcollective
  • @thebodyactivists
  • @bodyhonornutrition
  • @whitneytrotter.rd
  • @livinginthehotpink

Tip: When you see a post on social media that reinforces diet culture or triggers you in any way, hit the “not interested” button (if available) to limit future engagement.

Ditching the Diet Culture Mentality

There’s no denying that diet culture is deeply intertwined with many aspects of our lives – so it’s no surprise that it’s commonly reinforced on various social media platforms. However, engaging in diet culture can lead to a negative relationship with food, disordered eating, or an eating disorder.

If you’ve been negatively affected by diet culture or feel that food rules have taken over your life, it’s important to reach out and ask for professional support. At VERY, our team of eating disorder professionals can help you take the proper steps toward recovery and regain a healthy and positive relationship with food. 

Schedule a free consultation to see how VERY can start supporting you on your recovery journey.

Unsure about your negative relationship with food? Take our eating disorder screener to get a better idea of whether or not you may be struggling with an eating disorder.