If you’ve been following me on Instagram for any length of time, you’ve likely seen the term ‘diet culture’ thrown around (generally in conjunction with a bunch of unfavorable words because – spoiler alert – diet culture is the WORST).
So what’s the deal? Why do I hate this thing so much? Well, let me tell you…
Diet culture is a term used to describe a pervasive set of beliefs that places value on the size, weight, and shape of a person’s body over their actual health or worth as a human being. It equates thinness to health and moral virtue. It tells us that our bodies are the most important thing we have to offer the world, and that who we are is secondary. A person can spend their entire life feeling broken and devoid of worth simply because they do not fit the unrealistic, unattainable “ideal” that diet culture promotes. Among other things, diet culture can lead to crash dieting, disordered eating, depression and anxiety.
In short, diet culture is extremely damaging and full of lies.
Another facet of diet culture is the demonization of certain ways of eating. Diet culture loves to label foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” – “good” or “bad” — even when scientific studies yield contradictory evidence. Each new diet says, “this is the right way and your way of eating is wrong.” This forces people to be hyper-vigilant about their food choices, triggers guilt and shame, and totally robs them of the enjoyment that eating can bring.
I have a real problem when diet culture and this type of nutritional elitism show up in the chronic illness community. And sometimes it’s so darn subtle and sneaky!
“Inflammatory diseases can be cured with an exclusively raw diet.”
“Clean eating is the way to go!”
“If you cut out [insert whatever random nutrient/food group is being condemned at that given moment] you’ll feel so much better. Did you know that’s not even essential for your body?”
While these statements may not seem particularly menacing on their own, it’s the subtext that is far more concerning to me. These types of beliefs promote the idea that health can be attained through restrictive eating or dieting when the simple fact is, some people will never be completely “healthy” through no fault of their own. Diet culture insists that we can prevent disease and stave off disability if we just buy the right foods, take the right supplements, and commit to the right exercise routine.
See, not only is diet culture a nasty liar, she also perpetuates ableism.
Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I fully believe and stand by the notion that what we eat affects our bodies. However, there is a huge difference between having a mutually beneficial discussion about nutrition and shaming someone for their health and/or food choices. Our bodies are as unique as our individual personalities – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits all diet. In fact, recent research suggests that nutritional needs may be more individualized than we ever thought.
Researchers tracked 1,100 adults (including 240 sets of identical twins) for two weeks, during which time they monitored blood sugar, insulin levels, and fat levels after study participants ate pre-formulated meals. They also tracked participant’s sleep and exercise routines and tested their gut microbes. They discovered “foods that spiked one person’s blood sugar or kept their fat levels elevated for hours didn’t necessarily do the same to the person sitting next to them” even when those people were identical twins.
Another study found that eating the same exact food affects blood sugar differently in each person. This high interpersonal variability suggests that the labeling of foods as “good” or “bad” based on average glycemic response may mean very little on an individual level, as each person reacts so differently to the same food. Researchers say that the huge differences found in the rise of blood sugars in participants who ate the exact same meal “highlights why personalized eating choices are more likely to help people stay healthy than universal dietary advice.”
Additionally, the World Health Organization consistently reminds us that there are social determinants of health – such as oppression, discrimination, access to healthcare, income level, etc. – that have enormous impacts on our overall health and wellness. So, it’s important to remember that what we’re eating isn’t the whole (or arguably even the main) determinant of our health status.
Once again, I reiterate – diet and nutrition are incredibly important. There is value in learning what our bodies need and how to best care for them. But there are no universal rules and there are limits to what food can do. It won’t cure a genetic disease, or most other diseases for that matter. It doesn’t always have to be used as medicine. Gosh dang it, food should be enjoyed!
Another thing about diet culture is that it has a funny way of making us think we can judge other people’s health status by their physical appearance, and that we have the right to tell them what they should be doing differently. Which is kind of crazy when you think about it! Can you imagine if I randomly told you that since I saw a picture of you one time, or read one of your social media posts, or met you in person for five minutes, that I think you should be taking a cocktail of specific prescription medications? It’s weird, right? Yet we do this exact thing with food and diet tips ALL THE TIME.
So if you’ve been on the receiving end of the guilt and shame that diet culture inevitably leaves in it’s wake, remember that your body is unique. It is truly unlike anyone else’s! Your illness is not your fault. You’re allowed to eat what you want without feeling guilt. There is nothing virtuous about a bowl of kale, and nothing evil about a slice of cheesecake. Food has no moral a value – it’s not inherently good or bad! You (and perhaps a physician or nutritional therapist with whom you’ve shared your extensive medical history and mutually decided upon a diet plan) are the only one who knows what your body needs and wants.
If eating or not eating certain things works for your body or belief system, then by all means, do whatever makes you feel best! But can we please stop perpetuating a culture that tells other people what to do with their bodies?
Ducharme, J. (2019, June 10). A study on twins offers proof that we all need personalized diets. Retrieved from https://time.com/5600706/personalized-diets-study/
World Health Organization (2018)
Zeevi, D., Korem, T., Zmora, N., Israeli, D., Rothschild, D., Weinberger, A., … & Suez, J. (2015). Personalized nutrition by prediction of glycemic responses. Cell, 163(5), 1079-1094.