Diet culture is a wide-reaching phenomenon of encouraging and expecting extreme weight loss, deeming certain foods bad or good, and the false implication that to be healthy you need to lose weight and you need to do it with a diet. Diet and weight loss culture profit on fatphobia (also known as weight stigma) and making people feel uncomfortable in their own body. We are often made to feel that our bodies are wrong and in need of changing but, this is not true. It is important to remember that you can be healthy at any size and the implication that having fat on your body is something to be ashamed of is just plain wrong. Body size does not indicate health, and the most important thing is that you feel good in your own body and that you give it the right fuel and tools so it can do its job best.
(We also know that it’s hard to feel good in your body sometimes, so one of our peer educators wrote a whole post about Body Neutrality! You should check it out to learn more about accepting your body as it is.)
Diet culture has many manifestations and it can be tricky to know if a piece of information is sound nutritional advice or if it is part of diet culture. So, how do you know if something is diet culture? Bethany Wheeler, a registered and licensed dietician, has a Diet Culture Litmus test that is a great tool to use to determine if something is part of diet culture.
Is it diet culture?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it body shaming or claiming someone's body is the problem?
- Does it label foods as either bad or good, or bash certain foods?
- Is it saying food must be earned or burned off with exercise?
- Does it only see food as fuel and look down on emotional eating?
- Does it paint people as good or better for pursuing health?
- Does it paint people who aren't pursuing health as lazy or lacking willpower and grit?
- Does it ignore the fact that privilege, resources, and funds impact people's health related choices?
An answer of yes to any of these should make you wary of that information potentially being a product of diet culture.
Bad Fads: Diet trends not worth your time
Over time, a variety of fad diets have come and gone as a part of diet culture - all echoing a similar claim: quick and easy weight loss! As we said, body size and weight do not necessarily determine health so this claim is a signal that a diet does not have your best interest in mind. Most of these diets can even harm your body because many cause rapid weight loss that is not recommended by the CDC or other exercise and health professionals. The CDC states that an appropriate amount of weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. This can be achieved with a slight calorie deficit and/or increased physical activity. They also mention an important point: when weight loss is gradual, the weight is more likely to stay off. Many of these popular diets cause rapid weight fluctuation. This is called Yo-Yo dieting and it has many negative effects beyond weight changes. It can lead to loss of muscle mass, higher risk for liver problems, increased risk of chronic disease, negative body image, and low body acceptance. Another problem with most of these popular diets is that though you may lose weight, that weight loss is probably not coming from where you think it is. The weight lost in extreme calorie deficit diets is usually muscle, bone, and water loss and body’s fat stores are maintained or even increased. If improving health is your goal, then diets with extreme calorie deficits that promote rapid weight loss are ones to avoid.
The Keto diet was developed to control epilepsy in children. According to Mayo Clinic, besides for those with epilepsy, there is little evidence to support the use of this diet in any other population and evidence is unclear as to whether or not this diet is safe for the general population. The reason being that this diet is high in fat and protein and very low in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential nutrients, meaning they are needed for your body to function properly - they are actually our bodies’ preferred source of fuel. Severely limiting them means you will be lacking essential parts of your diet and at risk of nutrient deficiency. This also often means unsaturated fats are in excess in this diet and foods like fruits and vegetables are very limited, which can increase your risk for chronic disease. With the lack of fruits and vegetables, this diet makes it extremely hard to get all the vitamins and nutrients you need and can lead to other serious medical complications. Some long term health effects are increased heart disease risk due to increased fat intake and poor cholesterol, increased risk of certain cancers, gastrointestinal problems, and prolonged nutrient deficiencies.
Drastic calorie deficit diets
Many diet trends consist of cutting your calories drastically and eating with few other restrictions. The problem here is that many of the caloric intakes they recommend are often the daily requirements for young children. The average adult needs 2,000-2,800 calories daily. That number changes depending on your body and will increase if you are active. Calories are our body’s fuel and the number of calories you eat is less important than simply eating a variety of healthy foods and maintaining a balanced diet.
The reason you don’t need this diet is simple, your body doesn’t need a cleanse because it cleanses itself! Your liver and kidneys do this all on their own without any change in diet, they are experts at removing waste and unwanted substances from the body. If you need more convincing, these diets usually have very little results and can be pricey. You are better off skipping the juice cleanse and letting your body take care of any detoxifying.
Intermittent fasting is about keeping your body free of carbs, so after 12-14 hours of fasting, your body begins burning fat. Though this diet can result in quick weight loss, it often triggers the Yo-Yo dieting we talked about earlier. On non-fasting days, you are more likely to eat more calories and more non-nutrient dense foods, which promotes weight gain. There are other negative side effects to this diet as well. Your body will feel very tired because it lacks the carbohydrates it needs to have energy throughout the day. This diet also causes lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, which can affect mental health.
Science-based Swaps: science-supported diet changes that can positively impact health.
If you are looking to improve your overall health there are some ways to do it that are kinder to your body and support long term health improvements.
A plant-based diet consists of mostly or entirely plant-based foods (no animal sources). Plant-based foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and oils. There is an abundance of benefits to eating plant based. For example, this diet can lower blood pressure, promote heart health, decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes, and many other diseases. A plant-based diet can also improve mental health! The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that “Research that looked at the impact of diet on emotional well-being and productivity at 10 corporate sites of a major U.S. insurance company found that a plant-based dietary intervention led to significantly reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and fatigue”
Intuitive eating is a philosophy about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Unlike a traditional diet, there are no guidelines or restrictions; the goal is treating your body well. Intuitive eating has many benefits, including improved cholesterol levels, higher self-esteem, reduced stress, and improved metabolism.
What is Most Important when it comes to Fueling our Body
Often getting physical activity, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding alcohol and smoking are more important for your health than your weight. Weight loss is not necessarily the path to health despite what diet culture tells us. Look out for the signs of diet culture and fad diets and take steps to promote your health in ways that make your body feel good.
And, if you are struggling with navigating your way through food and nutrition, the GVSU's Laker Food Co. Dietitian, is available for appointments about general nutrition, weight loss, nutrient needs, allergy restrictions and so much more. It's free for students! Furthermore, if you are struggling with disordered eating or body image, the University Counseling Center has many resources to help.
By: Eva VanWyck, WIT Peer Educator
Posted by Katie Jourdan on Permanent link for What is Diet Culture? on March 24, 2022.