What is Diet Culture?

“Diet Culture” is a term that Melissa and I use all the time and we realized it may be a confusing term for many of you. Diet culture is also all around us, which means it probably impacts your life on a daily basis, possibly without you even realizing it. I want to explain what we mean when we talk about diet culture. 

Diet culture is the subliminal messaging that exists all around us. I call it subliminal because the messages are in billboards, magazines, social gatherings, and are imbedded in most of our cultural institutions like schools and churches. A lot of society accepts these messages as truths.   

Diet culture is a capitalist machine that wants your money. It is big on making you feel not good enough in some way and selling you a product (diet, diet food, gym membership, weight loss gimmick, etc) that is marketed as being able to fix whatever “problem” it is addressing. Unfortunately, what we have learned through research is that dieting behavior is ineffective and can lead to the development of disordered eating and a dysfunctional relationship with food and your body. 

Diet culture is the societal value of thinness, and it equates health with being thin. That means that diet culture promotes dieting (whole 30, keto, paleo, cleanses, IF, etc), clean eating, excessive and/or obsessive exercise, and basically any other behavior that is designed to encourage weight loss or a more fit physique. It teaches that as long as you are thin, you are healthy. It privileges those in small bodies and shames those who are not. 

Making the assumption that being in a thin body equals health ignores all of the factors that we know have much greater bearing on your health; factors such as access to healthcare, history of trauma, oppression, and social isolation, etc. For more on the social determinants of health read this previous blog

Diet culture also tells you that striving towards thinness gives you moral character. What I mean by that, is diet culture judges you based on whether or not you are working towards being more fit or not. If you are, then diet culture says you are good, acceptable, and worthy. If you are not, it says you are bad, lazy, and unrestrained. This is complete BS. You are worthy now, just as you are. 

It also places moral labels on certain foods calling them “superfoods” or “clean” as well as “junk” or “cheat” foods. Suffice it to say, all of these words are entirely made up by diet culture.

Diet culture completely ignores privilege and health disparity.  It assumes that everyone has equal access to a wide variety of foods that are organic and “clean.” It assumes that everyone has equal access to gym memberships and yoga studios. This is simply not true. There are many societal disparities such as economic status, race, and ability that limit the access one may have to food and/or gym memberships. 

Diet culture is a political sedative. It is a system of oppression because it oppresses all bodies by labeling them as problems to be fixed. Even if you do fit into the “thin ideal” (more on this later), diet culture is unrelenting in finding new ways to oppress your physical form. It upholds white supremacy (overt and covert – see picture below) because it keeps everyone in your hierarchical place. When you are completely distracted with trying to be more fit or fit into a certain size, you cannot also be engaged in changing the systems of oppression that exist in our world! It keeps you distracted, immobilized, and maintaining the status quo. 

(Source:  Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence  (2005) “Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive & Antiracist Organization-Tools for Liberation Packet for Anti-Racist Activists, Allies, & Critical Thinkers”)

(Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005) “Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive & Antiracist Organization-Tools for Liberation Packet for Anti-Racist Activists, Allies, & Critical Thinkers”)

Diet culture is insidious, it is subliminal, and while it tries to convince you that you are not good enough, it distracts you from being able to lead a life that is in line with what actually matters to you. 

My challenge to you is to start to notice diet culture and it’s subliminal messages – in advertising, in conversations with friends and family, and in the rules you may follow in your relationship with food and/or movement. We must see the oppression for what it is, before we can fight to change it.