In your intuitive eating journey, you must start to reject diet culture. While the “reject the diet mentality” principle of intuitive eating broadly explains what that means, it’s not super specific. The truth is, toxic diet culture is everywhere — and it’s about more than just food. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into what diet culture is, where (and why) it exists, and what you can do to reject it.
(And psst…if you need a little extra help ditching diet culture and disordered eating behaviors, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment. We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
What is diet culture?
No doubt you’ve heard the term before, but you may not have a great understanding of what it means. Yes, it includes the culture of dieting. But in truth, it’s so much more than that.
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.
Notice that it’s not just about dieting. It encompasses so much more than that. Oppressive body and beauty standards. The promotion of weight loss at all costs. The moral value of food (the idea that there’s “good” and “bad” food, or a “right” and “wrong” way to eat). And discrimination of anyone whose body doesn’t fit the narrow “ideal.”
Examples of diet culture
The extreme panic about pandemic weight gain. And, all of the companies capitalizing on it my trying to sell you weight loss product.
Diets like Noom that claim to be about wellness and being your best self, when they’re really just about weight loss.
People saying things like, “you’ve lost weight — you look great!” (The implication being that thinner is better.)
Groups of people, particularly those socialized as women, constantly talking about dieting and changing their bodies.
Magazines, TV, and movies featuring thin, able-bodied, cisgender people almost exclusively. It’s extremely alienating and oppressive.
Someone assuming that only thin people have eating disorders.
Instagram influencers (and regular users!) always photoshopping or carefully planning their photos, so that they fit a certain “ideal.”
The world applauding when a thin woman talks about “body positivity” when it comes to accepting her cellulite/birth scars/stomach rolls. And at the same time, rejecting fat people who talk about true body positivity and fat acceptance, claiming (incorrectly) that they’re “promoting bad health.”
Assuming that you know how healthy or happy someone is just by looking at them.
The first principle of intuitive eating is: Reject the Diet Mentality
In their groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating, dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole break things down into 10 principles. The very first one? Reject the diet mentality. Here’s how Resch and Tribole explain this principle:
Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at diet culture that promotes weight loss and the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet or food plan might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
That last sentence is particularly important. It’s so true that if you’re still holding out hope that someday you’ll lose weight, you’ll never truly be an intuitive eater.
Why? Because a part of you will always be trying to eat a bit less than you truly want. You’ll never really get rid of the food police in your head. They’ll linger, telling you to choose certain foods over others in the name of weight loss. This means you’ll never truly be able to listen to your body. You won’t find food freedom, because you’ll still be eating according to food rules. You won’t heal your relationship with food, because you won’t have unconditional permission to eat.
Rejecting the diet mentality is essential, because it’s the only way to truly listen to your body.
Why is diet culture so toxic?
While diet culture pretends to be about wellbeing, it really just sets impossible standards and causes harm. Let’s dig into some research that proves this.
A 2013 survey of nearly 3,000 Taiwanese high school students found that exposure to the “thin ideal” in the media significantly increased body dissatisfaction. And, both media pressure and body dissatisfaction contributed to disordered eating and dieting.
A 2018 review on the health effects of weight stigma looked at data from 33 existing studies. (Weight stigma means discrimination against people in larger bodies. It shows up everywhere and is a huge part of diet culture. Weight stigma is the reason we’re so obsessed with thinness.) The researchers found that experiencing weight stigma increased a person’s risk of diabetes, depression, and anxiety. It also increased oxidative stress levels, chronic inflammation, and rates of disordered eating. And, it worsened body image and self-esteem.
In a 2008 survey, three out of four women reported engaging in at least one type of disordered eating behavior regularly. And, one in ten women reported symptoms consistent with a clinical eating disorder.
A 2020 review of existing evidence concluded that “dieting may carry more risks than benefits as a means to lose weight.” Looking at the data, researchers found that diets very rarely lead to long-term weight loss, and often lead to weight gain. Dieting may also lead to developing an eating disorder, and other negative health effects.
A 2017 study of over 40,000 French adults found that adults who dieted ate less nutritious diets than adults who ate intuitively. Once again, dieting backfired.
A 2020 review of 121 existing studies found that while most popular diet programs lead to weight loss and improved health markers after 6 months, almost all participants regained the weight within a year.
Most mainstream clothing brands don’t sell above a size 12. But according to a 2016 study, the average American woman wears a size 16.
All of these studies, and so many others, prove how toxic diet culture really is. The “thin ideal” hurts us all, physically and mentally. Weight stigma has serious consequences, particularly for people in fat bodies. Diets don’t work, and they actually cause harm. Disordered eating is rampant. Our culture continues to tell us that being thin is better and “normal,” even when it’s not.
Why diets don’t work
When you think about ditching diet culture, the first thing that likely comes to mind is ditching your diet. And yes, that’s important. (Although there’s so much more to it than that.)
First, you have to understand why diets don’t work. Approximately 95% of diets fail long-term. Many actually lead to weight gain, not weight loss. (More on that here.) And it’s not for lack of willpower. Ultimately, dieting puts you in the binge-restrict cycle, because restriction typically leads to food obsession and then bingeing. But also, dieting literally rewires your body. When you diet, your body starts to burn less energy and fat. Your levels of hunger hormone increase, and your levels of fullness hormone decrease.
How to quit dieting
Understanding that diets don’t work is one thing. Actually quitting your diet is another story. (If you’re interested, my free 5-Day Intuitive Eating Course is a great starter guide!)
In my nutrition counseling work with clients, I find that the first step towards breaking free from diets is to honor your hunger. Most people with a history of dieting are pretty awful at eating when they’re hungry. Just figuring out what hunger feels like in your body can be tricky when you’ve been denying it for so long.
So, if you’re hoping to become an intuitive eater, start by paying attention to how your body feels when it’s hungry. Are you lightheaded? Tired? Irritable? Do you have a growling stomach? Or is it more of an empty stomach feeling? Once you’ve figured out the various ways you feel hunger, commit to honoring your hunger with food. When you feel hungry, eat something.
Then, you can move onto other aspects of intuitive eating, like challenging the food police and discovering the satisfaction factor. (I wrote more about challenging the food police and discovering the satisfaction factor here.) This means honoring your cravings and letting go of the idea that some foods are good while others are bad.
How to escape the “wellness diet”
Harrison includes what she calls the “wellness diet” in her definition of diet culture. That is, anything that claims not to be a diet but is ultimately geared towards losing weight, looking “better”, or feeling superior because of how you eat.
“Clean eating” is an example of the wellness diet. Sure, you might not think you’re dieting — “it’s a lifestyle!” — but you’re still eating based on food rules. Macro tracking is another example — sure, nothing is off-limits, but you still can’t eat whatever you want. There are also even more insidious examples of the wellness diet, like cutting back on sugar/carbs/saturated fats/whatever. Or, vowing to only eat whole foods. Avoiding gluten or dairy when it’s not medically necessary due to an allergy or diagnosed intolerance. All of these are just diets in disguise.
Expensive foods and supplements fall into this category, too. While it’s fine to purchase expensive products if you want to, it’s important to see through bogus marketing claims. For example, I reviewed GEM Vitamins, which cost $5.50 per day and sell themselves as “food as medicine.” It turns out, they taste awful and they’re not nearly as vitamin-rich as a regular old multivitamin. Fancy, aspirational branding is often all these companies really offer.
If you’ve fallen prey to the wellness diet in any form, you first need to recognize it for what it is. Realize that you are restricting yourself. Then, refer back to the previous “how to quit dieting” section and follow the steps towards intuitive eating.
How to get rid of diet culture on your social media feeds
You might not be able to control what comes up in your “Discover” feed, or the ads that you see. But you can control who you follow. When you’re scrolling through your social feeds, take note of how various posts make you feel. Do a specific person’s posts make you feel bad about your body? Unfollow them. Does it make you feel less-than to see someone else’s perfectly photographed food all the time? Unfollow them.
It’s up to you to decide which posts and people are triggering, and which aren’t. Even people who post about intuitive eating and body acceptance might make you feel bad about yourself. (Particularly if they’re always posting photos of their own thin, conventionally attractive body. I wrote more here about the problem with so many intuitive eating dietitians on Instagram.)
Don’t be shy about unfollowing people (or muting them, if you know them IRL and don’t feel comfortable unfollowing them). Remember that these are YOUR social feeds, and no one has a right to be on them if you don’t want them there.
Ads are much harder to get rid of. Still, I recommend reporting any ads that make you feel triggered, even if just to say that you don’t want to see ads like that anymore. And the Discover feed? Your best bet is to just stay away from it.
How to respond to diet talk in real life
Filtering your social media feed is one thing, but keeping diet culture out of your IRL experiences is another. Just because you’ve realized that dieting and the pursuit of weight loss are toxic, doesn’t mean that your friends, family, and acquaintances have. And it’s not up to you to change their minds.
It’s fine to share your thoughts on diet culture with others, but don’t assume that they’ll agree with you. If they want to continue dieting, that’s completely their choice.
What you can do is set boundaries, redirect conversations about food and dieting, or just step away. I wrote much more about how to respond to diet talk here. A quick summary:
When someone brings up something diet culture-related in conversation and you don’t want to talk about it, use “I” statements to redirect.
“I’m really trying to heal my body image and my relationship with food. Could we talk about something else?”
“I find that I feel much better when I don’t restrict my eating.”
“You know, I used to diet, but I realized that it only led to food obsession. I’m trying to eat more intuitively, and it’s actually made me feel much better.”
“I’d rather not talk about food and weight.”
Make it about you, not about them. If it doesn’t work? You can leave the conversation. Or, if it’s someone you feel comfortable with, you can have a longer conversation about why you don’t want to talk about these things, and set a clear boundary.
How to navigate diet culture and weight stigma at the doctor’s office
Unfortunately, doctors and other providers are just as entrenched in diet culture as the rest of us. Weight stigma in healthcare is a huge problem.
A 2012 article found that doctors and nurses have much more anti-fat bias than the general public.
A 2015 review found that this bias leads to lower-quality care and worse health outcomes for people in larger bodies.
Given this information, it’s no surprise that a 2018 review found higher-weight patients more likely to avoid doctors than lower-weight patients.
If you feel comfortable, tell your doctor or nurse that you don’t want to be weighed. I recommend this for most people (and do it myself) because it takes so much anxiety out of a standard doctor’s visit. If there’s a legitimate medical reason for needing your weight (like dosing a medication) ask to be weighed blindly. That means that they’ll take your weight but won’t share it with you.
It’s not just about being weighed, though. Many fat people say that doctors recommend weight loss as a solution no matter what their problem is. Many also say that their doctors don’t take their complaints (or them) seriously because of how they look. If you like your doctor, try having a conversation with them. Tell them how frustrated you are about their fixation on your weight. Share how much pain dieting has caused you in the past. Ask them to treat you the way they would a thin patient. (Not recommending weight loss, addressing your specific complaints.)
If you don’t like your provider, find anew one. Ask around to see if there are any HAES doctors in your area. If not, get recommendations for a compassionate doctor from people you trust.
How to escape diet culture in fitness
The truth? Most fitness classes, programs, gyms, and trainers are extremely weight and body focused. It’s hard to go into a standard fitness class and not hear the instructor say something like, “let’s burn those calories!” or “let’s work extra hard to burn off all the food we’ll eat this weekend!”
At the gym, there are personal trainers who will try to sell you their services as a way to lose weight. Download a popular fitness app or streaming service, and you can’t escape the comments about “toning” and looking “beach-ready.”
If you’re just starting on your journey to reject diet culture, you might want to avoid traditional fitness for a while. Go for walks or runs (if that feels good) or try a yoga class filled with people of all sizes.
If you love the gym or group fitness, try to find weight-inclusive or body-positive studios/gyms in your area. (There’s one, Current Wellness, right in my Raleigh neighborhood!) Or, find a weight inclusive fitness subscription service, like The Underbelly or Leavell Up Fitness.
And if a trainer or instructor does encourage weight loss or dieting? Tell them to stop. They shouldn’t be saying those things to you without your consent.
Build yourself an anti-diet community, online or IRL
Probably the most important step in rejecting diet culture is to connect with others on the same journey. If there are people in your life who are weight-inclusive and anti-diet, talk to them about it! They’d probably love someone to connect with, as well.
But if there’s no one like that around you (and even if there is!), go online. Follow body-positive influencers of all shapes, sizes, gender identities, and backgrounds. Read books about intuitive eating, fat acceptance, and self-compassion. Join online groups filled with people who are also rejecting diet culture. Should you live your whole life online? No. But it’s certainly helpful to have this support.
Ultimately, escaping diet culture takes time
You didn’t arrive in diet culture yesterday — you’ve been living in it your whole life. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll immediately break free from dieting and the pursuit of weight loss.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Everything we’ve talked about will help you along in the process. You don’t need to implement it all at once. In fact, you might find it easiest to tackle just one thing at a time (or maybe not!). But know that if you do the work, your mindset will start to shift. Eventually, your whole outlook on life will follow.
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.