Challenging dysfunctional dieting and diet culture

Submitted by Belinda from Talk ED

Diet culture has been in our society for millennia and can even be traced back to as early as ancient Greek society, where the regulation and moderation of food intake was considered virtuous*. Although beauty standards have changed over the years, with some time periods and cultures celebrating fuller and rounder bodies as the most beautiful and healthful, today’s society could be described as being at the tail-end of a very ‘fatphobic’ and ‘thincentric’ era. We are also now exposed to images depicting the current beauty standards on a larger scale than ever before, not only viewing them on TV and billboards, but also on our phones, tablets and other devices. Add to this the fashionable notion that losing weight always has an association with improved health (this will be debunked below), and we have a perfect storm for the billion pound diet industry capitalising on people feeling negatively about themselves and their bodies.

Diets are often disguised using other names, for example juice cleansing, intermittent fasting, clean eating, or detoxes. This is not to say that drinking juices, allowing time between meals for proper digestion and eating nutritious foods are not positive actions. However, if they are done with the intention of rapid weight loss through restriction of food, they may fall into the same pitfalls of other diets. 

But do diets work? Scientific research comes up with an overwhelming ‘no’ and what’s more, dieting behaviour can be closely associated with the development of eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association statistics show that 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight within 5 years, plus in many cases, the diets result in greater weight gain and increased rates of binge-eating in both boys and girls. Shisslak et al. (1995) also conclude that 35% of ‘normal dieters’ progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders**.

TV programmes, online blogs and printed press will often tell us that weight loss is associated with better health outcomes, but is this always true? More recent research into the science of weight loss and weight gain gives us a different picture. It tells us that everyone has a ‘set point’ or a weight range where our bodies feel most comfortable and work at their best, resulting in optimal physical and mental health. These set points are often determined by factors out of our control, like genetics and our environment. If we take actions to manipulate this set point by forcing our bodies to lose weight through calorie restriction and/or over exercising, our bodies may become out of harmony, causing suboptimal physical and mental health. There are non restrictive measures we can take however, to make sure our set point is working at its best. Many areas relating to our health are now being conducted using an individualised approach instead of an outdated ‘one size fits all’ approach. This concept can be transferred to our weight too, where in literal terms, one size does not fit the wellbeing of all people, even if the modern beauty standards and health industry dictate otherwise. 

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that you are more than just your body, your body shape, your body type or the number on a scale. You have qualities, talents, skills and contributions to the people and world around you that hold great importance; arguably much more importance than your physical presentation.

Our tips to reject diet culture:

  • Treat food and exercise as a form of self care, rather than a tool to change the form of your body.
  • Try not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  • Think about changing your mindset away from having to ‘earn’ your food through exercise.
  • Avoid social media channels and TV programmes that revolve around weight loss or the ‘thin ideal’.
  • Make a list of all your positive attributes, qualities, abilities and talents that have nothing to do with your physique. Refer to these if and when you feel negatively towards your body shape or size.
  • Read books about self acceptance and self compassion. We recommend The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown and Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to yourself by Kristin Neff.
  • Seek support through our support services.

Further resources:
“Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon

*Yanis, T (2009), ‘The historical origins of the basic concepts of health promotion and education: the role of ancient Greek philosophy and medicine’, Health Promotion International, 24(2), pp.185-192. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dap006
**Shisslak, C. M., Crago, M., & Estes, L. S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(3), 209-219

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