Diet culture promotes dangerous relationship with food

Trendy diets reinforce a morality narrative around food that can lead to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.


Content Warning: This story discusses eating disorders, which may be upsetting to readers.

I can hardly scroll past my social media feed without seeing a popular influencer promoting a waist trainer or some tea that will magically make you lose weight. Almost every women’s magazine cover features the latest diet or fitness fad promising complete body transformation in the least amount of time possible. 

As soon as the weather becomes a bit warmer, every billboard, commercial and Instagram advertisement goes full force into making sure everyone is working toward their summer bodies. 

Too often, these pervasive messages lead people, especially women, to develop an eating disorder, according to Eating Disorder Hope, an organization providing information and resources about eating disorders.

Diet culture is everywhere, and it has significant negative effects on our relationship with food.

Diet culture conflates body size and physical health, which can promote negative stigma toward certain body sizes and lead to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Diet culture’s impact on our everyday life and our relationship with food is incredibly dangerous, and it is essential that we recognize diets that are neither physically nor mentally healthy.

“The fact that we have simultaneous fad diets that all conflict with each other really demonstrates that these are not the quick fix that people believe them to be,” said Amelia Lamb, a Philadelphia therapist and team leader at the Renfrew Center, a treatment center for individuals with eating disorders. 

“People may lose immediate water weight with an extreme diet, but it is also found that people will gain weight back, and usually gain more weight, when they stop,” Lamb said. 

Thirty-five percent of people participating in “normal diets” progress to dieting on a constant basis, and between 20-25 percent of those individuals develop eating disorders, according to Eating Disorder Hope.

Alex Diaz Morales, a junior art major, started developing disordered eating behaviors at 10 or 11 years old. Morales wishes she would have known it was perfectly healthy for her body to be changing, and that there was nothing wrong with the way she looked.

“It’s so normal to hear that someone is trying to lose weight, or bulk up, or alter their body in some sort of way and it’s never seen as a bad thing or even questioned and it is quite often praised,” Morales said. “Then there’s the popularity of products like waist trainers and Spanx, and of Atkins snacks, Lean Cuisine and low cal products in general.”

Instead, Lamb suggests intuitive eating, the practice of reading your body’s cues of hunger and fullness, and allowing yourself to enjoy a balanced variety of foods, she said. But Lamb recognizes the difficulty of this with the media that we consume.

“We are constantly bombarded with before-after images, targeted advertisements, and messages of what you should look like,” Lamb said.

Janie Egan, a mental well-being program coordinator at the Wellness Resource Center, said it can be beneficial to curate one’s social media feeds with positive messages to help foster their self-image.

“If folks are feeling like an account makes them feel badly about themselves, they can use settings to either hide the content or unfollow,” Egan said. “There is a lot of positive content out there that can help support joyful relationships with our bodies.” 

For instance, there are now many Instagram mental health advocates posting body positive messages every day, like Becca Ferry, Megan Jayne Crabbe and Sonalee Rashatwar. 

My favorite quote from Crabbe is, “You do not owe the world pretty. You do not owe the world thin. You do not owe the world thick. You do not owe the world a body worth sacrificing your mental health for.”

If you think that a friend is struggling, sharing your concerns and expressing that you are concerned for their well-being can be valuable, Egan said. She recommends using “I” statements expressing your feelings about the situation, which avoids labeling or diagnosing their behaviors.

Concerned friends can also provide information about support resources on campus, like Tuttleman Counseling Services, Student Health Services and the WRC.

We live in a diet culture that is constantly focused on perfecting your appearance, and companies profit off of our insecurities. 

We need to remember to cultivate our beauty, worthiness and inner peace, and we can do this by reframing the way we think about food and our bodies, learning to love ourselves and supporting those around us. 

Diet culture is unhealthy — physically and mentally — and to promote a healthy relationship with food, we need to recognize and call out diet culture when we see it.

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