What is the impact of diet culture on modern society and our ability to enjoy food?
In light of Weight Watcher’s latest attempt to induct our children into weight-loss culture, I figured there was no time like the present to discuss the impact of toxic diet culture.
As a society, we’re obsessed with looks. It’s all over social media and can go one of two ways; Body positivity or body shaming. Your Instagram feed can either empower you to give up on diet culture with influencers such as BodyPosipanda or it can send you tail spinning into comparison. Now, more than ever, we’re hyper-aware of the people around us, their successes and our own shortcomings.
With children as young as six being supplied with smartphones and social media access, toxic diet culture has another chance at revival.
Diets of various forms have been around for thousands of years, however, the modern diet era as we know it began in the early twentieth century. The word ‘diet’ simply refers to the food we consume in any shape or form. However, in recent centuries, it’s been coined to mean something ‘restrictive’ in a bid to lose weight.
The Tapeworm Diet was favoured in the 1900s due to its fast-acting results. However, as can be imagined, this was also alarmingly dangerous, especially in such a primitive time when sanitary conditions were at an all-time low. This was followed by a succession of questionable diets such as The Lucky Strike (cigarette) diet, various celebrity diets, the cabbage soup diet and eventually led to the modern Atkins Diet and other weight loss programs.
All of these have been fueled by societies need to strive for the perfect appearance. Although social media is only a fairly recent discovery, most diets have been endorsed by various celebrities who have an influence over a large portion of society.
Then we arrive in the current 21st century. Reported eating disorders are at an all-time high and children as young as 6 are beginning to pick up on the fact that they need to be perfect.
‘Yo-Yo dieting’, or weight fluctuation, triggers physical side effects such as the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and issues relating to blood pressure.
The mental health implications of diets and diet culture are even more alarming. Serial dieters have an increased risk of developing eating disorders such as binge eating, bulimia and, on occasion, anorexia nervosa. Due to the external influences on shape and weight, many dieters suffer from low self-esteem and confidence issues in regards to their body. Sadly, this can bleed into other areas of their lives and can contribute to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Almost everyone who goes on a diet will gain back the weight, plus a few extra pounds for good measure. In fact, a whooping 95% of dieters manage to gain back everything they’ve lost within the space of 1-5 years.
By definition of the word, a diet is meant to be a temporary measure and therefore won’t work long term. If you’re following a restrictive diet, chances are that it’s unmaintainable. Your body doesn’t want to starve, therefore it’ll compensate for your restrictive diet by slowing down the metabolism, making it even harder to shed the pounds. It can also lead to the dreaded ‘binge-restrict’ cycle, or it may lead to you falling back into old habits permanently, which in turn sees the pounds creeping back on in no time.
This isn’t new information, and in fact, it baffles me that people continue to try the newest ‘juice fast’ with the knowledge that once they begin to eat again that the weight will pile back on. But then again, I’m a recovering anorexic who also thought starving myself was an effective, and ‘safe’ way to reduce my BMI.
Fad diets, such as Atkins and juice fasts, can be very harmful. Some can lack basic, essential nutrients, and the majority teach nothing about the concept of healthy eating. So, when you finally are done with your diet you go right back to eating as you once did, which ultimately leads to gaining all the weight back.
Thus begins ‘yo-yo dieting’ which, as we have learned, causes a host of other issues.
When we diet the onus becomes completely food-focused. We’re constantly thinking about it, whether we realise it or not.
What should I eat for lunch?
How many calories must be in that?
What can I eat if I go out for dinner?
Oh no, I’ve overshot my calorie limit. I’m a failure.
Food becomes the first thing you think of when you get out of bed, and the last thing that crosses your mind as you go to sleep. It takes over every aspect of your life when we should be focusing on more important things like spending time with family.
With all the focus centered around food and calories, it becomes more difficult to manage. Calories should be nothing more than fuel to us. It shouldn’t cause such great distress.
When you stick to the plan and manage to lose X amount of pounds, you automatically feel better about yourself. If you happen to ‘cheat’ a little and gain even a fraction of an ounce, then all hell breaks loose.
Our weight and the food we put into our mouths can set us up for the whole day. If we step on our scales first thing in the morning and see a number we don’t like, then you can bet we’ll be walking around the office with a sour look. We might not even join you for drinks afterward because we’re punishing ourselves for a number that, ultimately, doesn’t matter.
Our self-worth, esteem, and confidence become completely dependant on the number staring at us from the scales. In reality, we’re far more than just that.
We should be measuring our self worth in the work we do, in the kindness, we express, in the words we exchange, in the loved ones we have; Not by our weight, shape, inches or size.
In a bid to further explore how diet culture has impacted people’s lives I asked a number of followers across various socials. The following are their own struggles with diet culture, and how it has impacted them.
“Diet culture is one of a couple of underlying causes for my own mental health struggles. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you’re not trying hard enough to lose weight when that’s exactly what society is telling you. It fed my depression by convincing me that my struggles with weight, and the inability to reach my desired goals were 110% due to my own personal weakness. Looking back, my goals were completely unattainable if I wanted to maintain a decent level of health.
I wasn’t thin enough because I wasn’t trying hard enough. Therefore, I felt like I wasn’t enough.
Even more heartbreaking for me is working with kids and teenagers, and seeing them struggle with their own weight at such a young age. It kills me to hear 8, 9, 10 year old girls talking about how they need to stick to their diet to lose weight. At that age they should just concentrate on being kids!”
“I don’t have any personal experience with diet culture. However, I did watch my Mom destroy her health with diet fads when I was growing up. She never really recovered from all the physical effects that it left her with.
“Diet culture prevented me for over ten years from discovering I had a serious medical issue. Diet and exercise weren’t working and i kept rapidly gaining weight. The doctors just kept telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough to lose weight. It’s left me obese with difficulties breathing. What I didn’t know was that I had PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), which was ultimately preventing me from losing weight no matter what I did.”
“A therapist dismissed my disordered eating habits when I was 16 as being ‘normal’ for teenage girls. They claimed it was nothing to worry about. By the time I was 18, I had a fully fledged eating disorder.
Although I don’t blame the therapist for dismissing the development of the eating disorder, the idea that teen girls being invested in diet culture is a ‘normal’ thing is so dangerous and needs to be stopped.”
“Dieting required so much effort. Trying to cut out carbs when everything had carbs in it was the stuff of nightmares. When I went out with my partner for dinner, it was easier to make that a cheat day because otherwise there was nothing I could eat.
It was all consuming, worrying about how many carbs and calories I was going to eat. Looking at a food menu at a cafe, bar, or restaurant was filled with thoughts about how many calories or carbs each dish had. I was even thinking about how many calories and carbs were in the drinks I was ordering as well. It was so tiring thinking about this every single time we went out to eat. Sucked the fun out of the experience.
I couldn’t take it anymore, dieting shouldn’t make you this unhappy. I was depressed not because of my mental health, but because of this diet.”
“I’ve always been a big girl, even as a chile. When I was a teenager my Mom made me try so many things. The Atkins, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, Alli Pills etc. My self esteem was okay back then, but now it’s horrible. I basically have none left! It has a very negative effect on me. I’ve never been comfortable with my body because of the numerous diets I’ve tried and ultimately failed.
Calorie counting was by far the worst. There was a time where I was trying to keep my calories under 800 a day! If I didn’t struggle so much with depression and overeating, I honestly believe there’s a large chanceI’d be living with an eating disorder right now.”
“I don’t remember when I was first exposed to it, but I do remember the magazines when I was a teenager, and the story of the model doing a chocolate advert who had to spit it out with every take. She was also given emetics by the producers and this was seen as a normal thing that was talked about in a teen magazine.
I also remember reading an interview with a leading female pop star of the time. Her morning routine would be an hour workout followed by her breakfast of 7 slices of cucumber and 2 tomatoes. Of course the outliers like myself adopted trying to copy the ideal in order to be more accepted, completely unaware of how dangerous it was.
Diet culture was ingrained in every part of the media we consumed and we had less access to celebs that they do now thanks to social media. We didn’t know if these stories were exaggerated but those were our role models, so we would copy them.
Ultimately, diet culture taught me to feel bad about myself. That I was too big for the world and I should be smaller and therefore invisible.
My Mom joined me on my first ever diet when I was 12 and even encouraged me. She was already telling me that she didn’t know why my sister and I were so fat.
Diet culture has poisoned the relationship I have with food and the relationship I have with myself. It’s unlikely that I would have developed an eating disorder without diet culture in play.”
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