Diet Culture – Why It’s Harmful and What’s the Alternative

Diet Culture – Why It’s Harmful and What’s the Alternative

“New Year, New Me” – the slogan that’s almost inescapable in January often accompanies weight-loss resolutions. Did you know losing weight is one of the most common resolutions people set around this time? But did you also know it is the one that gets abandoned quickest?

According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2018, obesity prevalence in the US increased from 30.5% to 42.4%. So, clearly, something needs to change in our lifestyle. However, the problem is not the weight loss goal in itself.

One problem is that we are impatient; we want to see results right now. Yesterday, if possible. When it’s already been one week, and the results are not what we’d hoped for, we begin to lose motivation. Healthy weight loss takes time, but we’ll talk more about that later.

Another problem is that the way we’re going about weight loss is doing more damage than good. We choose fad diets that cut out entire food groups, leaving us feeling depleted and constantly hungry. Not good.

Weight loss is sometimes necessary and definitely possible, but not every approach will set you up for success. Mindset is just as important as the diet you choose. So, let’s take a look at diet culture, the good and the bad, and how to set yourself up for success.

So what is the diet culture?

There is no standard definition of the term “diet culture.” But, simply put, it is a set of beliefs that being thin should be everyone’s goal and that thin equals healthy. It puts physical appearance above other health markers, including, but not limited to, mental health.

It has led to a very real and problematic weight stigma. Even without realizing it, we’re quick to diagnose anyone who is “fat” as unhealthy. All of this has allowed the popularity of fad diets to rise.

Liquid diets, non-stop detox diets, and demonizing things like carbs or fats are a few examples of ways to set yourself up for failure. You may lose a few pounds temporarily, but you’ll gain them all back pretty quickly as those are not healthy or sustainable diets.

In the past few years, weight loss has become an entire industry. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve seen at least one ad for a miraculous diet or workout problem. Their promises are very similar: they’ll help you melt the pounds and get into shape in just a few weeks. A few weeks.

How long has it taken you to gain weight? Does it really sound healthy to sign up for something that promises (and delivers) on such a quick drop in pounds?

Like fad diets, they’re usually only successful for a short period. After that, you’ll most likely be back to square one.

Why diets don’t work

Okay, you get the idea. Diets don’t work; at least not long-term. You may lose or maintain weight while you’re on them, but the pounds start adding back up as soon as your diet is done. And before you know it, you’re back to square one yet again.

Diets and disordered eating

The risks of fad diets go beyond weight loss and weight gain. Because they don't focus on nutrition or true health, they pave the way for disordered eating.

Let's take a look at the science.

Eating too few calories day after day depletes your body of energy and essential nutrients. It may also lower your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight and easier to gain weight. Several studies show severe calorie restriction can lower the number of calories your body burns by as much as 23%!

When you keep your body in this state long enough for your metabolism to lower, you’re putting yourself at risk of developing an eating disorder down the road. That's because, sooner or later, you stop losing weight. You hit a plateau.

When that happens, the vast majority get divided into two categories: those who give up and those who cut more calories. Cutting more could eventually turn your diet into an eating disorder.

Diets and overall health

Strict diets that don't focus on health can do damage in other ways as well. For instance, studies show that prolonged calorie restriction can weaken the immune system. This is especially true when diet goes hand in hand with intense exercise.

Strict diets can also weaken your bones and even impact fertility. Calorie restriction can reduce estrogen and testosterone levels, usually affecting women first as they may notice their periods becoming irregular.

When combined with intense exercise, you may also experience increased stress hormones and can also weaken your bones. In time, this could lead to bone loss.

How to set yourself up for success

You’re probably wondering if restrictive diets are a ‘no,’ how exactly are you supposed to succeed in your weight loss journey? It’s actually not that hard, but it does require some patience.

Also, remember that with dieting and exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Whether a diet worked for your mom, sister, BFF, or 100 influencers doesn't matter. There is no guarantee it will work for you.

Start with small changes

Take a look at your diet at the moment. What is one thing you could change to make it a little healthier?

Let's say you enjoy snacking on potato chips. Could you maybe replace the chips with some type of nuts at least a few days a week? Or maybe you enjoy eating something sweet as a snack. Could you replace it with fruit or some dark chocolate?

[Will they taste the exact same? No, probably not. The point is that you try and add in some healthy alternatives so when you do have that chip craving, you can actually enjoy them and not feel guilty.]

Another way to limit temptation is to hide your junk food. You don't have to throw it all away and swear you'll never touch it again. That's the type of resolution that doesn't last more than a few weeks or less. Simply put it out of sight, on a higher shelf, or somewhere you don't look often. You could also buy smaller amounts of your go-to junk foods.

Shift your focus

Often, when we want to lose weight, we focus on things we need to cut. What if, instead, you'd focus on what you're adding?

Let's look back at the example above. What if you didn't think you had to cut out the potato chips, but instead focused on adding more nuts? Or – you're not cutting out dessert; you're adding more fruits.

Also, shift the focus from getting a "new body" or "looking good" to getting healthy and feeling good. In other words, make this experience something positive. It shouldn't be a restrictive experience where you hate life and spend each minute thinking of the next “cheat day.”

Prepare your meals

Meal prep is an often neglected yet crucial part of success when trying to live a healthier lifestyle.

Most of us work long hours, and before you know it, you're so hungry you could eat the entire fridge. Very few of us have the willpower to make healthy choices at this point.

But what if your meal was already prepped? You'd just take it out of the fridge, heat it if needed, and you've got your healthy meal ready to go. Or you keep a few healthier ready-made ingredients on hand, like canned beans or flavored rice packets. Those, combined with some already roasted veggies in the fridge, could make for a quick, healthy, satisfying meal.

Lifestyle, not diet

Diets (the ones you “go on”) are temporary. A lifestyle is something you can maintain for the rest of your life.

Or, just start using the other definition of a diet. When you “go on” a diet, you’re referring to the definition that involves restricting what you eat. When you talk about the foods you tend to eat on a regular basis, you’re simply referring to the way you eat (AKA, your diet).

Lifestyle changes may feel extremely complicated, especially when doing it alone. So try and get someone else involved, be it your friend, family, or roommate. You don't have to eat the same things or do the same workouts. You only need to provide support and accountability to each other.

Since food is not the only component of a healthy lifestyle, don't forget about exercise. No need for high-intensity training seven days a week. Walking, dancing, or yoga are just as valid. Remember, the key is to feel good!

Honor your hunger. Forget common diet instructions that tell you at what time to eat. Choose a more intuitive eating approach. When hungry, eat. Make sure you can tell the difference between real hunger and stress or boredom, though. If it's real hunger - eat!

Drop the guilt

By doing a few things like shifting your mindset and setting your environment up for success, you can drop the guilt of not attaining your weight loss goals and start enjoying food again. And yes, that includes “junk” food and “bad” food.

Referring to foods in these ways isn’t the best way to approach your relationship with food. Consider changing the words you use. If you look at what you eat as a way to provide energy and nourish your body (and soul), you can start to enjoy food again.

This one may seem harder (and take longer) to achieve, but it’s worth it.

The bottom line

Do you want to improve your look and health in the new year? Don't go on a diet! Instead, change your lifestyle by taking small, simple steps each day. Be patient and remember slow and steady wins the race. Aim to improve your lifestyle and be healthy and happy, and weight loss will likely follow.

Have you struggled with fad diets, seen the negative side of yo-yo dieting, or quickly fell off the wagon? Follow our Facebook page and let us know about your experiences with weight loss resolutions.

Health/Medical Disclaimer

This blog post does not provide health or medical advice. This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health or medical advice. Before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professionals. We do not provide any kind of health or medical advice. The use or reliance of any information contained on this blog is solely at your own risk.


24th Jan 2022 Written by Laura Vegh. Edited by Brandee Nichols, retired Registered Nurse.

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