Clare Marie Schneider
If you’ve made a resolution to lose weight or “get fit” this year, you’re in a very big boat.
In 2021, half of all New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. were based on fitness and nearly half were based on weight loss. We spend over $30 billion on diet products annually and an estimated 45 million Americans diet every year. I (Andee) know I have, and if you’re reading this, maybe you have, too.
There are an endless number of reasons why you might want to change your body — that holiday weight, your dating profile, medical issues, your new bathing suit — but the real culprit is usually diet culture.
Diet culture is that collective set of social expectations “telling us that there’s one way to be and one way to look and one way to eat and that we are a better person, we’re a more worthy person if our bodies are a certain way,” says UK-based body image researcher Nadia Craddock.
And, it’s a shape-shifter: You might think you’re not subscribing to diet culture, but rather are focusing on your health or fitness.
“It’s just a rebranding,” says Craddock. These days, she says, the diet industry has adapted its messaging to be less blatantly about appearance and more about the in vogue ideals of health and wellness. “But there’s still that very common error of equating health and thinness as one in the same,” she says.
It’s true. Despite all of the medical and media messaging shouting otherwise, thinness and health are not the same, and fatness does not necessarily equate to being unhealthy.
The good news is there’s plenty you and I can do, regardless of age or gender or body type, to start freeing ourselves from this actively harmful mindset. Read on to learn why and how to start divesting from diet culture or listen to the episode linked at the top of the page.
For decades now, medical professionals have used the body mass index as a go-to measure for health, and you’ve likely heard many times that a high BMI can lead to disease and death. But history tells us a different story.
The body mass index was created by a 19th century Belgian statistician named Adolphe Quetelet. It was built as a tool to assess weight distribution across populations and was based on his idea of “the ideal man,” using a small sampling of the size and measurements of white, male Scottish and French soldiers. Eugenics was later built on Quetelet’s “ideal man” model.
Then in the 1970s, a number of prominent American doctors — tired of insurance companies setting arbitrary weight and mortality standards for insurance payments — adopted and rebranded Quetelet’s index.
But the BMI was never meant to measure individual health and, again, was based purely on studies of white men.
“There’s no evidence that these studies were representative in terms of race, age, gender, any of the things that can lead to differences in outcomes,” says Sabrina Strings, author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.
Yet despite its many flaws, the BMI is our go-to measure of health for all genders and body types. And, Strings says, many still struggle to write off the BMI because of how often it’s invoked to prove that fatness leads to illness.
But “correlation is not causation,” she says, and points to current research showing that people can be healthy at any size as long as they have the resources to do so.
“Access to fruits and vegetables, access to lean proteins, living in walkable neighborhoods,” Strings says. “All of these things are so important to our health outcomes. And yet, instead of looking at these factors, people want to focus just on the weight.”
One way to protect yourself here? Our experts say you have the right to say no to getting weighed at the doctor’s office. If your doctor gives you a weight-based recommendation, don’t be afraid to advocate yourself or ask what advice they might have for someone at a different BMI.
Moving your body and eating nutrient-rich food are always a good idea, but it’s important to understand how much we’re motivated by our culturally accepted aesthetics. Diet culture purports that every fat person is a thin person waiting to be released and that we should fear fatness.
But “you are not afraid of being fat. You are afraid of being treated like a fat person,” says Virgie Tovar, a San Francisco-based author and public speaker whose work centers on ending weight-based discrimination.
Tovar says fatphobia is harmful fiction, and she speaks from personal experience. Growing up as a fat person, she experienced constant verbal and emotional fatphobic abuse in school — messaging she internalized for years until she met a group of fat activists while in grad school.
“And they basically told me you have the right to exist exactly as you are,” Tovar says. “You have the right to be fat.”
In a society where thinness equals beauty, this can sound like a really subversive idea. But it’s not universally so.
Tovar points to the hundreds of years-long practice of foot binding in China, and to modern-day communities in Mauritania in which fatness is considered the height of beauty — so much so, parents hire fattening consultants and girls take pills that are used to make livestock bigger.
“The takeaway for me was that no matter what the beauty standard is, women will die to achieve it in a culture where they are taught that their worth and their access to love and humanity is based on that beauty,” Tovar says.
We’re all susceptible to the social norms that shape our perceptions of what’s desirable. So, that need to work 100 crunches into your morning routine or that guilt you feel when you pick the chocolate shake over the kale smoothie? It’s probably not about health, it’s about American diet culture telling you again and again that if you want to fit in, you have to be thin.
And this is true of our health perspectives, too, says Bay Area-based psychologist Sand Chang.
“A cousin of diet culture is healthism, which is this idea that we have to be healthy. There is a moral imperative. There’s a lot of judgment that comes with it,” says Chang. “And that weight stigma has actually been determined to have a greater impact on the health problem that fat people experience than their weight itself.”
In addition to causing perhaps more obvious conditions like anxiety and depression, studies show that experiences of or expectations for poor treatment due to weight stigma may cause stress and avoidance of care for things like sexual health, cancer screenings or other preventative care. That is diet culture at work.
So, the next time you look in the mirror and feel dissatisfied that you’re not pretty or thin enough, maybe ask yourself: Says who?
Tovar says it’s important to examine our fatphobia on three levels.
The first is the intrapersonal level: Think about how diet culture makes you feel about yourself when you look in the mirror or when you’re scrolling social media.
Diet culture messaging can be seen in before-and-after transformation photos, says Craddock, or in all the posts talking about food as though it’s “somehow virtuous.”
So if your feed is making you feel bad about your body, Chang says it’s time to check in with yourself, and offered a few starter questions:
The second level is the interpersonal level: how other people treat us. To spot diet culture in this realm, Chang says listen for value judgments of food or bodies.
That could look like judgment at the gym, being lauded for avoiding some “guilty pleasure” dessert or that storyline on TV when the hero loses weight and suddenly gains popularity and acceptance.
The third level is institutional fatphobia, or “the ease in which you can or cannot navigate society” because of your looks, says Tovar.
Weight discrimination is legal in 49 of 50 states and is commonplace from education to health care to the workplace, says Craddock.
Diet culture creates barriers to access for fat people everywhere. For example, you might consider basic accommodations like chairs or doorways or seat belts as value neutral, but that only shows us how much diet culture has influenced the design of our world.
Have you ever been on the giving or receiving end of a “Hey, you look great! Have you lost weight?”
At face value, this might sound like a positive thing, but this question is yet another reinforcement of the idea that thinner is better, says Craddock.
Commenting on another person’s body can be a dangerous game — you never know what someone is going through in their life or with their health — so avoid body talk as best you can, she says.
If you want to compliment someone, “it’s always nice to focus on something that a person has done intentionally,” Craddock says.
Love those new earrings! Awesome PowerPoint presentation! Your garden is thriving!
Another option is to practice what Tovar calls “the sacred silence,” or saying nothing at all. “You don’t have to learn to talk about bodies in an amazing, positive way, says Tovar. Instead, you can just “opt out” of body talk altogether — and that applies to how other people talk to you, as well.
“Especially in communities of color, I know that it’s very taboo to tell your aunt or somebody who’s older than you, ‘You don’t get to talk about me like that,’ ” says Tovar, “But I think it’s really important work.”
If you know you’re headed into a potentially thorny or uncomfortable situation — prepare! Tovar encourages people to write scripts ahead of time, and lean into their authentic voice.
Use humor to diffuse diet talk, arm yourself with data or maybe just find your own best and kindest version of “hey man, cut it out!”
“Diet culture is high drama of the highest order,” says Tovar. “It takes the simplest, most obvious intuitive act of eating, and it turns it into a high-stakes thriller everyday of your life.”
When we turn off diet culture, food is just food and eating is no longer a soap opera. Intuitive eating is the practice that can get you there, says registered dietitian Ayana Habtemariam.
“Our bodies are wired to know how to eat and to know how to respond to our needs,” says Habtemariam, “So that’s what intuitive eating is. It’s just learning to trust our bodies. It’s prioritizing body knowledge over the external rules like calorie counting and portion sizes and all those things.”
We have a whole episode that gets into the details of intuitive eating, but here’s the big picture: We’ve all got an antenna that tunes into our body’s hunger messages, but diet culture blocks that signal and makes it difficult to know what we need.
Repairing that wiring starts with making sure you have access to food – and that’s not a given for everyone. Food insecurity, which impacted a projected 42 million people in 2021 and has only gotten worse with the pandemic, makes it hard to listen to your body. If you’re struggling, this is not the time to beat yourself up for not being “healthy enough.”
If you do have secure access to food, from there, it’s all about ditching diet rules, honoring your hunger and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. That might sound like a recipe for overindulgence, but Habtemariam says your body will eventually recalibrate.
When you’re not honoring your hunger, Habtemariam says your body can overcorrect. “It causes us to be preoccupied with food and think about food all day long.”
While this methodology might seem simple, intuitive eating can be a really hard process for some, especially if you’ve struggled with disordered eating. That’s OK, and there are plenty of resources available — from workbooks and support groups to body-positive nutritionists like Habtermariam or culturally sensitive, gender-affirming therapists like Chang — that can help you through.
Be honest: Would you treat your bestie the way you currently treat your body? Would you ever tell your good friend they weren’t good enough for not looking like a model or get angry at them if they got tired and couldn’t finish a morning run?
Chang says a positive relationship with your body requires the same amount of work as any other relationship in your life: Take time to listen, pay attention to its needs and provide it with compassion.
Prioritize rest and listen to your body’s cues, says Chang – whether that’s ‘I’m craving something sweet’ or ‘I think I’ve had enough food.”
Another way to make nice is to remember all the ways your body shows up for you, says Tovar.
Think about it: Right now, your lungs are taking in oxygen and converting it to carbon dioxide. Your heart is pumping 5 liters of blood around your body every minute!
A bonus benefit? Disengaging from diet culture and reconnecting with your body will likely result in a lot more free time and mental space.
Let’s say you spend just five minutes a day worrying about food or your body or your weight (and, living in the U.S., that’s probably a conservative estimate) – that’s 30 full hours a year dedicated to self-hatred.
Instead, say our experts, do anything else.
“So many people will be freer and have more time and energy and money to invest in things that maybe really give them more joy and satisfaction,” says Craddock.
Because in the absence of diet culture, lies freedom.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Patrick Murray.
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