Let’s face it, diet culture is everywhere. As the new year looms ahead, the latest trends in self-improvement fill commercials and news feeds. While I am all about continued growth throughout our lives, the bombardment of “new year, new you” campaigns anger me. I’m not buying it. And this year you shouldn’t either.
The lies of diet culture
In her book Antidiet- Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, Christy Harrison defines diet culture as
a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of ‘health.’
So what is the problem with diet culture?
Simply put- Diet Culture is not true.
And believing the lies of diet culture has some very dangerous side effects.
Harrison also describes diet culture as a sneak shapeshifter. It is often disguised as “health” and “wellness.” When we buy into diet culture, we allow it to steal the joy from our lives. It prevents us from being present with our loved ones. Diet culture steals a ridiculous amount of money every single year from well-intentioned people. It literally harms our bodies, it destroys our relationship with our bodies, and it damages our souls.
Rejecting diet culture
It can be hard to reject diet culture when it is all around you. My journey through recovery has demanded I learn a new way of examining what I see, hear, and read.
Instead of blindly accepting what I had been taught about food, bodies, and weight, I began to question it.
And boy what I learned surprised me! The more I dove into research, articles, and resources, the wider my eyes opened.
A brief science lesson…
I was trained in Science when I earned my master’s degree in Psychology. I understand the cornerstone to research: the scientific method. The basic idea of any research begins with a question. We call this “educated guess” a hypothesis. It may look something like this: “Wearing red shoes makes people jump higher.”
The next step in the research experiment is to test the hypothesis. Scientists form two groups- an experimental group and a control group. Participants in the study are randomly assigned to a group. An experimental variable is given the experimental group. In our example- they would be given red shoes and then the height of their jumps would be measured. The control group would wear any colored shoes except for red. In the end, scientists use statistics to determine if there was a signficant difference between the two groups and how high they jumped.
So many variables…
Correlation does not equal causation: this was one of the first things I was taught in graduate school. What does that mean? Let me explain.
Perhaps the researchers found that the participants in the red shoes actually did jump higher. But what if they were also taller, or younger, or more experienced in athletics? There are many variables that affect the results of any study. In studies, we try to control as many of these variables as possible.
But it is not possible to control every single variable. And even the act of the actual study changes the environment. It is actually NOT possible to prove a hypothesis in science. Instead, the goal of an experiment is to either support the hypothesis or disprove it. Confused? Read that last part again.
It is not actually possible to scientifically prove something. It is only possible to support a hypothesis or to disprove it.
But there are studies supporting diet culture…
Perhaps you have seen studies that “prove” weight gain “causes” poor health outcomes. Or the latest diet is shouting out the results of their most recent study.
Any time you are looking at research- consider the variables. Just because they found a result, does not mean it is a valid result.
As I said, variables affect results. Sample size is another one that many people typically do not consider when hearing about studies. If the study was only done on 25 people it is much less likely that the results can generalize to the population.
The length of the study is another important factor. Many studies that claim to support the effectiveness of diets only study the participants for 6 months after the diet. The problem with this- most valid solid research now suggests that 95-97% of people on diets gain back the same or more weight after 5 years.
Is it valid and reliable?
The goal of any study is to find results that are valid and reliable. Otherwise, its findings are irrelevant. A study is valid if it measures what it actually says it is going to measure. As explained above, this can be complicated by variables. A study is reliable if it can be repeated and the same results are obtained every time.
Be wary of “scientifically proven”
So the next time you hear about the latest “proven” diet, “proven” supplement, “proven” cleanse, or exercise that is “proven” to cause a certain result- don’t buy it.
How does all of this apply to diet culture?
Simply put- the research available on weight and health does not suggest that higher weight causes poor health outcomes. Recent studies also suggest it is actually the weight stigma that is linked with poor outcomes, and NOT the weight. Research also suggests that only outcomes that are likely from going on a diet are: an increase in weight and an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Woah.
Navigating through a cultured filled with diets and fatphobia
When I first learned that research does NOT support diets nor does it support the idea that increased weight causes poorer health outcomes, I felt duped. How was it possible that I fell for the lies? And why do so many people in the medical profession live by the lies of diet culture?
I wish there was a simple answer. The evolution of diet culture and fatphobia is complicated. It can not be summed up in one article. Racism, the patriarchy, and drug companies are just some of the factors that have influenced today’s culture and how it views bodies.
The good news is- there are many valuable resources available. I encourage you to educate yourself on the lies of diet culture. If you are anything like me, the more you learn, the more your mind will be blown open. It shocked me initially. Then it angered me. Ultimately I got really curious.
No longer willing to accept the lies I was fed, I educated myself with knowledge. I encourage you to do the same.
I already mentioned Christy Harrison’s book Anti-Diet. Another very helpful resource that is based on science is the book: Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor. Another very informative book that digs into the racist roots of diet culture is: Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings.
There are also many podcasts, articles, and social media pages dedicated to dismantling the lies of diet culture. Again, I encourage you to explore and educate yourself with an open mind.
So before you spend another penny on the latest trend in diet culture that sells you a lie that changing your body will change your life, make a choice to invest in YOURSELF.
Educate your mind with books. Invest in your own recovery. Learn to embrace your body as it was meant to be.
Spend your time, money, and energy on more fulfilling and soul-inspiring activities. I promise that will be more helpful than anything diet culture has to sell you this year.