“Diet culture” has made an increasing mark on society over the years.
While sometimes cloaked in the language of “wellness,” this system of beliefs and social expectations, in fact, revolves around the idea that there exists an “ideal” body type. And rather than achieving a healthier lifestyle at any shape or size, the goal of diet culture is achieving this idealized body type, regardless of a person’s natural physiology or health history.
Whether well hidden or directly addressed, this concept is not only pervasive but can be dangerous, spreading ideals and ideas that may promote disordered eating behaviors, as well as encourage low self-esteem, poor body image, and other factors that often lead to eating disorders.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is an umbrella term that refers to a number of different beliefs which revolve around the concepts of body weight, shape, and size. Often, these beliefs are tied to different methods for achieving an “ideal” body weight, shape, and size.
Almost always, diet culture promotes a thin body—or possibly a “fit” body—as the ideal type and will equate this body type with not just optimal health but moral virtue.
Most diets promoted by these beliefs focus heavily on how to lose weight and speak little, if at all, about the potential health consequences involved in essentially forcing the body to become a certain size.
Diet Culture Beliefs
Diet culture is typically very black and white. There are “correct” types of bodies and inferior types of bodies. There are also foods that are widely considered “good” and foods that are widely considered “bad.” This false dichotomy can involve certain foods, such as chocolate, or an entire food group, such as carbs.
Strenuous exercise is also often part of these weight-loss programs. Rather than focusing on the joys of moving the body, exercise is presented in diet culture as a means to “earn” a treat or “burn off” a certain number of calories.
Essentially, diet culture centers all aspects of self-worth around physical appearance in general and a specific body type in particular. This sets up the idea that all other body types—and the people occupying them—are, by extension, less than ideal.
This concept can easily be internalized, leading someone to believe they’re lazy, unworthy, or generally “lesser” if they don’t look a certain way. It can also lead someone to take extreme measures to lose weight, which can, unfortunately, sometimes lead to the development of eating disorder behaviors.
Negative Effects of Diet Culture
Diet culture does not promote a healthy relationship with food or exercise, and it can contribute to disordered eating, harmful thoughts and behaviors, and other mental health concerns.
Dieting, especially the restrictive dieting generally promoted by diet culture, can lead to unhelpful thought and behavioral patterns. In fact, dieting is often considered one of the most common forms of disordered eating. [3, 4]
It’s generally not healthy to cut out entire food groups or to eat only during limited hours of the day. This kind of unhealthy relationship with food can lead to yo-yo dieting or extreme weight swings, which are accompanied by their own set of health concerns, particularly around cardiovascular health. 
And when eating is no longer pleasurable but rather seen as the means to an end, people also may start to fixate on nutritional facts or eating habits. This is a driving factor in many eating disorders.
Diet Culture and Eating Disorders
The tenets of diet culture commonly propagate eating disorders, make eating disorder symptoms worse, or complicate recovery for those who have previously struggled with these mental health conditions. 
The perpetuation of an “ideal” body type, particularly one that is especially thin or fit, has been linked to worsening fatphobia and weight stigma.  This preoccupation with “fatness” and fear of being considered fat can manifest as fat shaming, or it can be internalized by people in bigger bodies, who may grow to believe they are the “wrong” shape or size.
Even those in smaller bodies may experience low self-worth when attempting to measure up to an “ideal,” which is often unattainable.
Low self-esteem of this kind, especially when chronic, is thought to be the primary prerequisite for developing an eating disorder, whether it’s binge eating disorder (BED), anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), or other common eating disorders. 
And frequent dieting is also widely considered to be one of the biggest risk factors for BED, which is thought to be the most common eating disorder in the United States. 
How to Spot Diet Culture
One of the most insidious aspects of diet culture is how easily its agendas can be hidden.
Many diets, companies, or influencers may claim they’re promoting “wellness” or a healthier lifestyle when they’re actually spouting the harmful beliefs of diet culture. Diet culture has become so embedded in popular culture that it’s possible these people and companies may not even be aware of the ideals they’re actually promoting.
Diet culture ideals often masquerade under different language. Buzzwords like “clean eating,” “wellness protocol,” “detox,” “cleanse,” or “reset” are often referring to measures that are actually designed to obtain an “ideal” body rather than optimal health. 
“Clean eating,” “detox,” and “cleanse” are common buzzwords that promote diet culture.
Similarly, diet culture often sets up false dichotomies and operates in very black-and-white terms. There are “good” and “bad” foods, “good” and “bad” body shapes, “healthy” or “unhealthy” diets, or “clean” and “unclean” meals. 
And when there are numerous rules around what “can” and “can’t” or “should” and “shouldn’t” be consumed, that’s usually diet culture talking. This can look like everything from restrictions on how much or when food can be eaten to the types of food that can be eaten to rules around the number of calories, fat, protein, or other nutritional values that can be consumed. 
Still, perhaps the best way to spot diet culture is to look for the focus. If a diet, company, or influencer is preoccupied with body shape, weight, or size rather than overall well-being, there’s a good chance they’re promoting diet culture ideals.
How to Resist Diet Culture (And Still Be Healthy)
Diet culture is unfortunately extremely prevalent in today’s society, with its tenets delivered both overtly and subliminally through various aspects of pop culture and media. But it’s still possible to resist these social messages and to build an individual healthy and happy relationship with your body.
Recognize and Resist
Resisting diet culture involves education, awareness, and acceptance of the fact that bodies can be healthy (and unhealthy) in any shape and size. Learning how to spot these unhelpful messages and ideals is a great place to start. Once you realize you’re actually reading, seeing, or listening to messages related to diet culture, you can tune them out completely, knowing their true harmful nature.
Prune the social media accounts you follow to minimize diet culture messaging in your feeds.
To this effect, it may also be helpful to go through your social media feeds with an eye toward pruning. Unfollowing accounts that regularly promote diet or diet culture ideals is an easy way to reduce these messages in your daily life, and you can also look for accounts that promote true body positivity and well-being.
Change Your Perspective
Just as diet culture uses certain words to create a black and white world where there is only one “ideal” body, you can use your own terms to reintroduce shades of gray to the conversation.
It may feel almost ingrained to comment on someone else’s body or looks, but even complimenting someone on losing weight or “looking skinny” can reinforce diet culture ideals. Instead, try to focus on comments about someone’s achievements or step back from talking about body- or weight-related topics all together.
Don’t just look at exercise as a way to burn calories or lose weight.
A perspective shift on exercise can also be helpful for creating a more positive relationship with your body. Rather than look to workouts as ways to create a caloric deficit, focus on moving your body in ways you enjoy or that feel good.
And rather than thinking about all the things your body isn’t, think instead about all the wonderful things it can do. Everything from swimming to stretching to dancing and even hugging loved ones is something that can bring so much joy to this life, and our bodies should be appreciated as the vessels that make these things possible.
Do Your Research
In terms of working on more internal factors, you may want to investigate the idea of intuitive eating. This philosophy promotes a more natural and healthy relationship with eating and doesn’t paint any meals or ingredients as inherently good or bad.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has additional ideas on how to resist diet culture and better respect yourself and others.
In a culture so fixated on achieving perfection, tuning out the negative messages and embracing all the positive aspects of food, movement, and our bodies themselves may be the most radical resistance of all.
- Tran R. (2021, May 16). The Distasteful Truth About Diet Culture. The UCSD Guardian. Retrieved September 23, 2022.
- Silverstone PH. (1992). Is chronic low self-esteem the cause of eating disorders? Medical Hypotheses; 39(4):311–315.
- Which Diet is Right for You? (2020, July 15). Heart Foundation. Retrieved September 23, 2022.
- Disordered Eating & Dieting. National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC). Retrieved September 23, 2022.
- Chastain R. (2022). Recognizing and Resisting Diet Culture. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved September 23, 2022.
- Howard CE, & Porzelius LK. (1999). The role of dieting in binge eating disorder: etiology and treatment implications. Clinical Psychology Review; 19(1):25–44.
- Adams M. Diet Culture and How to Spot It. Halsa Nutrition. Accessed March 2023.