The harsh truth about diet culture
What is diet culture?
Diet culture is a set of beliefs that value thinness over health and wellbeing. It tells us that skinny is the ideal body size, and that restrictive diets and punishing exercise are the only way to achieve this. It promotes unrealistic body standards and unhealthy eating behaviours.
Most of us want to believe that dieting is about improving health and helping us feel better, look better and embrace a healthier lifestyle. It isn’t. It’s about profiting from people's insecurities about their body dissatisfaction, size, shape and weight. And the long-term negative effects of diet culture on physical, emotional and mental health are severe.
Diet culture is everywhere, but most of us are so deeply engrained in it that we aren’t even aware it, never mind stop to think about it and the negative impact it can have on our lives. Unfortunately, the same applies to our kids – just because they are children does not mean they are immune to diet culture and its harmful messaging. The opposite is true. Here are just a few shocking statistics I have come across through my research.
Children as young as 5yrs old are unhappy with their bodies
Under 7’s associate weight loss with being healthy
40% of parents engage in weight talk with children as young as 2
Dieting behaviour in teenagers is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety
½ of girls and 1/3 of boys age 6 want to be thinner
Advertising, TV, movies, social media –children (just like adults) are being exposed to the message about thinness and body size everywhere, every day.
Read on for some tips on how to ditch diet culture and create a protective non-diet environment in your home.
How do I break free from diet culture?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if diet culture is having an impact on your life.
Do you have a healthy relationship with food?
Have you restricted food in order to change your body size?
Have followed numerous diets in the pursuit of weight loss?
Felt shame about your body or eating habits?
What are the dominant feelings that come up for you when asking these questions? Have you spent too much of your time, energy and money in the pursuit of weight loss. Some of the tell-tale signs can also be eliminating food groups – thinking that carbohydrates are bad and associating them with weight gain. Viewing exercise as a way to burn calories or earn food. Constantly stepping on the scales and allowing the number you see to dictate your mood and how you feel about yourself. Our children are always watching us, observing, mimicking and eventually becoming all the behaviours we role model for them as parents.
Breaking free from diet culture is not easy, but the more we are aware of it and its impact as outlined above, the more we can intervene and take steps to address it. Educate yourself about diet culture and start to slowly empower yourself to break free from it.
Shift the focus away from appearance and weight
Emphasize and model the importance of self-love rather than focusing on appearance and weight. Model body acceptance, self-care and a positive relationship with food for your child. This can be challenging for parents but it is possible. Our own relationship with food and body matters because children will notice, internalize and eventually mimic. All the research shows that if a child has a positive relationship with their body, they will have an instinct to take care of it and nourish, not loathe and feel shame about it.
Bodies come in all shapes and sizes
We all come in different shapes and sizes, and that is ok. Help your child learn to embrace their own unique beauty first and celebrate their individual strengths. Create a protective and supportive home environment, where you encourage positive self-talk and let your child know that they deserve to feel worthy and accepted no matter their size, shape or weight. Be aware of the messages your child is exposed to online, in school etc, talk to them about body size and stigma and how all body types should be respected.
You are not what you eat
There is so much more to food than nutrients and calories. We are not what we eat or how much we eat, food is not just fuel and we certainly don’t have to earn it. Diet culture has taught us to think this way. Convinced us that healthy appetites, food cravings and emotional eating are wrong, and have gone one step further to attach shame and guilt to them. Food is about connection, emotion, celebration, family, joy and happiness. Teach this to your kids by living this yourself.
Call out diet culture
Recognise it, question it, challenge it and reject it if you need to. Have age-appropriate conversations about the dangers of diet culture and dieting and how it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and body. Dieting has a spectacularly high failure rate but more than this, it is associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and higher levels of unhealthy, lifelong eating behaviours. Our kids deserve a better future than the one diet culture has to offer them.
Give yourself permission to say no
Give yourself permission to say no to diet culture, unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself and your body image, that cause you to compare yourself to others, that show before and after weight loss pictures, sell you diet tea or magic fat loss pills. Consider the possibility of a life without restrictive diets or punishing exercise routines, feeling guilt and shame , telling yourself you will be happy when you reach a certain weight, spending precious time and money obsessing over calories, steps, weight, your appearance and the food you eat or don't eat. I will leave you with this powerful definition of diet culture by dietitian and author Christy Harrison
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you are irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin ideal”.
Spending your whole life thinking you are irreparably broken – just take a minute to let that sink in. I know it might sound a bit dramatic and far-fetched to some, but as a certified nutritionist and health coach, I can tell that this is what I see and work with most days. We deserve more. Our kids deserve more.
If you need support on this or would like to avail of a complimentary 20 min health review with me, you can get in touch with me on Facebook or Instagram or via my website Clare Hegarty Health.
Clare Hegarty is a certified nutritionist and health coach, specialising in picky eating and, supporting parents to raise healthy and confident eaters.