How To Identify Toxic Diet Culture Disguised by Other Names

Jun 7, 2024

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Diet culture is everywhere — in our social media feeds, magazines, and conversations with friends and family. As much as we’d love it if it ceased to exist, the sad reality is that it’s heavily ingrained in society and the way many people think.

The word “diet” often carries a negative connotation.¹ Naturally, even hearing the word can trigger feelings of guilt, shame, and discomfort. This has led many people, businesses, or even institutions to “rebrand” a diet, giving it other names. Society has gotten increasingly sneaky at disguising diet culture in recent years. However, despite giving it a fancy or deceptive new name, a diet is still exactly that: a restrictive way of eating and/or following “rules” regarding our bodies.

Learning to identify a diet and diet culture — regardless of what it’s called — is one of the best ways we can take a defensive approach and not fall prey to the lies it tells us!

What Is Diet Culture?

With a value of $224 billion in 2021, the weight loss and weight management industry is incentivized to make us feel bad about ourselves, so we engage in diets and diet culture behavior.²

Before you can call out diets that are hidden behind a pseudonym, it’s important to know what exactly diet culture is.

As Christy Harrison, MPH, RD wrote in Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, dieting is “the act of changing your eating exercise habits in order to lose weight and ostensibly improve your health.”³

The truth is: Any way of eating that’s restrictive in the name of “health,” “wellness,” “a better lifestyle,” or “weight loss” is a diet. (This is different than if you have a food allergy or diagnosed health condition that truly limits you from eating certain foods.)

Some key characteristics of toxic diet culture are:

  • Categorizes foods as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “clean” or “unclean,” etc.
  • Encourages calorie or macro tracking
  • Makes promises of weight loss or body shape or size changes
  • Encourages you to restrict specific foods or stop eating entire food groups
  • Follows a set of “rules”
  • Only allows you to eat at specific times of the day or within a certain window
  • Generally follows black-and-white thinking around what’s “okay” and what “isn’t”

Although diet culture may tell us otherwise, no foods are unhealthy — and none of them are morally “good foods” while others are “bad,” either! All foods can play an amazing role in fueling our bodies — and be enjoyable for us to eat, too!

Diet Culture by Other Names

Now that you know some of the signs of diets, it’s important to know some of the other names they may be hidden behind.

Some of the other names that may be used to actually describe diet culture include:

  • Clean eating
  • Holistic
  • Wellness
  • Healthy
  • Fitness
  • Lifestyle

These different names may be used in combination with one another. Some examples of diet culture that you may hear when someone speaks about a particular way of eating include:

  • A holistic guide to wellness
  • My healthy lifestyle choices
  • How I lost X pounds with my new lifestyle
  • Transform your life with this holistic wellness plan
  • How to lose weight by clean eating/Clean eating to lose weight
  • How to have a healthy lifestyle
  • Eating clean for wellness
  • Following a fitness and wellness routine

While these diet culture examples may all have different names, they have one thing in common: They promote a specific way of eating — often including restricting specific foods or entire food groups — and are simply diets in disguise.

Whenever you see someone make promises of how eating a certain way will impact your body, think critically!

Something that’s truly holistic or genuinely focused on your wellness will never tell you to restrict your diet, do things to manipulate your body shape size, or generally take actions that make you feel miserable.

The Slippery Slope of Diet Culture

Especially when it’s hidden by other names, you may not immediately identify something as “diet culture.” Influencers, “fitness” gurus, self-declared experts, and even those we know may share their daily eating habits, advise a specific regimen, or encourage specific habits with the promise that if you simply do what they do, you can look like them.

However, even if we all ate the same foods, exercised the same amount, and lived the same lives, our bodies would still look different! And what your body wants and needs is different from others. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of that just because diet culture shames us to do it!

Our goal for changing our eating or movement habits may not necessarily start with losing weight. Maybe we simply intend to cut out diet-culture-declared “bad” foods or start to exercise a certain way to “get in shape” — however, these behaviors are an incredibly slippery slope.

One thing can lead to another, and next thing you know, you’re cutting out entire foods or food groups, forcing yourself to do movement you don’t enjoy when you’re exhausted, and are caught in the throes of diet culture — without even realizing that’s what it was.

Diet culture encourages disordered eating behaviors. The two often go hand-in-hand — but not every disordered behavior is a full-blown eating disorder. However, diet culture behaviors can certainly be an eating disorder, especially when they’re ingrained in much of what you do and think, and they seem to control your life. Learn more about the signs of disordered eating here.

Luckily, knowing how to identify these toxic ideals and move away from them can help us embrace a life of food freedom!

Moving Away From Toxic Diet Culture and Embracing What Our Bodies Want

While diet culture may make us feel shameful for looking differently than a specific body type that’s pushed at us or for eating foods that are yummy, we don’t have to live like that. It’s not natural to ignore our bodies’ hunger cues or deprive ourselves of things we enjoy!

Tapping into intuitive eating, listening to our bodies’ natural hunger cues, moving when it feels good and in a way that’s joyful, and not restricting ourselves are all great practices that go against diet culture.

If you’re ready to embrace anti-diet culture and listen to your body, a registered dietitian can help guide your journey — whatever that may look like for you. Schedule an appointment with Life Cycle Nutrition and embrace a truly holistic approach to your health today!

 

 

  1. Rollin, Jennifer. 2015. “3 Reasons You Should Never Go on a Diet.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-musings/201510/3-reasons-you-should-never-go-diet.
  2. Harrison, Christy. 2019. “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.” 6. New York: Little Brown.
  3. “[Latest] Global Weight Loss and Weight Management Market Size/Share Worth USD 405.4 Billion by 2030 at a 6.84% CAGR: Growing obesity rate to propel market growth – Facts & Factors (Industry Trends, Revenue, Statistics, Segmentation, Report).” 2023. GlobeNewswire. https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2023/02/09/2604662/0/en/Latest-Global-Weight-Loss-and-Weight-Management-Market-Size-Share-Worth-USD-405-4-Billion-by-2030-at-a-6-84-CAGR-Growing-obesity-rate-to-propel-market-growth-Facts-Factors-Industry.html.

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