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Diet Culture and Owning Your Own Health

Feature, Food Relationship | October 4, 2021

Green vegetables, nuts and fruit smoothies spread across a kitchen table.
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Navigating through the world is tricky enough right now and then there are the added pressures of diet culture and the “thin ideal”, although this is nothing new in our society. With so much pressure to look thin, lose weight, and pursue health at all costs, things become even more tricky and quite frankly FRUSTRATING! That’s why I’m here to talk to you today about what diet culture is and how for many years it has defined not only our society but even our health.

We are going to talk about why it isn’t ok in any situation to comment on someone’s body, even if you have the best of intentions, and why the size of our bodies isn’t actually what defines our health despite what we have been told for many years. So buckle up and let’s talk about why we need to shift gears from diet culture and redefine what it is to be healthy.

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture:

  • Promotes thinness as the ideal body and the “healthy” body
  • Associates value and worth with weight loss and/or being in a thinner body
  • Labels food as “good” or “bad”, implying less worth and shame for eating “bad” foods
  • Promotes weight loss through rules around food, usually restrictions of specific foods or entire food groups
  • Leads individuals to believe that weight loss is achievable and sustainable
  • Is filtered through a lens of wealth and privilege – not everyone can afford a $200 juicer or a personal trainer!

Fingers pointing at woman in larger body.

 

In our diet culture-driven society, we are led to believe there is a one size fits all for the ideal body. This ideal body is usually defined by being thin. For most of the population weight loss is a consistent goal and part of regular life, for some, their entire life. Individuals are often chained to their scale believing their worth and health is defined by the number on the scale. Our society has said for many years that being thin = being healthy but we are now shifting towards the realization that this isn’t actually true.

HAES or Health at Every Size is an evidence-based approach that challenges assumptions about the relationship between weight and physical health and supports individuals of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting health behaviours, rather than manipulating weight. There is limited evidence to support successful long-term maintenance of weight loss. Research does show that weight loss through dieting often results in weight regain above baselines, increased morbidity and mortality, and disordered eating patterns. For these reasons, the constant answer being weight loss can be quite dangerous, as most times weight loss is promoted through dieting.

Why we shouldn’t comment on other people’s bodies

Because of the weight centred, thin worshiping society we live in, many people turn to diets as the answer to weight loss.

When you hear someone compliment losing weight or feel the need to compliment someone losing weight, you may think that this is just that, a compliment. We are trained to think that this is success because of our society that praises being thin. You may also think that you are helping someone by pointing out weight gain or making suggestions on how they can achieve weight loss. You may have the best of intentions. However, when we comment on someone’s body, we could be reinforcing negative behaviours like disordered eating or eating disorders. The person’s body you are commenting on may take this as a pass to keep doing what they have been doing, even if this could be detrimental to their health. Someone could also be struggling with grief or illness, like cancer, where weight loss is out of their control. They may be struggling with this, worrying about their health. The same goes for weight gain – that individual may be working on disconnecting from diet culture, mending their relationship with food, or struggling with grief or illness. For these reasons, it is best that we stay in our own lane with comments or suggestions that are focused on and coming from a place of weight stigma.

Weight stigma and the idea that a healthy body is a thin body is harmful to health. Research indicates that weight stigma can trigger physiological and behavioural changes linked to poor metabolic health and increased weight gain. Never mind the effects on mental health. Studies have found that individuals who have had others comment on their weight or have been discriminated against based on their weight are 2.5 times more likely to experience mood or anxiety disorders.

It is time to stop commenting on people’s bodies, even if we think we are giving a compliment or helping, we could in fact be fuelling unhealthy behaviours. Additionally, stop commenting on what or how much someone eats. There is not only a lot of misinformation around what foods we should eat but also how much we should eat. Diet culture grossly misrepresents how much our bodies actually need. If someone tells me one more time they were told to eat 1200 calories, I’m going to scream! This amount of calories is barely enough intake for a small child.

So how much should we eat?

Rather than listening to what you should eat or how much, listen to your body. Your body is more than capable of telling you when it is hungry and when it is full. Diet culture teaches us to ignore these feelings of hunger. I like to say, your body is capable of telling you it needs to go to the washroom… you listen. Your body is capable of telling you to put on a jacket because it is cold outside… you listen. Your body is capable of telling you it is hungry… you don’t listen. Hunger is a physiological cue from our body that it needs something, something is missing – it isn’t telling us for fun or to make your life difficult like you may be led to believe.

Now a lot of people would assume, if I let my body decide, I’d eat “junk” all day long! Or, if I let my body decide I will eat and eat and eat. And this might be true at first (although we don’t refer to any foods as junk here). The point being – a period of deprivation followed by permission to eat all foods freely? That’s going to be pretty liberating at first, but with continued permission, food is just… food.

At Ignite Nutrition we do not believe there are “good” foods or “bad” foods but instead that all foods fit. Of course, we are dietitians and we see the importance in nutritious foods and fuelling our bodies BUT we also recognize food is about more than this. Food is about comfort, celebration, enjoyment, and so much more. It is time to remove the “good” food, “bad” food labels and give ourselves permission to enjoy foods. Still doubtful? Learn more here!

How we can ensure that we are not reinforcing negative behaviours around food

STOP commenting on others’ bodies, the food they are eating, and how much of the food they are eating. Ask yourself, “what is the reason that I am making these comments?”. If your comments are coming from a place of believing someone should be in a bigger or smaller body, should or shouldn’t be eating a certain food, or should or shouldn’t be eating a certain amount of food – the answer is likely that you shouldn’t comment at all and stay in your own lane. While you may be coming from a place with good intentions, this communication could be harmful to the person you are talking to.

What we should do about others commenting on our bodies

Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that determine what is reasonable and acceptable to a person. Setting boundaries may be difficult or feel harsh but is an act of self-care. These boundaries are about teaching people how you want to be treated, this is important for physical and emotional health. Whether you are uncomfortable around family and friends because your body has recently changed, you are working on your relationship with food, or other goals that you may have, setting healthy boundaries is important.

Steps to setting healthy boundaries:

  • Self-reflect and seek to understand what’s important to you. For example, maybe body autonomy is something that’s important to you. This gives you a framework for setting boundaries.
  • Be assertive. This can be accomplished by using “I statements.” For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you comment on my health/weight because it’s a very personal topic that I only feel comfortable discussing on my own terms. What I need is for you to respect my wishes to not talk about my eating habits.”
  • Learn to say no. You’re allowed to say no without giving an explanation as to why you’re saying no. For example, if someone wants you to join them on a juice cleanse, you’re allowed to say no without explaining why you don’t want to do it.
  • Be consistent. This reinforces your beliefs and ensures that lines remain established.
  • Have a boundary buddy. If possible, choose a trustworthy friend or family member who you can confide in about difficult weight and body conversations. They can help to establish boundaries with others and are a soundboard when you need to vent!

If weight loss isn’t the answer to health… what is?

  • Improve relationship with food – remove the moral judgements around food to help neutralize foods so that they are all the same and none are on a pedestal. Build awareness of hunger and fullness cues. Start to prioritize emotional and physical health over desire to be in a thinner body.
  • Focus on positive health behaviours that are meaningful and SUSTAINABLE – behaviours that can actually be long lasting and go a long way for overall health. Unlike fad diets and restrictions.

Examples: 

  1. Adding more fruits and veggies at meals or snacks
  2. Going for a walk and enjoying nature
  3. Drinking more water
  • Consider that weight is an outcome of which we don’t have entire control over – despite what diet culture tells you. Focus on balanced meals and snacks for energy and enjoyment to remove dieting behaviours.
  • Meaningful and joyful movement – within your body’s ability and limits through activity that you actually enjoy! We often think of physical activity as sweating and dying at the end, and this can set us up for failure to complete this task when day to day life is overwhelming but getting some movement is always better than no movement.
  • Set goals other than weight – go for a walk every day to get fresh air, buy clothes that fit well and make you feel good, eat more mindfully and truly enjoy food, move your body in ways that feel good.

To finish up, let’s summarize what we have talked about here. While you might think you have good intentions, it is not ok to comment on other people’s bodies. Like I talked about in this post, continue to check yourself – is your comment/intention rooted in diet culture? At the end of the day, let’s be real, we are all aware of the body we live in. Whether our body is bigger or smaller, because of diet culture, there is probably something we perceive as wrong with our own body. We do not need others commenting on this, reinforcing negative beliefs or making new negative beliefs. Those that are living in bigger bodies have likely been through the ringer, they know all the things and have probably tried all the things, and don’t need others to be giving advice on what to do. 

Despite what we have been led to believe for a REALLY LONG TIME, thin does not equal healthy and weight loss is an outcome of which we don’t have entire control. Instead of living in this diet culture society, let’s shift gears to respect our bodies and stop viewing food through an all or nothing lens. Let’s work towards meaningful and sustainable behaviours that will ultimately lead to real health. Our dietitians provide nutrition counselling to help with this!

Fingers pointing at woman in larger body.

References

  1. Anderson JW, Konz EC, Frederich RC, et al. Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;74:579–584.

  2. Madigan CD, Pavey T, Daley AJ, et al. Is weight cycling associated with adverse health outcomes? A cohort study. Prevent Med. 2018;108:47–52.

  3. Hatzenbuehler ML, Keyes KM, Hasin DS. Associations between perceived weight discrimination and the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the general population. Obesity. 2009;17(11):2033–9.