Diet culture 101: What is it and what can we do about it?
Diet culture is receiving more attention on mainstream and social media platforms, but what does it actually mean? In this article, University of Melbourne researchers Dr Natalie Jovanovski and Tess Jaeger explore what diet culture is and how we can all resist it in our everyday lives.
Dieting to lose weight is considered a risky practice. Research shows that it’s a significant risk factor for the development of eating disorders and, when repeated through yo-yo dieting, is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, such as hypertension, chronic inflammation and some forms of cancer.
Despite these risks, however, dieting is also considered to be a normative practice throughout much of contemporary Western culture, especially among women and girls. For this and many other reasons, it’s useful for us to remember that engaging in weight-loss practices is more than just something individuals do; it’s also a harmful cultural phenomenon that we internalise and may even contribute to.
When dieting is broadly discussed as a set of culturally promoted norms surrounding weight loss, it’s often referred to as diet culture. Over the last decade, the term diet culture has been used liberally in online blogs, social media discussions and popular books, and mentioned in academic articles.
While there is no shortage of academic articles talking about the harms of dieting and even mentioning the term ‘diet culture’, academic definitions of the term were previously difficult to come across.
In 2020, we set out to understand the meaning of diet culture and how people challenge it in their day-to-day lives. We sent out a qualitative survey asking people who oppose diet culture about their experiences of the phenomenon, what they believe it means, and what sources of power underlie it.
We posted our flyer in feminist and eating disorder networks, through activist spaces and health professional communities, and looked specifically at collecting responses from five locations: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. After a short period of time, we received a total of 118 complete responses, mostly from women (95%), health professionals (52%) and anti-diet activists (37%).
Ultimately, we found that diet culture refers to a set of ever-changing myths about food and bodies, promoting the idea that one’s body weight automatically equals health and that foods can be simplistically categorised as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It also comprises a moral hierarchy of bodies that preferences the thin-ideal while masking a fear of fat.
These cultural ideas are driven by broad systems and structures of power, such as patriarchal ideals about women’s bodies, racialised ideals around thinness and health, and capitalist industries that profit from body dissatisfaction and confusion around food and eating.
Why should we pay more attention to diet culture?
Having a definition of diet culture – produced by those who use the term and are directly affected by it – means that we can start to look closely at how to challenge it.
Defining diet culture helps us externalise dieting as a set of ideas that are driven by systems and structures, rather than simply the actions of individuals.
When we see diet culture as something that exists outside of us – as something that we’re surrounded by and sometimes internalise – it gives us permission to be self-compassionate about our eating practices and reflect on weight-loss as a broader political project that can be challenged.
Thinking about dieting as a culture rather than an individual practice also reminds us that it is everyone’s responsibility to challenge it. Quite often, there is a strong sense of responsibility placed on people experiencing eating disorders to challenge their beliefs about food, eating and bodies.
But what about everyone else? Diet culture reminds us that we’re all part of a system that reinforces myths about ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food, makes quick and uninformed judgements about people’s appearance and health, and profits from people’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. For this reason, it’s critical for us to remember that diet culture is a phenomenon that we are all subject to and all have the potential to challenge.
What can we all do to challenge diet culture?
Challenging diet culture is everyone’s responsibility and knowing where to start can be daunting. In our research, we asked everyday women, activists and health professionals about what they do to challenge diet culture, and found that – more often than not – they used everyday strategies that we can all incorporate into our lives.
One strategy was engaging in practices of radical self-care. Unlike ideas about self-care that are driven by consumerism – those that tell us to relax by purchasing the latest gym gear or pair of tights – our participants described that putting oneself first was a radical idea, especially for those taught to put others first, such as women.
Some of the methods people used included rejecting weight-loss practices and finding acceptance in one’s body regardless of weight, shape or size, engaging in health practices that nourish the body rather than focus on weight-loss, searching for and connecting with likeminded communities both online and in person, and immersing oneself in literature that promotes both positive messages of body-acceptance and political messages about anti-diet solidarity.
Another relatively simple strategy described was using relational forms of activism to resist diet culture. People used their one-on-one interactions with others to challenge diet culture ideas, describing situations where they intercepted conversations around them (e.g., “It’s OK to have a biscuit if you want one”) and started new conversations with friends, family and co-workers about the merits of body-acceptance and non-diet health messages.
Health professionals played an important role in relational activism, often using the clinical space as a way to question people’s pre-conceived notions about food and weight.
While practising self-care and talking to those around you may seem like relatively simple strategies, our participants faced some challenges. Most expressed that they were lonely in their challenging of diet culture, or engaged in activism behind a computer screen rather than in person. A simple first step might be to come together in groups and talk about our experiences with diet culture and what we can do to challenge it.
We can all take small steps in our day-to-day lives to challenge diet culture – we just need to recognise it to begin.
Read the research:
- Demystifying ‘diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘anti-diet’ feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities
- Unpacking the ‘anti-diet movement’: domination and strategies of resistance in the broad anti-diet community
About the authors
Dr Natalie Jovanovski is a DECRA Research Fellow and health sociologist in the Centre for Health Equity and Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on understanding diet culture and the people, communities and social movements that challenge it.
Tess Jaeger is a research assistant in the Centre for Health Equity and Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, at the University of Melbourne.