Contributor: Staff at Carolina House
Diet culture is harmful to people of all weights and sizes, encouraging views that being skinny is ideal and that fat is bad. This thinking contributes to mental health concerns and eating disorder behaviors, especially for easily influenced groups like teenagers.
The History of Diet Culture
Diet culture traces back to ancient Greek belief systems about balance and moderation. The ancient Greeks believed that being fat was an imbalance that needed correcting . The idea that certain body types had more value led to the demonization of fatness, with early biologists pointing to fatness as evolutionary inferiority .
These views on weight soon reached the medical world, with many people demanding that their doctors weigh them and help them lose weight. The emergence of the life insurance industry further medicalized weight stigma. The life insurance industry’s main focus is on making the most money. Therefore, they want people in their insurance pool who are going to live the longest. Through their research to find out who was at greater risk for premature death, they discovered that larger-bodied men were dying sooner .
The problem with this research conducted by insurance agencies was that it relied solely on body mass index (BMI). An astronomer developed BMI in the 1830s, measuring a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters . BMI was originally designed for populations as a whole, not for individuals, so it shouldn’t be used alone to define an individual’s health. However, in the 1900s, the medical world began using it for that reason.
Dr. Louise Metz, a board-certified internal medicine physician, explains why BMI is a problematic way to measure health, stating that, “Later on in the late ’90s, what we found is that these arbitrary categories for BMI were suddenly changed. So the definitions of obesity and overweight were suddenly decreased, and 29 million people suddenly became ‘overweight or obese’ overnight. And these changes really were not based in any research that shows that there was a direct link between these BMI categories and health” .
Still, medical experts use BMI today to track changes in body weight on a national level, and the CDC has linked higher body weight to a range of health concerns like Type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, and osteoporosis . However, there may not be enough proof to determine if body weight is the cause of these health conditions or if they are just correlated. Instead, cardiovascular fitness levels may be more to blame, with experts linking lower levels of exercise to an increased risk for the same health conditions regardless of BMI .
Regardless of research, diet culture still reinforces the false idea that being thin is healthy and being fat is a health risk, leading to the promotion of dangerous dieting and weight loss.
The Truth About Dieting
Research continues to prove that dieting doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop many people from falling into weight cycling or yo-yo dieting. Weight cycling refers to fluctuations in weight caused by diet programs that promise to help you lose weight quickly. Most diets are not designed to result in long-term weight loss, causing up to 98% of dieters to gain back the weight they lost .
Many people who have larger bodies begin weight cycling as early as childhood. Years of weight fluctuations can lead to some serious health consequences, such as the risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, that are greater than the risk if they remained at a BMI that is considered obese .
Diet culture also uses exercise and movement as a form of punishment for being fat, causing an unhealthy view of fitness. When diet culture only talks about exercise as a way to change body sizes, it eliminates the opportunity for joy and personal goals that can come from fitness.
Diet Culture Today
Diet culture today is still toxic, especially for at-risk groups like teenagers as they go off to college and begin living on their own. Diet culture may be even more dangerous than it was in the past, as social media makes it easier than ever to search for weight loss programs, harmful dieting plans, and “thinspiration.”
With the help of factors like social media use, increased stress from school, the pressure to fit in socially, and low self-esteem, diet culture puts college students at an increased risk for eating disorder symptoms. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 10%-20% of women and 4%-10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder . Terms like the freshman 15 are used to instill the fear of weight gain as students start school. This can lead to restrictive eating and other unhealthy dieting methods.
Students are also more likely to drink heavily, with “drunkorexia” becoming a common concern. Drunkorexia refers to eating disorder behaviors that involve alcohol. This might include restricting calories before a night of drinking or excessively working out the day after drinking in an attempt to avoid weight gain.
Diet culture reinforces the harmful idea that weight gain is something to fear that could lead to social and medical consequences.
Navigating Diet Culture
Navigating diet culture and staying away from toxic dieting content can be challenging, especially with the internet. However, there are some things you can do to help avoid the harm of diet culture, such as:
- Avoid weighing yourself and focus on how you feel
- Ask to skip the scale at your next doctor’s visit
- Don’t focus on weight loss when exercising; think of healthy goals like relieving stress, feeling joy, or increasing energy
- Avoid harmful content on social media that promotes diet culture
- Reach out to friends and family for support
Diet culture is extremely toxic and can lead to mental health concerns and eating disorder symptoms. If you are showing signs of an eating disorder or struggling with the negative impact of diet culture, help is available.
References: Taris, J., & Rao, R. (2019, December 11). Embodied: Deconstructing diet culture and the science behind it. North Carolina Public Radio. https://www.wunc.org/health/2019-12-11/embodied-deconstructing-diet-culture-and-the-science-behind-it  Cleveland Clinic. (2019, October 1). Why People Diet, lose weight, and gain it back. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-people-diet-lose-weight-and-gain-it-all-back/  Strohacker, K., Carpenter, K., & McFarlin, B.K. (2009, July 15). Consequences of weight cycling: An increase in disease risk? International Journal of Exercise Science, 2(3), 191 -201. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241770/  Regis College. Eating disorders in college students: Effects on mental health. Regis College. https://online.regiscollege.edu/blog/eating-disorders-in-college-students/
About Carolina House
Carolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people age 17 and older of all genders. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services, such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming, to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects individuals with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on September 13th, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 13th, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC