Diet Culture in the Health and Fitness Industry

Having recently received yet another targeted ad inviting me to take part in an ‘eight week summer fat blast challenge’, I wanted to share my thoughts on why I will always say “no thanks” to diet culture.

Diet culture is all around us. It’s plastered over social media, at the gym, on food packaging, in conversations with friends… it is EVERYWHERE. This is an industry that needs you to doubt yourself, simply because there are billions of £££ to be made from our insecurities.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture describes a society that places value on being a certain size and weight. Essentially, it promotes the concept that health = thinness, and it oppresses people who don’t match up with this image. It displays itself in numerous ways, some more subtle and sneaky than others. A few examples include:

  • Food advertised as ‘guilt-free’
  • ‘Clean eating’ social media accounts, and the epidemic of ‘clean eating’ in general
  • Fit teas/ skinny teas/ detox teas
  • Our language around food, e.g. labelling foods as good or bad
  • Demonising food groups, e.g. ‘I’m not coeliac but I won’t eat gluten because it is THE DEVIL’

Why is diet culture problematic?

You may view a fat blast challenge or a ‘guilt free’ chocolate bar as being harmless, and I understand why; we’ve been conditioned to believe that health = thinness. That thinness = happiness, success, superiority. That our self-worth is directly linked to our physical appearance.

I used to have a very unhealthy relationship with exercise. Five years ago, my sole reason for exercising was to burn calories so that I could drink all the wine and eat all the pizza without feeling guilty. Essentially, I was exercising because I hated my body.  

80 – 90% of the time I now have a healthy relationship with fitness; I fully appreciate that there are so many health benefits that exercise can have that aren’t directly linked to aesthetics. My mindset has shifted from ‘having’ to exercise to choosing to exercise, but of course this took time – a LONG time. I don’t want to oversimplify it by using phrases such as ‘exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it!’ or ‘just practice radical self-love!’ – not only is this patronising, but learning to navigate the pressures of diet culture is a lot more complex than this.  

How can you remove yourself from toxic diet culture?

The diet industry’s focus is (almost always) appearance based. This industry does not care about your physical health, and it most definitely does not care about your mental health.

Here are a few things that have helped me:

1.          Have a social media clean up

Unfollow the accounts that focus on dieting, ‘toning up’, or anything else that makes you doubt your self-worth. Basically, try not to consume content that impacts you in a negative way.

2.      Stop engaging in diet jokes

This is probably not the best example, given the fact that it is the middle of summer. However, I get sent this every year without fail, and it makes my blood BOIL:

I have also been tagged in the below meme three times this week:

I simply refused to engage in these discussions, regardless of whether it is a light-hearted joke or not. I will either leave the conversation or change the subject, because quite frankly it makes me uncomfortable.

3. Educate yourself

Take the time to educate yourself about the true links between health and weight. If, like me, you are a thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied person, I would encourage you to learn about the experiences of those who do not fit into diet cultures ‘ideal’.

Here are a few of my book/podcast recommendations:

Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen

Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach

Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison

(Please do let me know if you have any further recommendations!)

Acknowledging that diet culture exists and that it’s an issue is the first step. This is just a tiny part of a much wider discussion, but I hope that it provides a useful insight into a culture that is so entrenched within our society.

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