Diet Culture: Is Dieting Good or Bad for You?

We all need food to live and function properly. However, it has gained a bad rap in recent years as it is seen as a major contributor to weight gain. Whenever anyone wishes to lose weight, dieting is among the first recommendations they get-and it works…for some. Why then is there so much negativity associated with diet culture? Why are so many people joining the anti-diet culture movement right now?

It is not wrong to want to lose weight. There are numerous benefits of losing weight, including improved health, better mobility, better sleep, more energy, and improved self-esteem. The problem is with the methods you choose to achieve weight loss.

With conflicting information and new trends emerging every day on the quickest ways to lose weight, it is no surprise you are wondering whether dieting is good or bad for you.

In this post, we will discuss the definition of diet culture, its dangers, how diet culture affects mental health, and if dieting is good or bad for you.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is defined as a set of beliefs that values thinness, body size, shape, and appearance over health and overall well-being. Despite being untrue in most cases, diet culture associates thinness with good health and moral virtues and larger bodies with being unhealthy and lack of discipline. It classifies certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ruining how people relate to them. Diet culture also encourages body discrimination and promotes weight loss as a way for people to become more socially acceptable, attractive, and higher in status.

You don’t even need to have ever been on a diet for diet culture to affect you. It is so ingrained in our minds that certain foods are bad and others are good, and that we need to lose weight to be healthy and attractive. People will often remark on how good you look when you lose weight which makes you think you looked bad before.

Diet culture is everywhere, from family to friends, and particularly on social media, where thinner people get more attention and become more popular than their larger-bodied counterparts.

Posting a photo or video of you eating cake or ice cream will result in some concern trolls commenting things like ‘Are you sure you should eat that? I’m just worried about your health’ or ‘That looks yummy, but aren’t you worried you could get diabetes?’ This kind of internet trolling and healthism affects not only the one who posted but also any other person reading these comments. They end up seeing these foods and eating habits as bad and that they should be ashamed of them.

After eating ‘bad’ foods, you feel compelled to intensify your workouts and cleanse or detox with juices and shakes to compensate or punish yourself for having them. The negative effects of diet culture are more evident in women than in men.

The dangers of diet culture

1. Conflicting Information

The internet is rife with information on dieting, which is often conflicting, even when it is from people who claim to be experts. You go on one website that claims some diet plan is good, and try it out. The week after, when doing further research on the same diet plan, you find out it does not really work or has negative effects. You are left wondering what to believe and what to eat.

The conflicting information available is one of the main reasons why diet culture is so toxic. New trends emerge every day, and trying to keep up with them is futile. Eventually, you either never get your desired results or end up worse off if you keep jumping from diet to diet.

2. It sets unrealistic expectations

There is no magical way to lose weight fast, naturally. And yet, there are so many fad diets out there that trick people into believing they can lose weight in a week or less. Diet culture makes people admire weight loss and the ‘thin ideal’ as what could increase their value and attractiveness. Some will buy or believe in anything that promises quick results, which sets them up for failure, frustration, and disappointment. 

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3. Effects on mental health

Diet culture negatively affects your mental health in 3 ways including;

  • A bad relationship with food

How often do you eat a particular type of food, for example, a bar of chocolate or piece of cake, and then feel guilty about it afterward? It is as if you did something wrong. This is an example of the negative effects of diet culture. It classifies some foods as good or bad and could lead to you developing an unhealthy relationship with food, where you see it as something that makes you gain weight instead of just nourishment.

Since you think of some foods as out of bounds, your cravings and obsessive thoughts about them might increase, and you could find it difficult to stop yourself whenever you let yourself indulge leading to binge-eating.

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  • Low self-esteem

Since diet culture presents thinness as a sign of good health and moral virtue, you might develop a negative body image, insecurities, and self-esteem issues if you do not fit into the ‘thin ideal’. Social media and Hollywood do not help in this either because you keep seeing thin people being more popular, getting better roles, and being liked more by society, making you admire weight loss even more.

Additionally, witnessing the level of body shaming that plus-size celebrities and other people go through can lead to even more body dissatisfaction and self-esteem issues.

You attach your self-worth to your weight and feel good when on the diet plan and like you aren’t doing enough when you don’t stick to it or if the number on the weighing scale doesn’t drop.

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  • Mental illness

The stress of sticking to a diet and trying to look a particular way to be acceptable to society can take a toll on you. This is partly the reason why diet culture is bad for your mental health. In your search for ‘perfection’, you could develop body dysmorphia – a condition where one obsesses about perceived flaws in their appearance. You become anxious about exposing your body or posting pictures of yourself on social media for fear of judgment or because you don’t like how you look.

Diet culture has many rules and restrictions on what, how, and when to eat – all aimed at making people who are in bigger bodies smaller or maintaining weight for those who are slim. It can result in you developing orthorexia – a condition where one becomes obsessed with healthy eating to the point that it interferes with their daily life.

Orthorexia is often linked to stress and anxiety and could also lead to other disorders. You become obsessed with weight, how you look, what you eat, or the number of calories and carbs it contains, and this robs you of the pleasure of eating.Lack of particular nutrients in the diet also affects your mood.

Studies indicate that diet culture has negative effects on your mental health and can worsen depression and increase suicidal thoughts. Also, the fear and anxiety of gaining weight again persist even after one has attained their desired weight.

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4. Effects on physical health

Diet culture also affects your physical health negatively. It perpetuates unhealthy habits and eating disorders, so long as they keep you thin, for example, anorexia and purging. Some diet plans also eliminate particular food groups leading to deficiencies of essential nutrients in the body, thereby resulting in poor physical health. This could lead to malnutrition, being unnaturally thin, anemia, or an abnormally slow heart rate.

You will exhibit signs such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, muscle loss, constipation, and irregular menstrual cycles due to extreme weight loss.

It is often difficult to stick to a strict diet and many people end up Yo-yo dieting. Also referred to as ‘weight cycling‘, Yo-yo dieting is where you diet to lose weight, then regain it when you stop and then start dieting again to lose it. Gaining and losing weight repeatedly could eventually affect your physical health resulting in higher risk of heart disease, obesity, muscle loss, type 2 diabetes, and increased blood pressure.

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How to drop out of diet culture

The effects of diet culture on mental health and physical health are some of the reasons why you should drop out of diet culture because it is bad. Here are some ways you can break up with diet culture for good and be happier;

  1. Unfollow/unsubscribe from influencers or brands that promote diet culture.
  2. Develop a healthier relationship with food by adopting better eating habits such as mindful eating – a practice that doesn’t involve restrictions on what, how much, and when to eat.
  3. Start a workout routine to lose weight but do not overdo it.
  4. Reduce your social media usage or screen time in general.
  5. Block advertisements on your browsers.
  6. Focus on your health rather than the number on the weighing scale. You could check your weight fortnightly, once a month, or never at all instead of every day.
  7. Beware of the advertisement language of nutrition labels.
  8. Practice daily positive affirmations for self-love and self-acceptance.
  9. Re-frame your thoughts about food. Things are not black or white.

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Final thoughts

Is dieting good or bad for you? Like most things, diet culture has its good and bad sides. When done in moderation or following a nutritionist’s recommendations, dieting can help you lose weight and be fit without compromising your health. Unfortunately, the bad side of dieting far outweighs the positive one. What good is being the ‘perfect’ bodyweight if you have to sacrifice your mental and physical health to get it? Is diet culture worth it? Sadly, many people are aware of the negative side of dieting but continue with the practice anyways. Use the above tips to drop out of diet culture for good and adopt healthier habits. Remember that healthy people come in all shapes and sizes.

What are your thoughts on diet culture? Have you tried dieting before? What was your experience?


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