What Is Diet Culture?

In western culture, disordered eating has become a cultural phenomenon which runs rampant across the lifespan.

We cannot examine our relationship to food and our bodies without acknowledging the impact of culture.

One common metaphor for culture is that culture is to humans as water is to fish.  Fish are greatly impacted by the water that they swim in but may be unaware that they are even swimming in water. Similarly, we are greatly impacted by the culture that we live in, yet we are often unaware of the extent to which the dominant culture impacts our beliefs about food and our bodies. The term “diet culture” can be used to describe dominant North American beliefs and behaviors regarding food and the body.  

Through diet culture we have internalized the belief that to be thin is to be “ideal” and the only kind of healthy body is a thin body.  

Regardless of whether you are officially 'dieting,' it’s impossible not to be caught up in the diet culture surrounding us. Diet culture sells us the idea that we have control over the size and shape of our bodies, that losing weight is attainable, and that we can reach the thin ideal through weight loss. This has led to a cultural obsession with restricting our food and controlling our bodies. We dedicate ourselves to weight loss and attempts to change our body by spending a huge amount of time, energy, and money on dieting and cosmetic fitness. Yet we are never told what scientific research has shown: intentional weight loss fails more than 95% of the time within two to five years.

Through diet culture we learn that our bodies are a problem that needs fixing and improving. We learn to shame ourselves for not having an “ideal” body or for not eating in a controlled way.  We develop a relationship with food based on control rather than on honoring our body’s needs. We are told that weight loss leads to happiness and health when in reality, intentional weight loss often leads to weight gain and/or anxiety about weight gain. Furthermore, people in all types of bodies live happy and meaningful lives.

Diet culture is upheld by the diet industry, a multibillion dollar monster that profits from selling us dieting foods, weight loss techniques and cosmetic fitness based on the idea that we are flawed and that we can change and control our bodies to reach a limited set of beauty ideals by spending more money. The dieting industry relies on us blaming ourselves every time a diet fails rather than blaming an industry that has failed millions of people and which has no long term data to support its claims. The diet industry wants and need us to blame ourselves so we will continue to invest and purchase their products. And that’s exactly what we do. Recent statistics show that Americans spend more than sixty billion dollars a year on diets

In addition to spending large sums of money on dieting and cosmetic fitness, diet culture also sucks away our time and happiness. We spend countless hours pursuing weight loss and expend a huge amount of our mental energy thinking about food and our body. We miss out on being present in our daily lives and on meaningful life events because we’re so caught up in our thoughts about food, eating, exercise and the weight and shape of our bodies.

When we are socialized in diet culture, it is easy to lose our connection to the innate body wisdom we are born with.   

In order to heal disordered eating and work towards becoming intuitive eaters, we can begin to recognize diet culture and reject the diet mentality. This is challenging because everyone around us is also impacted by diet culture and we tend to take on the beliefs and ideals of those around us, both in real life and on social media.  

Some initial steps to take:

  • Try to cultivate some self-compassion for yourself. You are not alone in your struggle to have a normal relationship with food and your body. This is a cultural phenomenon, not an individual problem.

  • Do a social media cleanse and remove people who you find unhelpful. Try to immerse yourself in a community that is supportive of bodies of all shapes and sizes.

  • Try to spend more time with people in your life who are less immersed in diet culture. This may include setting boundaries with certain people.

  • Educate yourself on health at every size and intuitive eating and check out other resources such as Food Psych (a very interesting podcast which gives you exposure to lots of amazing people and ideas). Some other great books include: Body Respect, Intuitive Eating , and The Body is Not An Apology

By educating ourselves and starting a conversation about diet culture, we can address this cultural problem together. As we become less consumed by thoughts about food and our body and spend fewer hours pursuing weight loss and controlling our eating, we free up mental and physical energy to pursue our passions and purpose and bring more happiness and meaning into our lives.

I’m a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, BC and I offer eating disorder counselling and intuitive eating coaching to help people reclaim their relationship with food and their body.


Lorilee Keller