The Surprising History of Diet Culture
Despite all the messaging that tells us otherwise, health looks different in everybody. Unfortunately, diet culture has strong-armed society into upholding a very narrow view of what is “healthy” and “good.” Diet culture is the pervasive belief that certain body types are better than others. It’s based on myths that can ultimately have negative consequences for one’s overall well-being. But these myths didn’t spread randomly. The history of diet culture shows us that the stigmatization of body weight and the celebration of food restriction have been endorsed to uphold systems of power and oppression. Here, we dive into the exploitive history of diet culture and reality-check some of the myths that drive it.
What Is a Diet?
From a strictly biological perspective, a diet refers to the food an organism consumes to nourish its body and sustain life. For instance, a black bear has a diverse diet consisting of roots, berries, grass, fish, meat, and insects. Additionally, the term “diet” can also be used to describe specific dietary requirements or restrictions due to conditions such as celiac disease, where individuals may struggle to digest certain nutrients.
However, our cultural interpretation of the word “diet” has taken on a different meaning altogether. In our social context, the term “diet” often implies that someone is consciously restricting their consumption with the goal of losing weight. It is important to note that extensive research has demonstrated the inefficacy and potential harm associated with dieting for weight loss purposes. Despite this scientific evidence, societal stigmas surrounding body image and health have propagated the false notion that restricting food is essential, leading to the widespread prevalence of diet culture in our society.
What Is Diet Culture?
The concept of diet culture encompasses the collective beliefs and practices that promote the pursuit of weight loss as the ultimate marker of health and well-being. It is a pervasive force that permeates various aspects of our lives, from media portrayals of “ideal” bodies to the messages we receive from friends, family, and even healthcare professionals. Diet culture often emphasizes the importance of adhering to strict eating regimens, promoting quick fixes, and advocating for the thin ideal. It’s based on fallacies like:
- One food is better than another
- People who are thin are healthier
- People who are thin are more attractive
- Higher-weight bodies are a result of poor health choices
- Individuals have full control over their health and appearance
However, this narrow focus on weight loss overlooks the complexity and diversity of individual experiences with food and health. It disregards the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that true well-being encompasses not only physical health but also mental, emotional, and social aspects of our lives. Furthermore, research has consistently shown that weight is not a reliable indicator of overall health. In fact, focusing solely on weight loss can lead to detrimental effects on both physical and mental well-being. As we explore the surprising history of diet culture, it becomes evident that the roots of this phenomenon are intertwined with various social, economic, and historical factors.
Who Does Diet Culture Impact?
Even if you’ve never been on a diet, you aren’t immune to the effects of diet culture. If you’ve ever caught yourself equating thinness with good and fatness with bad, that’s because diet culture has percolated throughout our society. From the moment we are born, anti-fatness, or the fear of being fat is deeply ingrained in us. This instilled fear affects how we view our own bodies and how we perceive the bodies of others. And, it didn’t just come out of the blue. Diet culture is rooted in a long history that aims to oppress and profit off of marginalized communities.
The History of Diet Culture
Though it disguises itself as a self-help science, diet culture is more of a religion than anything. It’s not based on facts and people everywhere are uplifting this belief system. From going to the pharmacy to scrolling on social media, influencers and even healthcare workers spread the message that thin bodies are better bodies. Since the Ancient Greeks gave value to their body’s physical capabilities, diet culture has been tightly entwined in the status quo.
The connection between moral virtue and thinness came from early Christians who regarded the body as the enemy of the soul. Practitioners in the Middle Ages would engage in long fasts and eat very little to purify the body. Called Anorexia mirabilis, this kind of disordered eating began the ties between food restriction and morality. The puritanical encouragement toward dieting continued with the preacher Sylvester Graham (father of the graham cracker). He proselytized that eating a vegetarian diet of bread, grains, and vegetables would reduce sexual urges, improve immune health, and equate to morality.
Diet Culture Supports Systems of Oppression
As we know from history, the connection between morality and thinness didn’t stay in the church. It quickly spread and became a means to justify anti-blackness, patriarchy, and colonialism. These systems have played a significant role in perpetuating harmful beliefs and attitudes surrounding body size, ultimately leading to the subjugation of women’s bodies and the devaluation of certain racial and ethnic groups.
Historically, white colonial thought has employed body size as a tool for asserting racial superiority and justifying the oppression of black bodies. Since the time of slavery, black individuals were often depicted as inherently physically inferior based on their larger body sizes. The sociologist Sabrina Strings brings this to light in her book Fearing the Black Body: Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. She points out that “…the current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black.’” This distorted perception of body size not only served to dehumanize black people but has continued to stigmatize black individuals in relation to their bodies.
Moreover, diet culture is closely intertwined with patriarchal norms and expectations that dictate how women should look and behave. Women’s bodies have been objectified, scrutinized, and policed throughout history, as patriarchal systems seek to control and regulate their autonomy. Diet culture perpetuates the idea that women must be thin, in order to be valued and accepted. Unfortunately, this pressure starts early. A study by Smolak (2011)NEDA found that girls as young as six begin expressing concerns about their weight, with 40-60% of girls in elementary school worrying about becoming “too fat.”That being said, this patriarchal expectation isn’t restricted to just women. People of all genders may feel self-critical of their bodies and pressure to be thinner.
As with every group that a system tries to put down, it’s lifting up another. Both racism and sexism go hand- in- hand with thin privilege. For a few concrete examples, consider how people in thinner bodies have easier access to clothes and don’t pay extra for airplane seats. But thin privilege can be more subtle. Thin people are assumed to be healthy (often even reflected in insurance rates) and are more likely to receive a promotion at work.
The Myth of BMI
We can’t talk about the history of diet culture without mentioning one of its most dangerous agents: BMI. Body mass index (BMI) has long been used as a measure of health, but it is based on a very limited weight distribution study that compares people to Scottish and French soldiers (aka who Adolphe Quetelet felt represented the average person). That’s right. For decades, doctors have been comparing bodies of all different identities to the norms of young, white men. Surprising? Not really. Disturbing? Quite.
This has perpetuated a pervasive myth that a higher BMI automatically equates to poor health. However, the truth is far more complex. Contrary to popular belief, BMI has never been conclusively linked to any specific health consequence. In fact, a recent study found that high BMIs are not linked to higher mortality rates.
Rather than focusing on holistic health and addressing the specific needs and experiences of diverse individuals, the overreliance on BMI has created a flawed understanding of what it means to be healthy.
Capitalism Gives Diet Culture Wings
If systems of oppression were the roots of diet culture, capitalism took it and ran. Businesses quickly recognized the immense profitability of exploiting people’s insecurities and creating a sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies. By capitalizing on these feelings, companies have been able to convince individuals that they are flawed and in need of a “solution.” The consequences of this dynamic are apparent in the countless diet plans, magic supplements, cleanses, and fitness regimes that flood the market today.
The financial figures associated with the diet industry are staggering. In the United States alone, citizens spend over $30 billion on diet products each year. This astronomical sum highlights the profitability and scale of this industry, as well as the extent to which individuals are willing to invest in the pursuit of their desired body image. On the contrary, research consistently shows that diets tend to be ineffective in achieving sustainable weight loss and can often have negative physical and psychological effects. This glaring disconnect between the financial investment and the lack of positive outcomes underscores how exploitative the diet industry is.
Diet Culture in Disguise
The real kicker? Diet culture is very sneaky. It disguises itself as health and fitness. In recent years, diet culture has been more and more criticized for over-valuing appearance. So it has shapeshifted into wellness trends that at the surface level aim to be more holistic, but still place intrinsic value on the thin ideal.
Diet Culture Obstructs Actual Health and Wellness
One of the most dangerous aspects of diet culture is that it stands in the way of people getting the healthcare they need. It perpetuates eating practices that have real mental and physical health consequences while simultaneously putting the blame for any health issues on the individual’s body size.
Called healthism, this is the idea that a person is solely responsible for their own health. This concept is behind the harmful messaging that not only says fat bodies are unhealthy but they are a result of a bigger because that person notdoesn’t eating well or exercisingexercise enough. But in reality, you find that about one-third of a person’s health is linked to their behavior. The rest is due to factors out of one’s control, called the Social Determinants of Health. Like so many systemic issues, the tenets of healthism allow our society to ignore the real issues that impact health, like access to healthcaredoctors, food, transportation, and housing.
Consequences of Diet Culture
Rather than supporting wellness, diet culture has serious ramifications for both physical and mental health. This cycle of weight fluctuation due to dieting can have detrimental effects on health, including increased risks of blood pressure issues, compromised bone density, and reduced muscle mass.
Moreover, diet culture fosters negative body image, as it perpetuates unrealistic beauty standards and a serious weight stigma. This toxic mindset contributes to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. Additionally, diet culture significantly increases the risk of developing eating disorders, as the obsession with food, restriction, and control can trigger disordered eating patterns and severe psychological distress. The harmful impact of diet culture on both short-term well-being and long-term mental and physical health is a stark reminder of the urgent need to challenge and dismantle this harmful ideology.
Fighting Against Diet Culture
Understanding the origins of diet culture allows us to critically examine its impact and challenge its harmful effects. By fostering a caring, expert, and engaging dialogue, we can pave the way for a more weight-inclusive approach to health that celebrates diversity, rejects body shaming, and promotes genuine well-being for all individuals. At Tthe Alliance, we are trying to unravel the stigmas around health that impact body image and create better access to care for anyone suffering from an eating disorder. We connect individualspeople and their loved ones with support groups, and referrals to all levels of eating disorder care – from treatment centers to outpatient, and care providers. to help leave a positive impact on our community. Diet culture has completely engrained itself in our world, and it will take time and care to disentangle ourselves from it.