The Dangers of Diet Culture Messages

The abrupt disruption of life as we knew it in March 2020 has adversely impacted our work, travel, finances, mental health, and social lives. On the positive side, it has steered many to pay more attention to their health and prioritize self-care; however, it has also led to the perpetuation of the harmful and deceptive, yet lucrative, diet-culture messages. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) (bold emphasis mine):

Diet Culture is dangerous and harms people of all sizes, including by perpetuating eating disorders and making a full recovery almost impossible. But when it comes to identifying Diet Culture in a world that is sadly rife with it, there can be plenty of confusion. If we truly want to prevent eating disorders and create a culture where full recovery is possible, we need to learn to identify Diet Culture and speak out against it. While this list certainly isn’t exhaustive, it covers some of the main tenets of Diet Culture, as well as some options for fighting back.

According to NEDA, some diet culture messages include:

  • Conflating the association between body size and health and pathologizing larger body types
  • The importance of following food rules about what, when, how, and how much to eat
  • That body size determines if someone is more or less good, moral, or worthy
  • Advocating for “thin privilege,” which perpetuates thinness as a factor for attaining jobs, comfort, benefits, and accommodations
  • Viewing movement primarily as punishment or as a means to prevent weight gain, rather than beneficial for its effects on mental and physical health
  • Believing fat people are less valuable, healthy, and risky

According to NFPT (National Federation of Professional Trainers):

Eating Disorder Registered Dietitians and Professionals (EDRD PRO) defines diet culture as, “a belief system that focuses on and values weight, shape, and size over well-being.” Though focusing on weight, shape, and size aren’t innately wrong, valuing those things over total physical, mental, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or financial wellness is. The consequence of valuing any single area of wellness over all others is that we get thrown out of the balance that brings true and long-lasting health.

In summary, diet culture ideas (source, source, source, source, source, source, source):

  • advocate that the size of one’s body determines health outcomes
  • reinforces society’s obsession with weight loss
  • elevates thinness as a privilege
  • perpetuates body stigma and poor healthcare delivery
  • disproportionately negatively impacts minority populations
  • contributes to a dysfunctional relationship to food, eating behaviors, and eating disorders
  • normalizes extreme food eliminations and restrictions
  • harms everyone, of all sizes

As an article in Greatist states:

Socioeconomic factors aside, genetic variations in metabolism, resting heart rate, a “hunger hormone” called leptin, and a number of other factors contribute to someone’s ability to lose or put on weight easily. Natural thinness, it turns out, is just the luck of the draw…

Sure, weight loss can be a byproduct of adopting a healthy lifestyle, but it’s not necessarily an indicator of one. Many people in larger bodies are active, healthy, and happy — and many in smaller bodies are not. Some people may be able to improve their health by losing weight, but many others only believe they should lose weight because of the fatphobic message society is sending them.

Moreover, the fact that people in larger bodies, and in particular larger women — and in extra particular larger women of color — are consistently dismissed and shamed by everyone from their employers to the medical community to complete strangers is an outrage and a societal disgrace of staggering proportion.

But it turns out that the “weight = wellness” mentality has a toxic effect on everyone, even thin people.”

There exists a fine line between nurturing the body with nutrition to balance one’s emotional, physical, and social needs and an extreme that turns into pursual of dietary and body perfection at all costs. If one is not careful, this line gets crossed fast, especially in today’s society.

To recap on the dangers of diet culture:

Wanting to be healthy in order to live life to the fullest is one thing and should be respected as a choice, not a moral obligation. In contrast, wanting to be thin and lose weight at the expense of other priorities and goals is not nourishing in any way and needs to be addressed.

How Did Healthcare Turn into a Disguised Diet Culture Industry?

I am not saying that we do not need to consider dietary patterns for optimizing health. As a naturopathic doctor, I uphold the belief that food can be a form of medicine. In fact, I have many articles on personalized diets and how certain nutrients can impact mental, emotional, and physical health. I also have discussed how genetic variations in individuals can impact how they metabolize certain foods and that addressing this can be one part of the puzzle to optimizing hormonal balance and overall wellness.

What I am saying is that diet culture has no place in healthcare. Although diet and exercise do have a strong impact on well-being outcomes, they are not the sole, or most important factor to tackle in many cases. Furthermore, weight is not an accurate measure for health. (source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source)

I continue to be very concerned with the trend in medicine to promote “healthy eating” (a.k.a eliminating whole categories of food groups) and weight loss as a main treatment for chronic diseases, especially during such a traumatic and tumultuous time. At any time, especially now with stress at an all-time high and a psychiatric crisis evident, do we really need highly respected experts to be food and body shaming?

We are in the midst of an economic disaster, where some people can’t even access food, much less concern themselves with if it is gluten-free. Society continues to struggle with social justice issues, and individuals are reaching their breaking point. Adults are strained trying to juggle many new roles as teacher, parent, and remote worker. Children are losing out on psychological developmental opportunities.

Yet even after we survived 2020, I still hear many fitness and healthcare providers touting dietary measures for “effective weight loss” and healing. The message that is being portrayed is that if someone has an illness, it is their fault for not eating right, exercising enough, or losing more weight. This is simply not true; disease is multi-factorial and has many aspects and complexities to it.

Our society is chronically depleted, uncertain, and already on overload.(source) Shouldn’t doctors be ensuring that people are getting ENOUGH food and proper nourishment to make their bodies more resilient and build their capacity for defense and repair?

Is an elimination diet really going to heal the IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) of a woman in perpetual stress and who is suffering emotional abuse from her partner? This patient needs more understanding and more resources, not more confinement and food morality.

2020 was a wake-up call, to a lot.

It was a wake-up call to assess:

  • how we treat ourselves
  • how we treat others
  • what freedoms we hold dear
  • how we take care of ourselves
  • what injustices and socioeconomic disparities still exist
  • the value of relationships and connection to our overall well-being

Yet still, with all this “awakening,” people feel it’s okay to continue to stigmatize, degrade, and offer subpar medical care to those who are not the culturally accepted body ideal.

We need to wake up more, but how?

A Call for Change

Last week, I highlighted a post from the start of 2020 that discussed the dangers of obsessing over weight and how medicine was becoming more and more like a weight-loss culture than a healthcare haven.

I stated that:

My hope is that healthcare will continue to advocate for “healthy” lifestyle practices that focus more on nurturing ourselves with foods, movement, and social practices that vitalize our minds and bodies, ignite passion, and increase relational connections within our communities. I envision a world where we strive to talk to our patients, not just about their aches and pains, but also what is hurting their souls and disrupting their lives. We need to help each other in deeper ways than providing the best tasting recipes that follow the latest dietary fad. It is time to move into a deeper discussion.

I may not have the answers, but we all need to be asking the questions.

As stated in Greatist:

People in larger bodies, those recovering from eating disorders, and others damaged by our society’s preoccupation with weight shouldn’t be the only ones fighting back against diet culture. We need to realize we have all been sold the same bill of goods.

Diet culture is killing us all, and we all need to be tearing it down.

In upcoming posts, I will continue to discuss the dangers of stigmatizing bodies, the un-science of “obesity”, and provide resources on how to break free from diet culture and pursue holistic health beyond focusing on the scale.

Please provide your feedback and feel free to share how diet culture has inundated and impacted your life?

Mental Health Resources

*If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and/or are suicidal, please seek professional mental health support:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor
  • Lifeline Crisis Chat — Chat online with a specialist who can provide emotional support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention services at


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