If you’re familiar with the term “diet culture,” then you’re probably sick and tired of it already. Diet culture refers to the idea of valuing (either consciously or subconsciously) body size and appearance above health and well-being.
Diet culture conditions people to believe that dieting and pursuing a physical look, especially thinness, equates to pursuing health. Essentially, looking thin is encouraged by this ideology, and thinness and the pursuit of “fitness” and health are often perceived to make someone more or less superior.
Not wanting to participate in diet culture, but instead eating and exercising based on what is best for your body is a healthy goal. However, diet culture is pervasive in our society – to the point of affecting how some of us develop relationships with food. Diet culture often leads to moralizing food.
TMS spoke with registered dietitian Kaleigh McMordie, who runs the food and nutrition blog, Lively Table, to better understand how moralizing food and lifestyle activities affects us.
Words and phrases to look out for
How often have you heard someone say they’re being “bad” when they enjoy a particular food? The food could be something they typically avoid because it’s higher in calories or a nutrient like fat or sugar.
Moreover, how often have you turned down a slice of cake or denied yourself a side of fries, not because you didn’t want or need it, but instead because you considered it “junk food” or overindulgent? It’s common to hear celebrities or trainers talk about a “cheat” meal. But, how can you cheat when it comes to food? Eating isn’t a sport or a test.
McMordie explains there is language we can look out for to gauge our relationship with food better. “Look out for words that assign moral characteristics or virtues to food such as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ or ‘cheat day,’” she explains. “These are all used frequently by diet culture and people stuck in the diet trap. Of course, some foods are more nutrient-dense or beneficial health-wise than others. Those values are completely different than moral values.”
The effects of moralizing food
Sure, there will always be “good” and “bad” foods, but those terms should apply to how those foods taste, their nutritional value and how they make you feel. After all, how can a food be “naughty” or “wrong?” It may not seem like a big deal, but there are substantial psychological and physiological effects from moralizing foods, eating and even exercising.
“When we give food moral value, we tend to then project those values onto ourselves for eating those foods,” says McMordie. “So, if we eat a food perceived as ‘bad’, we view ourselves as ‘bad’ for eating it, and if we eat a food deemed ‘good,’ then we feel better about ourselves.
“This can create an unhealthy relationship with food and body, as self worth becomes tied more and more with food choices. This can also create a cycle of feeling the need to punish or reward the body with exercise or rest in response to foods eaten, which is never a healthy way to look at food and body.”
When it comes to exercise, the social pressure to work out is closely linked to diet culture, even though exercise alone won’t necessarily significantly impact weight loss. Exercise is undoubtedly good for our physical and mental health. But because it’s often associated with punishment for eating “bad” foods – and we often view food as a reward for grueling exercise – working out can often feel more like a chore.
McMordie points out that we often use exercise as a moral response to the “bad” foods we’ve eaten or will eat, and rest as a reward for the good foods we’ve eaten, rather than joyful self-expression to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy.
Some people also perceive their workouts as making them superior to those with lower-impact exercise routines or those who may not exercise at all. However, it’s important to remember that we all have different bodies and metabolisms, and we can respond differently to nutrition and exercise.
The large-scale effects of diet culture
The United States is a diet culture hub. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found in a recent study that almost half of Americans say they have tried to lose weight in the past 12 months. It’s worth noting that the number is higher among women than men, and we often see diet products and messaging target a female audience. This is particularly concerning when we consider how diet culture negatively affects young women, especially as seen by the detrimental effects of social media and the popularity of “miracle” diet products.
Celebrities like the Kardashians and Cardi B have been criticized for promoting things like detox teas and appetite-suppressing candy. In fact, Instagram blocked minors from seeing content that promotes diet products like these because of their dangers to younger users. Although it’s possible to write off a lot of diet culture messaging as annoying, the pressures and process of dieting can be linked to disordered eating.
McMordie goes more in-depth on the cultural repercussions of diet culture’s moral high ground. “We already see the effects of diet culture on a large scale,” she says. “Larger bodies are looked at as having less value, while thin bodies are held up as the ideal standard, and each has assumed moral value based on appearance, when, in fact, we do not know much, if anything, about a person’s personal characteristics, food choices or health status based on body size and shape.
“It also creates a greater divide between people who make different food choices (for many different reasons) because people tend to wrap their identities around their dietary choices so much. People who are able to afford more nutritious food (labeled as eating ‘clean’) suddenly are perceived as more ‘clean’ than those who may not be able to afford (or just not prefer) eating in the same way.”
Separating yourself from the moral language of diet culture
While having aesthetic goals and wanting to lose weight isn’t inherently a bad thing, it doesn’t make you morally superior to someone else. Even with this knowledge, it can be difficult to distance ourselves from the social implications of diet culture.
“At its core, diet culture is about external forces controlling a person’s food choices – what is the ‘good’ thing to eat, how many calories are allowed on this diet plan, which foods are within limits based on this book–and ignoring the internal cues that have regulated food choices for centuries,” asserts McMordie. “There are a few things I suggest to start separating yourself from diet culture.
“The first is recognizing diet culture where it shows up in your life and calling it out, even challenging it, even if it’s just in your own head. The second is to start relying on internal cues to make your food choices. If we just quiet the outside noise and listen to our own bodies, they often tell us what we need and how much. It takes practice to get back to a place of being in tune with your own body, but it’s very helpful for tuning out diet culture. Finally, having an attitude of respect and compassion toward your body can help you separate your value from food choices.”
Regardless of your health goals, a nonjudgmental approach to eating and exercising is recommended, and it’s important to be conscientious about the messaging being fed to you by the media and society.
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