Well, one of the main attributing factors is diet culture. So today I’m going to talk about:
- What the hell diet culture actually is,
- How it turns up in yoga and wellness spaces, and
- 3 ways you can feel a lot more confidence, freedom and peace with your food and exercise choices (without guilt or fear of weight gain).
Watch the video below, or scroll down to read the article.
What the Hell is DIet Culture?
Diet culture is a complex sociological phenomenon rooted in race, culture, sex, identity, and capitalism. It’s been around for hundreds of years: in the Victorian era (1830s to 1900) it was corsets and swallowing tapeworm eggs in an attempt to be thin. So gross.
Nowadays it’s the Kardashians promoting purging products and appetite suppressants… and before some of you turn your noses up and think “I don’t read trashy magazines, I’m untouchable by this “diet culture”… I’d like to point out that the celery juice cleanse that Anthony William the “Medical medium” claims will heal all your ails… including aiding weight loss… ALSO constitutes diet culture.
Diet culture reveres thinness (or leanness as more people are now calling it) as the epitome of success and beauty. It disseminates the idea that a person is morally "bad" if they gain weight or live in a larger body. It makes us believe that there's a "right" and "wrong" way to eat. All of this encourages some pretty unhealthy practices around exercise and eating.
Examples of diet culture:
- fat talk
- comparing your body, diet or exercise habits with others'
- the marketing of foods as fundamentally "good" or "bad"
- the idea of food "cheat days"
- incessant gym ads around New Years
- weight loss challenges at gyms or in workplaces
- magazines and media focused on celebrities' weight gains and losses.
Fiona Sutherland, fellow non-diet dietitian, yoga teacher sums it up nicely when she says that:
Diet culture encompasses all the messages that tell us that we’re not good enough in the bodies we have, and we’d be more worthwhile and valuable if our bodies were different. Our culture is SO embedded with body- and weight-centric messages that they’re sometimes imperceptible. Diet culture is deeply ingrained in our everyday existence and prevents us from living our most full and meaningful lives.
- Fiona Sutherland
Media - especially social media - further shoves diet culture right down our throats and allows people like the Kardashians to capitalise on it. And I’m not targeting the Kardashians exclusively. Anyone profiting off of the idea that your body isn’t good enough just as it is: whether they’re a celebrity, or a studio owner selling a yoga body challenge, or a mompreneur selling Slim & Sassy doTerra essential oil (which I bloody HATE for multiple reasons), or a person selling you a juice cleanse… all of these folks are operating within the confines of - and perpetuating - diet culture.
Even if it looks like “wellness”. ESPECIALLY when it looks like wellness.
Part of the reason it can be hard to pin diet culture down today is because it's often disguised as wellness and dietary changes that are focused on “health.” Detoxes and other restrictive eating practices like intermittent fasting, keto, going sugar-free, or going on a strict elimination diet without validated testing or medical supervision are all examples of this.
One of the ways diet culture manifests in the yoga and wellness community, is primarily as The Wellness Diet. We’ve also got the yoga body phenomenon, and the Slim Successful Spiritual Woman ideal, but those are topics for another time!
The Wellness Diet
I'm just gonna say it straight: Diet culture in yoga and wellness is disguised as The Wellness Diet.
We engage in questionably restrictive dietary behaviours at the same time we proclaim "I don't diet!". But whilst I hear plenty of people declaring that they've given up dieting in lieu of "looking after their health", a closer look at their eating habits and food beliefs says otherwise.
They may no longer be doing weekly-weigh-ins or counting calories, but the dieting thoughts and behaviours remain. “It’s not a diet!” is very often a front for eating regimes that actually meet every criteria of a diet. Many ways of eating to promote wellness fall squarely into this category.
To add insult to injury, these restrictive behaviours usually do not lead to health. They are literally starving us of vitality, energy, and LIFE.
Christy Harrison sums it up perfectly when she says that:
The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about “wellness” but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like. It’s not just about weight loss, although thinness is an essential part of The Wellness Diet’s supposed picture of health. (So is whiteness, and youth, and physical ability, and wealth.)
- Christy Harrison
Yogis are not immune to diet culture, and in a strange way we may in fact be more susceptible to it. Valuing purity, discipline and of course, health can lead us to undertaking any number of harmfully strict diets disguised as "wellness protocols". This can and often does lead to restrictive, restrained, or disordered eating, or an eating disorder like orthorexia. Which might partly explain why there is a higher incidence of disordered eating in yoga teachers than in the general population.
You can read my original article about the Wellness Diet Cycle here, where I explain what it looks like, and the physical symptoms that suggest your "health protocol" might be actually be harming you.
Why diet culture + the wellness diet SUCK
So, what’s so wrong about wanting to lose weight and look “better”? Well you're not bad or stupid for desiring weight loss, that’s just a symptom of the culture we grow up in. But the harm that comes from the pursuit of weight loss is a problem because:
1. Diet culture is based on lies. Because health isn't as simple as skinny = good and fat = bad. And it simply isn’t true that if you have enough willpower, the ideal body type is easily acquired… contrary to I dunno, EVERY weight loss diet, magazine cover, and gym ad EVER.
2. Diets don't actually help you lose weight. In fact, research has shown that the majority of people who lose weight by dieting end up regaining it. Diets force you to live off fewer calories than your body needs for optimal functioning, which slows metabolism and makes you hella cranky among other things. If you do it for long enough, dieting can disconnect you from your body's innate hunger and fullness cues... and that's a bad thing.
There's only so long people can do this before they either break the diet with a blow out binge. For those few who are able to keep dieting long term, frequently the diet has turned into a more serious form of disordered eating... or an actual eating disorder.
3. Diet culture is inherently linked to fatphobia (or weight bias), which basically means negative attitudes to larger bodies and the irrational fear of being fat or being around fat people. People in larger bodies feel the effects of a fatphobic society in ways that are far more profound and damaging than smaller sized people or those with thin privilege, including myself.
Fat people often deal with medical discrimination due to their weight. They’re less likely to be chosen for jobs or offered promotions, which is fucked up. This kind of weight stigma has been shown to be just as if not more harmful to health than poor diet or lack of exercise, due to the stress of being stigmatised and the inflammation this causes.
4. Diet culture further exacerbates the stigma experienced by marginalised groups. Living in a larger body is hard enough, but when you're also black, or non-binary, or have a chronic illness, diet culture comes down even harder on you. Even if you live in a smaller body, being ethnically ambiguous (speaking from personal experience here), too tall or too short, or in any way not conforming to the white, wealthy, pretty, young, thin, cis-het ideal of beauty and success undoubtedly makes your life harder in ways small and big... largely thanks to diet culture.
When you layer fatphobia onto other marginalised identities that intersect with fatness - such as not being white, being non-gender conforming, being trans, being poor or being disabled - the oppression experienced from diet culture is amplified.
Diet culture can cripple all the ways we show up in the world.
3 Ways to Drop Out of Diet Culture
Becoming a diet culture drop out is one of the most liberating, health-generating things you can do. It IS possible for you to actually feel GOOD about your food and exercise choices (without guilt or fear of weight gain).
So what you CAN you do to quit diet culture? I’ve got 3 suggestions for you to kick things off, in no particular order:
1. Ask yourself “what is my motivation?”
When it comes to making choices about food or exercise, is your motive primarily to lose or control your weight, or is it aligned with your personal values? There might be other reasons layered on top, including health reasons, but when you sift through your motivations is the hope of weight loss a big part of why you’re making that choice?
Would you really do a juice cleanse if you didn’t care about your weight? If you really want to support your kidneys and liver and skin, there are SO many other ways to do that that don’t include starvation…. and actually work. For example, eating enough calories and protein are crucial. I talk all about that here.
Does your choice align with your internal values? Examples of values are self-care, health, self-compassion / kindness, freedom, success in a sport or physical endeavour, curiosity, pleasure, social connection, family.
When it comes to food, you might eat something because it's going to make you feel energised or help you focus on your work, or because it’s delicious and satisfying. You might eat at a restaurant you wouldn’t normally eat at because it's a social occasion and you want to connect with your loved ones. You might eat a Mars bar to simply fuel your body for a physical activity, like a big footy game or a hike.
When it comes to exercise you might do it to socialise, reduce stress, feel strong and capable in your body, train towards something, or to simply have fun.
Clarifying your values and motives is a nice starting point for rejecting diet culture and wellness dieting. It also helps you tap into a more self-compassionate approach to food and movement.
2. Do a social media detox. This is the only type of detox I recommend. Unfollow the Jenners, and instead follow a few non-diet dietitians (like yours truly!) and plus-sized yoga teachers and influencers. Do this and the algorithm will probably start drip-feeding you posts linked to counter-diet culture movements like the Health At Every Size (HAES), neutrality/acceptance movements, and body positivity.
3. Ditch the scales. Smash 'em, bin 'em, use 'em as a pot plant base. This is one of the simplest ways to begin focussing on health, not weight. Not having scales in the house will help you to begin practising weight-neutral self care and rejecting the part of our culture designed to make you feel like you aren't good enough as you are.
Ditching diet culture doesn't mean letting yourself go and saying "f*@k it" to eating well and exercising, but it does mean taking the focus off body weight, and instead focussing on health behaviours. Because weight isn't a behaviour... but eating regular balanced meals, for example, is.
I hope this helps you to identify and disrupt diet culture as it shows up in the yoga studio or the gym, or even just in your personal life, amongst your friends and family. If you’re wanting to ask me a question to answer on a Facebook Live, have a chat with me to see how a non-diet, body inclusive approach to health resonates with you, or to work with me 1 on 1, please get in touch.
In diet culture drop out solidarity,