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The Relationship Between Diet Culture & Eating Disorders: How Our Environment Shapes Our Body Image

Photo by Chris Jarvis

Ever notice how, while cooking a meal, the ingredients in the pot tend to take on the flavors of those around them? When we “stew” (pun intended!) in a toxic environment, we can absorb those beliefs and ideals as our own… often without even realizing it.

When it comes to our body image, we all grew up in this type of inescapable toxic environment: diet culture. The University of Arizona defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs about bodies and the desire to lose weight that can impact a person’s behaviors.” Because it is so pervasive, diet culture affects all of us, even those of us who do not have diagnosed eating disorders.

Eating disorders represent one of the most dangerous manifestations of diet culture dogma. However, chances are that we’ve all had bad body image days, when we’ve compared ourselves to society’s standard of beauty and lamented the parts of us that don’t measure up.

Learning to recognize diet culture for what it is can help us unlearn toxic messaging around bodies and weight, and let go of the pressure to control our body shape and size. So, what does diet culture look like, and how does our cultural environment influence the development of our body image?

What is “Diet Culture?”

In the most basic sense, diet culture describes the normalization – and even glorification – of weight loss and dieting. Some examples of what diet culture looks and sounds like include:

● Food products being labeled as “guilt-free,” “low-fat,” “low-calorie,” or “all-natural” as a way to influence you to purchase

● News headlines celebrating celebrity weight loss and promoting the fad diet they followed to “achieve” their new look

● Friends bonding over “fat talk” about how much they hate their bodies and swapping the latest diet tips from magazines

● Family members and even healthcare professionals commenting on your body size under the guise that they’re “worried about you” and “concerned for your health”

The dominant narrative in our society is that thinness is beautiful, and that we should all go to whatever lengths it takes to conform to this ideal. Despite (some of) our parents’ best intentions, we all grew up surrounded by media messaging and advertisements encouraging us to get a “bikini body” for summer or buy the latest “flat tummy tea” promoted by celebrities.

Unsurprisingly then, many of us develop disordered eating patterns and dysfunctional relationships with food and exercise. We fall victim to the misconception that our behaviors are 100% responsible for what we look like… and wrongfully believe that, by controlling these behaviors, we can change the fundamental shape and size of our bodies.

But while disordered eating may be successful in the short-term at changing our weight, it is rarely a long-term solution for low self-esteem. Most dieters regain the pounds they shed within a few years, and often more. And some will go on to develop dangerous eating disorders that can result in devastating long-term health consequences.

Improve Your Body Image by Detoxing from Diet Culture

Ultimately, no amount of weight loss will fix a fundamental lack of confidence and self-love. Those of us who have suffered from disordered eating and diagnosed EDs know that negative body image does not disappear, and may even worsen, at a lower body weight.

So, what’s a person to do if they want to transform the way they feel about their body? Unlearning negative body image takes time… but for many, the first step is learning to recognize the toxic messages we’ve received about our shape and weight from external sources. In other words, we have to learn to recognize diet culture for what it is – and slowly, over time, decrease the manipulative effect it has on our behavior.

Currently, there is a $72.6 billion weight loss industry profiting off our self-hatred. As long as we continue to buy into this narrative, this industry – and therefore diet culture – will continue to thrive. So, if we want diet culture to change, we need to de-influence ourselves from diet propaganda and unlearn the lies diet culture has taught us about our bodies.

I recommend starting by educating yourself on the basics. Books like Intuitive Eating and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat are great places to begin your anti-diet journey. Additionally, resources like the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) and EDIT Method websites contain valuable information about diet culture and ED recovery.

In conclusion…

Don’t get me wrong: detoxing from diet culture is much easier said than done. But as you learn to spot the lies that diet culture has fed us over the years, you might just find yourself letting go of the need to control your shape and weight and honoring your body’s inherent worth.

If you need more support along the way, EDIT-certified recovery coaching is a wonderful place to start. I can work with you to recognize the toxic messages you may have absorbed – and where the truth really lies – so you can detox from diet culture and start living your life beyond the endless pursuit of weight loss.

Contact me at if you’re ready to learn more!

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