“As soon as this pandemic is over, I am going on a diet. Got to get rid of the Covid 15!” How many of us have heard or read words like these? In our diet-obsessed culture, we are bombarded with images of the “before” and “after” bodies, usually linked with an ad for the latest diet.
Our world is steeped in diet culture. Magazine racks are filled with images of Hollywood stars touting the latest diet; shelves of grocery stores contain an array of diet products; weight-loss businesses promise foolproof methods of achieving a thin body. All genders are affected by diet culture. For women, the thin body is idealized in the media; whereas for men it is the “lean and buff” body that is promoted. Transgender folks also feel pressure to alter their physical bodies, either by weight loss or through strength training.
But what actually happens when we diet? Research has shown that 95 per cent of people who go on a diet regain the weight they lost, and often end up heavier than before they started the dietary changes. For many people, this leads to a search for yet another diet, starting a cycle of yo-yo dieting that persists for years. For some people, their diet results in significant weight loss, yet they feel dissatisfied. In an elusive search to achieve the ideal weight, they strive for more and more weight loss — a dangerous quest that can lead to a serious eating disorder.
Diet culture permeates our daily life. If we decide to go to a gym to enjoy some exercise, we may be pressured to sign on to a “nutrition” program. Marketed as part of a healthy lifestyle change, these programs often turn out to be yet another diet. Personal trainers may focus on parts of the body that need changing, causing their clients to feel increasing body dissatisfaction.
Healthcare professionals also become entangled in diet culture. Dietitians often focus on weight loss regimens that ignore the complex factors that underlie weight gain. Doctors frequently advise weight loss, even for conditions where the link with body size is not well supported by scientific evidence. Naturopaths often prescribe rigid elimination diets to their clients as a way of addressing a host of different health concerns.
Diet culture is constantly shape-shifting – often under the guise of wellness, and sometimes under the guise of morality. The “Eat Clean” movement attributes moral weight to certain foods, which are considered “clean”. Other foods are to be avoided, resulting in a dangerous dichotomy of “good” foods versus “bad” foods. People who begin a regimen of “clean eating” often become more and more restricted in their food choices, which can spiral downwards until they are trapped in a full-blown eating disorder.
In the world of sports, diet culture manifests in particularly vicious ways. Athletes who compete in sports that promote a specific body aesthetic, such as ballet or gymnastics, are at high risk of developing an eating disorder. Competitive bodybuilders alter their diet drastically to build muscle and then deliberately dehydrate their bodies before a competition. Sports that involve competing in particular weight classes also involve risk for participants, who diet to be eligible for a lower weight class.
Body dissatisfaction starts early. We hear of children as young as eight restricting their food, perhaps because they have a parent who chronically diets. Some children are teased at school about their bodies, and these hurtful words can have a terrible impact on the child’s developing self-perception.