Our Toxic Relationship with Diet Culture
June 3, 2023
If you want to lose weight, you go on a diet. At least, that's the case for 45 million Americans each year, and while consuming healthier food choices is a worthy goal, that's not what diet culture is always about. The reality is that most ideologies surrounding diet culture can become toxic if they weren't to start.
The Alliance for Eating Disorders defines toxic diet culture as “any programs that encourage extreme weight loss, require restricting yourself, and suggest cutting calories […] as well as programs that advertise weight loss pills and shakes.” These programs can advertise removing entire food groups from your diet, which denies your body the sustenance it requires, and heavy restriction can lead to an unhealthy mindset and obsessive thoughts. Weight loss pills and shakes are especially harmful to teens with their addicting, powerful stimulant effects. As for meal replacement shakes, they just don't compare nutritionally to wholesome foods since most don't have the enzymes and antioxidants our bodies require.
Trends like the baby food diet have come into play, which replaces one to two meals or snacks a day with baby food jars. This dieting trend ranges from around 20 to 100 calories— not nearly enough to sustain anyone other than infants. The Hollywood diet is another one that requires heavy restriction by allowing normal eating for five days out of the week and fasting for the remaining two days. There are also water diets, which deprive you of food entirely or allow only specific foods at specific times. This is more akin to starvation than fasting. The dangers include nutrient deficiencies, dizziness, fatigue, binge eating, risk of developing eating disorders, chronic kidney disease, and diabetes, which can develop due to severe fasting.
Youth especially are at risk. The age of onset for most eating disorders is between 12-25. This can stem from the pressure to emulate the figures praised by social media and the media in general. When talking about the impact of social media on youth, Mental Health America noted, "it has also been shown to heighten the exposure of messages that promote eating disorders. Images of skinny legs, thin stomachs, and jutting ribs are posted to social media sites, along with “thinspirational” messages such as “Pretty girls don’t eat” and “Skip dinner, be thinner.” There are also plenty of messages shaming people with larger body sizes on these platforms, and dieting becomes more about what you look like rather than health. Overall, social media can harm more than it helps as it reinforces comparisons, disorders, and obsessive thoughts for many.
Diet culture then capitalizes on these insecurities. This is where programs that cut corners and promote massive weight loss in a short period come in, and the people that peddle these diets don't tell you about the dangers. Instead, they push the idea that these risky routes to a slim figure are worth harm to your health and wellbeing, something they claim to benefit. That's why it's essential when considering dieting to look at why you want to and the goals you want to achieve.
Quick weight loss is not the way to go, and it's important to research the risks that come with some of these diets. If you choose to diet, don't cut out entire food groups or focus too heavily on restriction because this may lead to binge eating tendencies forming later and nutrient deficiencies. Don't take away entire food groups but choose healthier alternatives within them when you can. Fruits, vegetables, proteins (eggs, nuts, seafood, lean meats, etc.), whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk products are generally good meal options. Exercise also helps—a ten-minute walk around the neighborhood can boost health and our overall mood.
As for the mental aspect that comes with dieting, it's often overlooked. Many communities can become toxic about dieting, and yet support is important. Having someone you can confide in about your insecurities and who you can check in with can make a huge difference. The best support is a medical professional or therapist who can give useful tips and assess how your mental health is doing when it comes to dieting, body image, and whatever else you may be battling.
Society also needs to be put under the microscope. We need to examine our views surrounding dieting, change how we speak about body image and the "ideal figure," and change what we put out for youth to consume. Being critical of people's bodies and uplifting one figure as the ideal is a part of fueling insecurities and toxicity within diet culture—this needs to be thin at any cost. Instead, let's shift the conversation to physical and mental health and promote positive ways to approach dietary changes.
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