“I don’t have the willpower to stay on this diet.”
“I was bad this week, next week I’ll eat clean.”
“I just can’t stop overeating.”
If you live in the United States of America, you probably hear these phrases regularly. You might even say them yourself. While these remarks seem harmless and almost natural, they’re part of a damaging system called diet culture.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a belief system, fueled by the multi-billion dollar diet industry, which implies smaller, able-bodies are superior to larger bodies. This ideology specifically oppresses people of color, people in larger bodies, people with physical disabilities, and women. Diet culture negatively impacts the financial, spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health of those who fall victim to its messages. Just think, how could a woman ever break the glass ceiling if she is spending all of her time and energy on losing weight? How eager would someone in a larger body be to seek preventative health care if they felt they would be judged for their body size?
What does diet culture look like?
- Putting foods and bodies into “good” and “bad” boxes.
- “Oh I’m being bad today and eating pizza, you’re so good for having a salad.”
- Worshiping thinness and equating it to health and moral virtue
- “You’ve lost so much weight! You look so healthy!”
- Promotes disordered eating behaviors
- “When you feel hungry, chew on a piece of gum or drink diet tea.”
- Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining a higher status
- When a girl becomes popular in the movie after losing weight.
- Oppresses people who don’t match up to the “ideal healthy body”
- Someone in larger bodies doesn’t receive adequate health care when a physician believes the solution to every ailment is to lose weight.
- Thinness becomes the goal; regardless of the cost
- Spending $200 on health shakes to get the “perfect body”.
Despite their sneaky advertisements that suggest otherwise, many companies in the wellness industry are not concerned about the public’s health. Trust me, they know weight loss is difficult and unsustainable. Their success is based on you believing the next diet will work and make you a more-worthy human. The diet industry preys on insecurities, by crafting marketing campaigns that place the blame of a failed diet on the consumer, not the product. These companies know the formula; the worse you feel about your body, the more likely you’ll try another diet, and the more money they make.
The Binge Restrict Cycle
There is a myth that dieters lack self-mastery, and that is why they can’t lose weight. Even in college, as a nutrition major, I believed this. Like the millions of dieters out there, every week I would pledge that this would be the week where I would change. I would be “good,” “eat clean,” and finally have the body of my dreams. Monday morning, I would eat a “perfect” breakfast. Non-fat Greek yogurt and fruit. Grilled vegetables and chicken for lunch. I felt so accomplished; then, dinner came along. My feeling of achievement faded as my stomach began to growl, and food cravings increased. As a result, I ate everything in sight once I had access to food again. Since I felt I had already messed up my diet, I went on an eating spree, continuing to eat “off-limit” foods, regardless of how hungry I was. I then pledged to start over and eat healthy in the morning.
What I just described is the binge-restrict cycle. It looks different for everyone, but the main takeaway is every time you try to restrict what you eat, you will end up overeating later on. Binges cannot be prevented until the restriction ends. This cycle fuels feelings of guilt, shame, and failure.
Here are the phases of the binge restrict cycle:
- Eating less than normal
- Forbidding yourself from eating a particular food
- Only eating certain types of food
- Labeling food as good or bad
- Feeling deprived
- Obsessive over food
- Abnormally hungry
- Cravings increased
- Body thinks it’s in a famine
- Eat a “forbidden” or “bad” food
- Feel out of control
- Can’t stop eating
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment
- Promise to yourself this will never happen again
- Recommit to a diet
- Dwell on your mistake
5. Repeat Cycle
After learning about the binge-restrict cycle, I realized eating after periods of restriction isn’t a character flaw; it’s natural. Because the body God gave me is smart and wants to help me survive in a famine, I feel the need to overeat when I’m deprived. I learned to be able to stop eating when I’m satisfied I must provide my body food when it is hungry. You might be thinking, “I’m an exception. I can restrict and not binge. This time the diet will work.” Yes, it may “work” for a day, a week, or even a month, but I guarantee there will eventually be a day where you no longer can stick to a rigid eating pattern. This is one of the main reasons why approximately 80% of people who go on diets end up regaining the weight they lost.
Ditching diet culture is easier said than done, but if you can muster up the courage to NOT try another diet, you are taking the first step towards a better life. Don’t get discouraged if the transition to intuitive eating and diet freedom is not as seamless as you had hoped. There are days when I eat waay past fullness or panic when I think I’ve had too many calories that day. It’s an ongoing battle, but I promise you won’t regret saying goodbye to the toxic messages of diet culture.
If you feel that you’re experiencing the binge-restrict cycle or other disordered eating behaviors, I encourage you to seek a dietitian or therapist specializing in intuitive eating or eating disorders. Also, check out the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
What’s your experience with diet culture? Let me know @isabellabrownnutrition