Canceling Fad Diet Culture

Achieving mind over munchies means learning to listen to your body
Diet Culture New
Illustration by Lindsey Masterson

Anna Jones threw away her scale years ago.

She is a registered dietitian, mind you, someone who offers clients advice on eating well and exercising right. Why, then, toss the accountability device? How can you track progress without monitoring weight? More generally, how do you know when you are healthy?

Jones and fellow Tallahassee dietitian Claire Igoe reject what has been coined “diet culture,” whose tenants include: There are good foods and bad foods. Thinness equates to healthiness. The right diet will solve all of your problems. If you can’t keep the weight off, it’s a personal, if not moral, failing.

The truth, according to Jones and Igoe, is that dieting doesn’t really work at all. The only thing that dieting does well, they say, is to keep people miserable.

Jones has worked as a dietician for more than 20 years. She has seen countless clients try unsuccessfully to reach goals by restricting their diet, cutting carbs and experimenting with fad diets. 

“Over the years, many people sought me out for weight loss,” Jones said. “They wanted meal plans. They wanted me to tell them what to eat and how many calories they needed, so I thought that was my job. That’s what people want, but it just felt like it didn’t fit with my values and my relationship with food and my body.”

Jones doesn’t count calories. She doesn’t study food labels, and she for sure doesn’t weigh herself every day. About five years ago, Jones embraced “intuitive eating,” an alternative to diet culture whereby people eat what their bodies tell them they need.

Too good to be true? It may sound that way. Diet culture preaches that if we listen to our bodies, we’ll just keep eating.

“But that’s a big misconception about intuitive eating,” Jones said. “That it’s not caring about nutrition, that it means eating whatever we want, whenever we want.”

Intuitive eating requires attention to hunger and fullness cues, yes, but behavior and “gentle” nutrition are key components in making it work.

“Many of us never really learned to take care of ourselves,” Jones said. “People come in asking me to help them lose weight, but yet they’re stressed to the max, they’re not sleeping well, they’re maybe not even eating on a consistent basis and then wondering why they are starving and binging at night when they haven’t eaten all day long.”

When it comes to nutrition, Jones said, most of us generally know what our bodies need. Fruits and vegetables contain important nutrients. Carbs are brain fuel. We need to eat regularly to stay focused, energized and to sleep well. Processed foods are not as filling, but eating the occasional piece of cake or a white bread sandwich should not cause us stress. Missing a day’s worth of veggies should not make us feel guilty. These are the principles of gentle nutrition.

Last year, the software company Cision estimated that the global market for  weight loss products would surpass $254 billion. By 2026, that number is expected to top $377 billion.

“They want us coming back,” Jones said. “It is their sole purpose to make a profit. So what do they do? They prey on our insecurities.”

Messaging from the diet industry is pervasive across television, billboards, books and news articles. In recent years, social media has become a superhighway for diet culture.

In the fall of 2021, a whistleblowing former employee of Facebook (the parent company of Instagram) released hundreds of documents outlining internal company research on how two of the country’s most popular social media outlets are affecting users. Many of those documents related to diet culture, eating disorders and impacts on body image among girls. 

Igoe works with Better Living Solutions, a wellness and nutrition center focused on eating disorder recovery.

She said that while social media can promote unhealthy practices and ideals, there is good out there, too. YouTubers including Colleen Christensen speak to the dangers of diet culture and the benefits of intuitive eating. By searching online for “intuitive eating,” “anti-diet” or “registered dietitian,” people can find helpful advice — and produce healthy algorithms.

Diet culture, Jones said, exists not just in the media; it’s in the home. As she puts it, diet culture is the ocean, and we’re the fish.

Diet culture may affect how people see themselves, how their children see them and how those children will feel about themselves and treat their bodies.

“I think the important question to honestly ask is, ‘Why do I want to lose this weight? What impact could it have on my child, and what behaviors am I willing to engage in to get there that could affect my child?’” Igoe said.

She further advises people to ask,  “How can I change certain behaviors to be healthier?”

“That could mean being less sedentary or including more variety in your diet or teaching your children about eating for health versus eating to look a certain way.”  

Categories: Food