You may have heard about “Diet Culture,” but what is it, and why does it matter? Well, it turns out that it matters a lot when we’re talking about parenting. Especially if your child has or is at risk of developing an eating disorder.
So let’s begin with a simple definition: Diet culture is the idea that intentional weight loss is possible and healthy.
To visualize diet culture, just close your eyes for a minute and think about the magazine ads, billboards, social media posts, and articles you have seen that promote weight loss as the path to happiness.
Diet culture absolutely surrounds us. It is impossible to live in our society and not be immersed in diet culture. It is perpetrated on billboards, television, and social media, but it is also promoted in doctor’s offices, classrooms, places of worship, playing fields, workplaces, and, of course, in people’s homes.
Diet culture promises us:
- An easy solution
- A happier life
- No pain or restriction
- Good citizenship
At any given time, about one-third of Americans are on a diet. The diet industry is currently valued at $72 billion. And yet, as we keep hearing, our weights continues to rise. So what’s up?
Well, it turns out that even though diet culture promises us that weight loss is possible and healthy, it’s not. In fact, dieting actually leads to both weight gain and eating disorders.
In other words, diet culture is based on lies.
A simplistic view of human biology
Diet culture presents a simplistic view of human biology. Most diets combine some variation of “eat less and move more.” But anyone who has intentionally lost weight knows it’s virtually impossible to intentionally lose weight without feeling hungry.
And hunger, a biological instinct, is the problem with dieting. Because despite what diet companies tell us, weight is not simply a simple equation of calories in and calories out. It is not solely based on our behaviors. Weight is actually a really complex combination of genes, environment, psychology, and (least of all) behaviors.
We have far less control over our weight than we’ve been led to believe. And the most likely outcome of intentionally trying to control our weight is weight gain (not loss). Pretty frustrating, huh? Here are some statistics:
- Approximately 95-98% of all dieters who lose weight will regain lost pounds 2-5 years later
- About half of dieters will weigh more 4-5 years post-diet than they did before they dieted
- Dieting is strongly associated with lifetime weight gain independent of other factors (i.e. genetics, environment, and behavior).
The science for this article can be found here.
So why does this happen? In its simplest form, our bodies are programmed to respond to intentional weight loss in exactly the same way as they do famine. Our metabolism slows down and we become preoccupied/obsessed with food.
While we can lose weight in the short-term, most bodies will fight for – and attain – a return to the weight it was previously.
When we lose weight, our bodies fight to 1) regain the weight lost; 2) gain a little more to protect against the next famine.
Diet companies tell us that the problem with weight regain is that we lack willpower. But it’s actually that our bodies are far more powerful than our minds when it comes to weight control.
Playing around with diet culture
Most of us have played around with diet culture at some point in our lives. It’s fairly unusual to live in our society and not believe that we can and should control our weight with eating and exercise behaviors.
And while lots of us joined Weight Watchers or followed diet advice in a book or app, there are more casual ways to engage in diet culture. For example, have you ever:
- Skipped a meal to be “good”
- Set weight loss challenges with friends and family
- Asked for salad without dressing or plain baked chicken at a restaurant
- Done laps around your living room to try and meet your step goal for the day
- Weighed yourself daily
- Forced yourself to exercise when you’re sick, injured, or the weather is terrible
- Purchased items to support weight loss (e.g. books, courses, memberships, magazines, food, apps, etc.)
- Read weight-loss success stories
If so, you have participated in diet culture. Most all of us have. It’s normalized in our society. It’s OK, but I’d like to suggest trying something different.
What I’d like parents to consider about diet culture
As an eating disorder professional, it would mean a lot to me if parents stopped engaging in diet culture at home. Why? Because diet culture tends to be passed down in families. When moms and dads participate in diet culture, their kids are more likely to engage in diet culture.
So what’s the big deal?
If everyone is participating in diet culture, why should you stop?
Well … here are two things.
First, remember that sneaky little fact that dieting increases weight? Well, I know a lot of parents are deeply concerned about their kids’ weight. That’s a whole other topic that we can talk about. But my point here is that if you’re actually interested in not increasing your child’s weight, the most important action you can take is to make sure they don’t diet.
That’s right. Of all the things we can do to help our kids not gain weight beyond that which their bodies naturally want and need to function, not letting them diet is No. 1.
Banning sweets, reducing portion sizes, and holding family weigh-ins will have the opposite effect of what you intend. These behaviors are associated with increased lifetime weight.
Second, diet behaviors are strongly correlated with eating disorders. If you have a child who has an eating disorder or who you are afraid may be at risk of an eating disorder, then I encourage you to learn the dangers of diet culture and try to counteract them in your home.
Teenagers who diet are 5x-18x more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are no joke. And they’re on the rise. If you want to raise a healthy child, then prevent dieting. If your child has an eating disorder, please consider canceling diet culture to help them recover. It will help. A lot.
What parents should do
The bottom line is that parents should stop supporting diet culture and actively work against it in their homes. Diets aren’t healthy and can lead to serious health complications.
What can you do to get started? Here are some ideas:
- Start paying attention to diet culture. Notice billboards, magazine covers, social media posts and more that promote intentional weight loss. It’s important to pay attention to how pervasive these messages are.
- Get rid of your scale, and stop dieting. I know this isn’t easy, but you can actually be healthier if you stop worrying about your weight. You can still pursue healthy behaviors like eating well, moving, and getting enough sleep. The only difference is that you’re not doing it in pursuit of a weight goal.
- Don’t let your kids engage in diet behavior. Look for behaviors like skipping meals, cutting out food groups, counting calories, steps, or any other form of energy, and using diet foods.
- Talk about diet culture as a family. Part of what makes diet culture so powerful is that we don’t examine it carefully. Talk about the dangers of diet culture regularly to expose its dangers to our health.
- Learn about body-positivity. If you’re wondering what to do instead of dieting, then consider body-positivity. I have a free e-book to help.
Hopefully this review of diet culture has given you some insight into its risks. I encourage you to keep learning and thinking about how your family might benefit from a body-positive approach.
If you want to learn more about how you can help your child recover, please reach out for parent coaching. I’d be glad to help!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.