New Year. New Diet. The toxicity of Diet Culture


By Rachel Hackam, Contributing Reporter

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of dieting and issues regarding body image. 

With the new year, comes “New Year’s Resolutions,” often including self-imposed goals of weight loss and/or health kicks. But why do so many New Year’s Resolutions solely focus on weight loss? When did losing weight become synonymous with being healthy? The answer to both of these questions is the toxic diet culture society has created.

Although more complex than a simple definition, diet culture can be defined as a system of beliefs that elevates appearing thin over one’s mental and physical well-being. Diet culture infiltrates almost every aspect of our society year-round, manifesting itself in TV ads for “Weight Watchers” or in your favorite celebrity or family member pushing their newest fast-acting “diet product” on social media. However, diet companies thrive during peak resolution season, feeding off the insecurities of their consumers.

Every January, over 45 million American adults start diets, many of which fail before the end of the month. But why are so many of these diets hard to maintain? It all comes down to sustainability. Diet culture consistently perpetuates the thin ideal, leading people to search for a “quick fix” instead of building healthy habits, especially with the expectation of immediate results accompanying new year’s resolutions. 

For example, an individual might try to cut out all sugar and carbs from their daily diet in order to achieve their goal as quickly as possible, but end up not being able to keep up with their new overly restrictive diet. 

Because of the sneaky nature of diet culture, many individuals don’t realize they’re adhering to its values. Furthermore, in recent years, diet culture has rebranded itself from “dieting” to “wellness,” however, the core values have not changed— being thin equates to being healthy. 

This unsustainable kind of dieting leads to a practice known as “yo-yo dieting,” where a person will continuously start and stop restrictive diets. The focus on weight loss and caloric restriction causes people to become disconnected from their body’s natural hunger cues. Because of this, many registered dieticians are working with clients and focusing on “intuitive eating”—eating in response to one’s hunger and satiety cues, with the goal of building a healthier relationship with food. With intuitive eating, no food is “off limits,” eliminating the stigma around certain food groups such as carbs. 

In recent years, many dieticians and diet culture adversaries alike have turned to social media to discuss the harmful nature of diet culture. Recently, TikTok has become a platform where dieticians advocate for intuitive eating, working to dismantle diet culture. Toronto based registered dietician and intuitive eating coach Abbey Sharp has used her platform on both TikTok and YouTube to “debunk diet myths.” 

On her channel, Sharp will examine different diets and detoxes before sharing why they are unnecessary. For example, Sharp created a video explaining why a “five day new year’s detox” is not beneficial for your body. All of her videos lead back to the same idea: there is no magic powder, drink, or superfood that can rid your body of toxins, that’s what we have a liver, kidney, and immune system for.  

Sharp and others on TikTok––and other social media platforms––work to provide alternatives to diet culture, allowing for future generations to break the cycle and help encourage a healthier relationship with food.

From a young age, diet culture is shoved down our throats. From NOOM and other diet companies commercials on TV, to idolizing unrealistic beauty standards like Barbie’s long legs and slim waist, the thin ideal is everywhere. The pressure to adhere to society’s ideal body shape and size is especially prevalent among young girls. 

While I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who didn’t negatively comment on my body or her own, in the 7th grade, my friend group and I decided we weren’t going to eat any “junk food” and would only eat “healthy food.” 

While this didn’t last very long (less than a week), it was my first introduction to the phenomenon of moralizing food. Diet culture told me that some foods—higher-calorie foods— were inherently bad. I made smoothies not because I wanted them, but because I was told they were healthy. I watched my friends obsess over their bodies, wishing they were as tiny as I was, as I secretly wished to grow another four inches to be their height. 

Diet culture and society as a whole had told me I needed to be taller and to have longer legs to be considered pretty. However, that wasn’t and still isn’t my reality. And that is okay. 

Growing up in the dance world, I saw diet culture everywhere. I was fortunate to train at a dance studio with teachers who did not comment on our bodies, but that isn’t the case for many dancers. I heard horror stories from girls at other studios whose teachers had told them to “lose x amount of weight” before the show next week, even if that meant drastically reducing their caloric intake. Although improvements have been made in recent years, there is still a pressure in the dance world to look a certain way, to eat a certain way, even if that means your performance will suffer because your body doesn’t have the energy it needs. 

Diet culture and society as a whole preaches thinness over health. It expects everyone to conform to its impossible standards, no matter the cost. It encourages individuals to shrink down to the smallest possible size. To take up less space. 

Diet culture creates a fatphobic society, moralizing thinness and equating health and size. In response, a movement advocating for health over size has emerged. The body positivity movement strives to promote acceptance of one’s own body, regardless of the shape or size. This movement attempts to dismantle ideas instilled in society because of diet culture. It portrays food as fuel, with different foods serving different purposes, utilizing words such as “nutrient dense” instead of “healthy.” Body positivity and intuitive eating advocates for balance in both diet and lifestyle, prioritizing listening to your own body. 

Life is too short to count every calorie, to regret every piece of cake, to give that much power to the scale. Freeing oneself from the diet culture mentality is hard. It’s hard to not assign a bag of chips moral value. It’s hard to ignore the bolded calories on food packaging. But it’s possible and necessary. 

Instead of striving to lose weight or eat healthier this year, try counting memories instead of calories. Fifty years from now, you won’t look back and wish you hadn’t eaten that piece of cake, you’ll remember the people you were with and the occasion you were celebrating. So eat the carrots, but eat the cookies too.

National Eating Disorder Association- (800) 931-2237

If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, text “NEDA” to 741741