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How Diet Culture Influences Eating Disorders

what actually is disordered eating

Diet culture has a stronghold in the media and your daily life, whether you notice it or not. While it may seem like there has been an emergence in diet trends for the last decade (likely due to our constant connection to marketing, social media, etc), diet trends have been around for much longer! For instance, The Atkins Diet has been around since the 1970’s. Additionally, societal focus on the bodies of women has influenced beauty and “health” standards for longer than we can imagine. 

These trends have confined people to only consuming certain food groups and lacking essential nutrients and have contributed to unhealthy preoccupation with food.

From juice cleanses, to Keto, or Paleo, the world of diet culture has wreaked havoc on millions of men and women’s self-esteem and mental health. 

Diet culture is more than just being on a diet all the time. It’s an environment of cultural messages about food and bodies that has led to a set of beliefs: that thinness equals health, worth, and overall wellness, goodness, and morality. People who engage in diet culture pursue unrealistic body ideals at the expense of their health and wellness. 

These beliefs are prevalent in the marketing of food, beauty products, and programs that promise to help users achieve “body goals.” 

Some examples of how diet culture invades our day to day life include: 

  • Magazines touting celebrity eating plans or cleanses 
  • Food marketing that labels products as “guilt-free.” 
  • Weight loss programs that make you track your food as points. 

The practice of viewing food as “good” or “bad” instead of through a lens of nutrition and nourishment can be harmful. 

The Problem with Diet Culture 

Size Does Not Equal Health

Through the lens of diet culture, skinny people or people who at their presumed ideal weight are considered “healthier.” 

Diet culture has distorted the perception of health to where it’s singularly focused on weight. In reality, health is a spectrum of mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.

Human bodies come in a range of shapes and sizes, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness, and it certainly doesn’t solely depend on how much you weigh. 

Rules and Restrictions

Dieting involves limitations, often extreme limitations, on what is or is not allowed. 

From limiting bread, pasta, and carbs to going on juice and smoothie fasts, we can use a tremendous amount of energy to uphold internalized rules and restrictions of what not to eat. 

Examples of diets that have strict restrictions are:

  • Low-carb/Low-fat
  • Whole30
  • Keto
  • Low-calorie
  • Atkins
  • Intermittent fasting

Depriving yourself of certain foods can often cause binging once the food is brought back into your regime. Deprivation can also lead to binge-eating during a diet – even moderate restriction signals the body that it is starving. Once this has occurred, the body will do whatever it can to restore balance. Cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods often increase at this point. Binging can lead to negative feelings of guilt and shame, furthering disordered eating patterns and affecting mental health.

Fat Shaming

Shaming people into losing weight is harmful and depressive. Fat shaming is born out of the concept that if you ridicule and suggest that larger people lose weight, it will motivate them to do so. 

Fat shaming is entrenched in diet culture since it upholds the belief that people in larger bodies are unhealthy, have poor diets, or are too lazy to workout. 

Diet culture says people should lose weight in the name of health, but the dangerous diet practices demonstrate the exact opposite. 

Thin Ideal

While some people may think being slim is a “good problem to have,” this is just another example of diet culture’s internalization. 

Social media and popular culture have taught us that there is an ideal body image and that those who fit into it receive the thin privilege of happiness, joy, and success. 

However, the idea that your body is the primary source of contentment is simply not accurate.

If you engage in disordered eating or have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, it can cause some cognitive dissonance to receive thin shaming comments from others and want to gain weight at the same time. 

Exercise as Punishment

Diet culture can show up when it comes to exercise.

There are many beliefs that diet culture has pushed on us. If you feel guilty when you miss a workout or use exercise as a punishment or to compensate for eating, that is one of them. 

Exercise should be a joyful way to appreciate your body’s strength and agility — no matter what size it is. 

A group of women different skin colors dressed in athletic clothes

Diet Culture, Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating

Diet culture can cause you to ostracize yourself if you don’t fit the ideal body image. This ideal can cause a feedback loop of shame around your exercise and food habits or send you into a spiral of disordered eating. 

Disordered eating is an umbrella term used to describe irregular eating habits. You may not have been diagnosed with an actual eating disorder to engage in disordered eating. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, symptoms of disordered eating are:

  • Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific food groups, and meal skipping
  • Chronic weight fluctuations
  • Rigid rituals around food and exercise
  • Feelings of guilt and shame around eating
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body image negatively impacts the quality of life
  • Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to ‘make up for bad foods’ consumed

There are serious health concerns related to disordered eating, mainly developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa. While an eating disorder diagnosis can be scary, the main concerns are the health consequences associated with them, such as: 

  • Damage to the heart 
  • Brain health 
  • Bone density and health 
  • Digestive issues

Additionally, there are several other internal systems that are harmed with restrictive or compensatory behaviors.

The practices of diet culture can lead to emotionally taxing experiences that may require trained specialists to help you see that there is a more nurturing way to approach food, exercise, and managing body image. 

How to Reject Diet Culture 

  • Diet & Exercise as a Form of Self-Love: It’s time to radicalize exercise and view it as a form of self-love and as a way to have a deeper appreciation for your body. 

Breaking up with diet culture involves eliminating the mindset that you always have to pursue changing your body. 

Understand that you are inherently valuable, and exercising only to achieve an imaginative body figure is detrimental to your overall wellness. 

Diet and exercise are just a piece of the whole health and wellness pie, not the entire focus. 

  • Changing your Language: Choosing more affirming and positive language when you speak of your body. 

Stop labeling food as good or bad. Lean out of the feeling that you need to “earn” meals through exercise. Speak kindly to yourself during or after consumption of food. Normalize the differences in the billions of bodies on earth. 

Your body is unique, and you should praise it for getting you through your set of life experiences. 

  • Intuitive Eating: In the 1990s, two dietitians coined the method of intuitive eating that involved mindfully consuming food with hopes to reduce guilt without cutting out specific food groups. Intuitive eating involves listening to and responding to physical hunger and fullness cues and choosing foods based on preference instead of a list of rules.

This type of eating puts the power back in your hands and makes you the expert of your body’s signals for hunger. 

Intuitive eating eliminates the unnecessary food guidelines of foods to avoid or when to eat them. Intuitive eating can positively affect the emotional recovery that happens for those in treatment for eating disorders or have disordered eating habits. 

Getting Help 

Seeking help for an eating disorder or disordered eating habits can be daunting. At Integrative Life Center in Nashville, you can get the highest quality treatment to overcome the life disruptions that happen with eating disorders.

 At ILC, you will receive help from experienced medical professionals, counselors, and registered dietitians, along with a comprehensive plan that treats all areas of your life that the disorder may have affected. Treatment for an eating disorder includes:

  • Identifying the core drivers of eating disorders and disordered eating
  • Managing eating disorder symptoms
  • A program to regain and maintain a healthy weight
  • A plan to enhance your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing

Get the support that you may need to move into a life filled with positive emotions about food and the image that you present to the world. 

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