Are you on a diet without knowing it?

illustration of feet on scales for a blog post about diet culture

If you’re reading this I’d bet that if you’re not consciously trying to diet at the moment, you’ve done so in the past.

That’s a guess but I know almost 90% of my readers are female, and a Mintel study showed that 57% of women tried to lose weight just in the period 2015-2016, so I think it’s probably a fair assumption. (This is not to say that guys aren’t also affected by diet culture of course.)

I’ve dieted too in the past – not much, but I’ve dabbled. I tried the low-GI diet, which isn’t particularly faddy but still a diet, and once bought a book by India Knight and Neris Thomas, which when I think about it, was a slightly tamer version of Atkins but with the same carb-phobic principles. I was about sixteen at the time, went out and spent about £20 of my hard-earned weekend job takings on ‘health’ supplements as per the book’s instructions, and promptly ditched the diet about 3 days later when I was shaking from lack of sugar.

I don’t think I’ve ever followed a specific diet per se since then, but actually, I’ve dieted without knowing it under the guise of other things.

Let’s take ‘healthy eating’. Nothing problematic about that, right? We can all see the benefits of nourishing our bodies with vitamins and minerals. But – I don’t know about you – for me, it was always an all or nothing approach – “I’m going to eat healthily this week” – *proceeds to eat one chocolate bar, think “screw it” and binge on a load more.*

I remember my sister and I both deciding to ‘eat healthily’ one holiday and feeling so proud of ourselves for not eating a single ‘unhealthy’ thing for a whole week. The week ended with an event that involved a buffet and naturally we could barely restrain ourselves.

Of course, this one week didn’t lead to my sister’s anorexia a year later, nor to me binge-eating my way through my year abroad and final year of uni. But it was part of an all or nothing mentality that wasn’t very helpful to either of us, that I think so many of us struggle with on a bunch of different levels.

How did we ever get this polarising attitude to food in the first place?

I was lucky to never have a family member tell me I needed to lose weight, as many people have had to put up with. But even with the most supportive family and friends in the world, none of us are immune to diet culture.

What actually is diet culture? Laura Thomas PHD sums it up succinctly in her book Just Eat It: describing diet culture as “the culture that upholds the thin ideal as the standard of beauty.”[i]

She goes on to say that “sometimes it’s obvious: an advert for a slimming club. Sometimes it’s more insidious: an absence of body diversity in the media, a diet masquerading as a healthy ‘lifestyle’, even the ‘war on obesity’.”[ii] She points out how woven it is into everyday life, right down to diet-talk in the office, and those ideas of being ‘good’ and being ‘naughty’ with our food choices.

The more that I’ve read about diet culture over the last year, the more I’ve noticed how true this statement is – it is everywhere.

We celebrate when we fit into clothes of an arbitrary number. We berate ourselves for eating food we don’t see as healthy, and we punish ourselves with exercise to try and earn said food. We talk about ‘cheat’ days because we’ve made food into a game. We lose our minds around a buffet because we’ve restricted ourselves for so long, and immediately begin working out how to compensate for it. We suck in our tummies for photos, and poke and prod them as we self-deprecate. We look in the mirror and, often subconsciously, hold our body up against the cultural ideal, finding the ‘flaws’ that society has told us we’ve got.

None of this is for judgement – I have done ALL of these things. It’s really just to acknowledge how ominpresent diet culture really is.

As part of that, we’ve taken in a lot of rules and myths and external crap essentially, telling us how to eat, overriding our own body’s hunger and fullness cues.

We might not think we’re on a diet, and indeed might not be intentionally following any specific regime, but as Thomas points out there’s a whole host of pseudo diets, often marketed as healthy lifestyles, that still have a lot of the characteristics of dieting. Here are some signs of a diet she suggests looking out for…

  • “Can you break rules? Diet.
  • Can you ‘mess up’? Diet.
  • Can you have ‘cheat days’? Diet…
  • Are you being told what, how much or when to eat? Diet…
  • Do you have to count calories, macros or track activity? Diet.”[iii]

Indeed, in an age where the word ‘diet’ has become a bit passé for a lot of people, diet culture hasn’t actually gone anywhere; it’s just got better at hiding. Thomas highlights one of diet culture’s newer guises as the very problematic movement that is ‘healthism’.

“Healthism has replaced overt diet culture as a means of achieving the thin ideal via what you and I know of as ‘wellness'”, she says. “‘It’s for my health’ is the new way of legitimizing semi-starvation in a society where ‘diet’ has become a dirty word.”[iv]

She goes on to point out how the value placed on health within this movement is intrinsically ableist, classist and fatphobic and explains how what seemingly feels acceptable, can also become dangerous… “In the context of healthism and diet culture, nutrition is king: according to every wellness w*nker I’ve ever met, if you just eat ‘right’ you’ll achieve health, as though it was a level on Mario”.[v]

So whilst we might have changed how we talk about it, we’re still following an agenda that upholds one narrow ideal, rather than celebrating body diversity.

Why does it matter?

Why does all this matter though? You might ask. Surely people having a greater interest in health is a good thing? A big part of the problem is that even this can become obsessive, developing into an eating disorder of its own – orthorexia – defined as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy, ‘pure’, or ‘clean’ food.”[vi]

And in terms of diet culture in general – whether we’re talking about healthism or not – Thomas points out that it “normalizes disordered eating, which in and of itself is an issue.” She goes on to explain that “disordered eating can be a slippery slope to a full-blown eating disorder in people who are predisposed or at risk. Of course, not everyone who goes on a diet will develop an eating disorder, but almost everyone who has an eating disorder has been on a diet.”[vii]

What about the majority of people who don’t get to that point though? Despite the fact that there’s estimated to be 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder (and let’s not ignore that because it’s terrifyingly high), granted the majority of people don’t have one, and there’s millions of people living their lives on and off diets, no biggie. Isn’t it kind of judgey of me to even write this post because surely it’s a case of each to their own?

My answer is absolutely – of course it is a case of each to their own. It’s your body and your life. I write about this though because I’ve seen the pain and devastation that full-blown eating disorders can cause. I’ve experienced feeling out of control around food and hating myself for it.

Beyond that though, I’ve started to notice more and more over the last couple of years that diet culture doesn’t just harm those at the far end of the spectrum. That for those of us that don’t have eating disorders, it still has a disproportionate impact on our lives. That it can affect us every single time we look in the mirror, or choose what we eat at each meal; that it can dictate the clothes we buy, the feelings we have towards ourselves and to others; that it can rule our brains and take up our energy like nothing else; that it can push us down and oppress us and make us weaker, in a world where we have so much else to fight for and to spend our energy on.

I can’t really put into words how passionately I care about this, and I want you, dear reader, to know today that you are worth so much more than the energy spent punishing yourself. If today, we could deflect some of the anger and negative feeling that we often direct at ourselves and our bodies, and instead aim it at diet culture and the corporations making £££ from telling us how to look, I think that would be a point scored in this fight.

Some helpful resources from actual professionals… (because I am obviously not one)

  • The book I’ve quoted throughout is Just Eat It and can be bought here (affiliate link). I’ve included page references at the bottom of the post.
  • BEAT – the UK’s leading eating disorder charity
  • NHS Eating Disorders page
illustration of feet on scales for a blog post about diet culture
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  • [i] Thomas PHD, Laura: Just Eat It, Bluebird, 2019, page 32
  • [ii] “”, page 32
  • [iii] “”, page 71
  • [iv] “”, page 53,
  • [v] “”, page 52
  • [vi] “”, page 30
  • [vii] “”, page 34

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