6 Sneaky Examples of Diet Culture That Are Actually Toxic

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I’ve said it before and I”ll say it again: Examples of diet culture are everywhere. Diet culture is in the media. It’s all over the internet. It’s at the doctor’s office, within our friend groups, and even rooted in our own brains. Sometimes it’s obvious — a detox tea ad in your Instagram feed, or a coworker talking about their crash diet. But often, diet culture is sneaky and hard to spot.

What is diet culture?

Before we get into sneaky examples of diet culture, let’s establish what diet culture actually is. Yes, it includes the culture of dieting. But in truth, it’s so much more than that.

Dietitian Christy Harrison is the author of Anti-Diet, host of the Food Psych Podcast, and a prominent voice in the anti-diet movement. She gives the following definition of diet culture.

​​Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.

Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.

Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.

Notice that it’s not just about dieting. It encompasses so much more than that. Oppressive body and beauty standards. The promotion of weight loss at all costs. The moral value of food (the idea that there’s “good” and “bad” food, or a “right” and “wrong” way to eat). And discrimination of anyone whose body doesn’t fit the narrow “ideal.”

What are some sneaky examples of diet culture that you might not realize are toxic?

Diet culture isn’t always blatantly diet-y. Companies, influencers, and pretty much everyone is getting hip to the fact that diets don’t work. Now, it’s all about health and “wellness.” But, is it really? Often, people who express concern about health are really just caught up in the diet cycle. Here are some prominent examples.

1. The extreme panic about pandemic weight gain

Yes, many people gained weight during the pandemic. Likely, it was due to several factors: lots of stress, less exercise (remember when we were staying at home 24/7?), and possibly more comfort eating (because there was nothing else to do!). 

And, frankly, the pandemic probably forced a lot of people to loosen up on their unsustainable weight loss and weight control behaviors. Those who used to go to the gym religiously for several hours a day were forced to rest. Those who strictly controlled their food intake may have lost control due to all the stress. 

But is the panic about pandemic weight gain warranted? Probably not. First, gaining weight or being at a higher weight isn’t an inherently bad thing. The science on weight and its relationship to health is very murky.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adults in the “overweight” BMI category lived longer than those in any other category. And, that those in the “underweight” had the highest risk of mortality.

Lots of research shows that people at higher weights can be metabolically healthy. But that’s a fraught metric, because researchers don’t all agree on what “metabolically healthy” actually means (as in, which health markers to measure).

And, being “metabolically unhealthy” (however someone defines it) doesn’t necessarily mean being diagnosed with a health issue. It might just mean having increased risk of certain diseases, which is not the same thing as actually having the disease. Plus, many of the criteria for these risk factors are based on very weight-focused research.

You don’t need more diets and food rules. You need a better framework for health and self-care. For more about intuitive eating and the anti-diet approach, subscribe to the weekly Quit Your Diet Newsletter. 

2. Diets like Noom that claim to be about wellness and being your best self, when they’re really just about weight loss

OK, so if you’ve been following along with me for a while, you probably already know that Noom is a textbook diet. I wrote on the blog about how they target people in eating disorder recovery with non-diet language and promises of a healthy relationship with food.

I wrote in my Outside column about how they give dangerously low calorie targets, require food tracking and calorie counting, and categorize foods as good and bad. (In a Vox article from this month, it says that Noom actually raised their calorie target minimum, which I like to think I had at least some role in.) In a nutshell, it’s classic diet bullshit repackaged as “not a diet.”

And it’s not just Noom. Whole30 promises “food freedom” but makes you eliminate tons of food for a month. They say that you can reintroduce the ones that work for you, but not before filling your brain with tons of misinformation about the supposed dangers of things like sugar, soy, and even legumes. 

75Hard, a truly ridiculous fitness and lifestyle challenge, talks all about grit and mental toughness and being the best version of yourself. Really, it’s all about working out twice a day, following a diet (“any diet,” they say, which is…bizarre), drinking a ton of water, and a few other things. They say it’s not about weight loss, and yet the website is full of before-and-after weight loss photos. Hm.

3. People saying things like, “you’ve lost weight — you look great!”

Commenting on someone’s apparent weight loss, or complimenting them on their body in pretty much any way, is seen as one of the highest forms of praise. (This is especially true for women and femmes, but it spans the gender spectrum.)

You might think, “How could a compliment ever be anything but a good thing? It’s a compliment!”

Sure, the intention might be good. But really, compliments like this just reinforce the toxic idea that certain body sizes are better than others, and that weight loss is always a good thing.

What if someone went to extremes to get to that weight? Or what if they’re suffering from a debilitating illness? What if they have an eating disorder?

And, perhaps even more importantly, what happens when they (almost inevitably) gain back the weight they’ve lost? They’ll likely feel even worse, remembering how many compliments they received when their body was smaller, and wondering what people are thinking about their now-larger body. 

Before you give out a compliment on someone’s assumed weight loss or their body, think about how it might affect them long-term. These compliments are absolutely based in diet culture and the assumption that thin is best. And even if someone is happy to receive them in the moment, compliments like these keep you both trapped in the type of thinking that praises thinness at all costs.

4. Someone assuming that only thin people have eating disorders

Here’s an interesting statistic from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. According to a 2011 study published in JAMA, less than 6 percent of people with eating disorders are underweight.

Eating disorders affect people across the gender and size spectrums, and across all races, ethnicities, and income levels.

The stereotype that eating disorders primarily impact young, wealthy, thin, white women isn’t based in reality. It’s just that we’ve based our understanding of eating disorders on this population for so long, that these are the people centered in research, in media, and in treatment methods. If you look through studies on eating disorders, it’s pretty astounding to see how many are done on college-aged populations that are almost exclusively white and female.

This is diet culture at work. The assumption that eating disorders are only a real problem if the person is thin is absolutely messed up. It’s based in fatphobic beliefs that being fat is bad, and that any methods a person uses to “get thin” are OK. That’s not true; eating disorders and eating disorder behaviors are just as destructive and life-ruining for people at higher weights as they are for people at lower weights.

5. Instagram influencers (and regular users!) always photoshopping or carefully planning their photos, so that they fit a certain “ideal”

Sure, yes, everyone has the right to edit their photos and present themselves however they want. But editing photos and presenting yourself in a way that’s as close to the “thin idea” as possible isn’t totally a personal choice. It’s a reaction to diet culture.

Of course people are going to extremes to make their bodies look a certain way; we live in a culture where thin people have access to so much more than fat people. Working so hard to conform to that ideal can worsen your quality of life, lead to severe body image issues, and might even lead to an eating disorder. But it’s understandable that people would do it anyway, because of how diet culture pushes these behaviors and that “ideal” body type.

I know I complain a lot about influencers who do this. It’s frustrating, and it makes me angry to know how many of my clients are being harmed by these people. But at the end of the day, it’s not the influencers that we should be mad at. It’s diet culture, for setting completely unrealistic and unhealthy expectations, and then acting like it’s no big deal to achieve them.

6. The world applauding a thin woman for talking about “body positivity” but rejecting fat people who talk about true body positivity and fat acceptance

Recently, Self (where I used to work) came out with “The Future of Fitness” online issue. They highlighted amazing fat fitness professionals and talked about fat acceptance (and lack thereof) in fitness and “wellness” spaces.

The issue was incredible, and it featured both real person stories and tons of evidence on why the fitness industry needs to be less focused on weight and less afraid of fatness. Lots of weight-inclusive experts applauded it.

But of course, there were plenty of others who were outraged at the idea of a health magazine saying, ‘hey, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being fat!’ and, ‘fat people deserve to feel comfortable and represented in fitness!’ They claimed that Self was promoting bad health…when what Self was ACTUALLY doing was pushing to make fitness more accessible to people in all bodies.

This is the perfect example of diet culture at work. Think of how many people heap praise on relatively thin people (celebrities, influencers, and others) who talk about overcoming disordered eating habits and accepting their bodies. A thin person talks about how they finally decided to quit extreme dieting and extreme exercise, and the crowd goes wild! Body positivity! Body acceptance! Yay!

But when a fat person says the same thing, many of these same people are absolutely outraged. This is diet culture — and the assumption that thin is best — at work. The fact that thin people are applauded for healing their relationship with food and body, while fat people are harshly criticized (and that’s putting it nicely) for it is telling. And it’s totally, totally wrong.

Sneaky examples of diet culture you might not realize are toxic.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I can help.

I take an anti-diet, body-positive, identity-affirming approach to recovery and healing your relationship with food. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. Not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter.


You might also like:

How to Eat Intuitively When You Don’t Trust Your Intuition

What Is Orthorexia — And Do I Have It?

The 12 Best Body Image Books: Body Acceptance, Neutrality, and Liberation

Body Acceptance Is Key to Intuitive Eating. Here’s How to Practice It.

Free Intuitive Eating Course

Looking for a free intuitive eating course? Whether you’re new to the anti-diet approach or you’ve been trying to work towards intuitive eating for a while, our 5-Day Intuitive Eating Starter Course is a great start for anyone who’s tired of obsessing over “wellness” and constantly struggling with food and body acceptance.

1 Comment

  1. Shenna

    What you wrote about compliments is exactly what triggered my 30 year struggle with disordered eating…spot on! Keep spreading the word! Thank you!

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