The Impact of Diet Culture.

Diets of various forms have been around for thousands of years, however, the modern diet era as we know it began in the early twentieth century. The word ‘diet’ simply refers to the food we consume in any shape or form. However, in recent centuries, it’s been coined to mean something ‘restrictive’ in a bid to lose weight.

What is the impact of diet culture on modern society and our ability to enjoy food?

In light of Weight Watcher’s attempt to induct children into weight-loss culture, I figured there was no time like the new year to discuss the impact of toxic diet culture. 

As a society, we’re obsessed with looks. It’s all over social media and can go one of two ways; Body positivity or body shaming. Your Instagram feed can either empower you to give up on diet culture with influencers such as BodyPosipanda. Or it can send you tail spinning into comparison. Now, more than ever, we’re hyper-aware of the people around us, their successes and our own shortcomings. 

With children as young as six being supplied with smartphones and social media, toxic diet culture has another chance at revival. 


Diets: A brief history.

Diets of various forms have been around for thousands of years, however, the modern diet era as we know it began in the early twentieth century. The word ‘diet’ simply refers to the food we consume in any shape or form. However, in recent centuries, it’s been coined to mean something ‘restrictive’ in a bid to lose weight. 

The Tapeworm Diet was favoured in the 1900s due to its fast-acting results. However, as can be imagined, this was also alarmingly dangerous, especially in such a primitive time when sanitary conditions were at an all-time low. This was followed by a succession of questionable diets such as The Lucky Strike (cigarette) diet, various celebrity diets, the cabbage soup diet and eventually led to the modern Atkins Diet and other weight loss programs. 

All of these have been fueled by societies need to strive for the perfect appearance. Although social media is only a fairly recent discovery, most diets have been endorsed by various celebrities who have an influence over a large portion of society. 

Then we arrive in the current 21st century. Reported eating disorders are at an all-time high and children as young as 6 are beginning to pick up on the fact that they need to be perfect.  


Why diets aren’t welcome anymore!

Diets are bad for both our physical and mental health:

‘Yo-Yo dieting’, or weight fluctuation, triggers physical side effects such as the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and issues relating to blood pressure.

The mental health implications of diets and diet culture are even more alarming. Serial dieters have an increased risk of developing eating disorders such as binge eating, bulimia and, on occasion, anorexia nervosa. Due to the external influences on shape and weight, many dieters suffer from low self-esteem and confidence issues in regards to their body. Sadly, this can bleed into other areas of their lives and can contribute to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. 

Diets DON’T work:

Almost everyone who goes on a diet will gain back the weight, plus a few extra pounds for good measure. In fact, a whooping 95% of dieters manage to gain back everything they’ve lost within the space of 1-5 years. 

By definition of the word, a diet is meant to be a temporary measure and therefore won’t work long term. If you’re following a restrictive diet, chances are that it’s unmaintainable. Your body doesn’t want to starve, therefore it’ll compensate for your restrictive diet by slowing down the metabolism, making it even harder to shed the pounds. It can also lead to the dreaded ‘binge-restrict’ cycle, or it may lead to you falling back into old habits permanently, which in turn sees the pounds creeping back on in no time. 

This isn’t new information, and in fact, it baffles me that people continue to try the newest ‘juice fast’ with the knowledge that once they begin to eat again that the weight will pile back on. But then again, I’m a recovering anorexic who also thought starving myself was an effective, and ‘safe’ way to reduce my BMI. 

“Fad” diets are extremely dangerous:

Fad diets, such as Atkins and juice fasts, can be very harmful. Some can lack basic, essential nutrients, and the majority teach nothing about the concept of healthy eating. So, when you finally are done with your diet you go right back to eating as you once did, which ultimately leads to gaining all the weight back. 

Thus begins ‘yo-yo dieting’ which, as we have learned, causes a host of other issues.

Diets make us obsessed with food: 

When we diet the onus becomes completely food-focused. We’re constantly thinking about it, whether we realise it or not.

  • What should I eat for lunch?
  • How many calories must be in that?
  • What can I eat if I go out for dinner?
  • Oh no, I’ve overshot my calorie limit. I’m a failure.

Food becomes the first thing you think of when you get out of bed, and the last thing that crosses your mind as you go to sleep. It takes over every aspect of your life when we should be focusing on more important things like spending time with family.

With all the focus centered around food and calories, it becomes more difficult to manage. Calories should be nothing more than fuel to us. It shouldn’t cause such great distress.

“Calories are fuel; They’re simply a unit of energy used to fill up our tank.”
Diets measure our worth in lbs:

When you stick to the plan and manage to lose X amount of pounds, you automatically feel better about yourself. If you happen to ‘cheat’ a little and gain even a fraction of an ounce, then all hell breaks loose.

Our weight and the food we put into our mouths can set us up for the whole day. If we step on our scales first thing in the morning and see a number we don’t like, then you can bet we’ll be walking around the office with a sour look. We might not even join you for drinks afterward because we’re punishing ourselves for a number that, ultimately, doesn’t matter.

Our self-worth, esteem, and confidence become completely dependant on the number staring at us from the scales. In reality, we’re far more than just that.

We should be measuring our self worth in the work we do, in the kindness, we express, in the words we exchange, in the loved ones we have; Not by our weight, shape, inches or size.  


How has diet culture impacted you?

In a bid to further explore how diet culture has impacted people’s lives I asked a number of followers across various socials. The following are their own struggles with diet culture, and how it has impacted them. 

Britt K from Alternatively Speaking. 

“Diet culture is one of a couple of underlying causes for my own mental health struggles. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you’re not trying hard enough to lose weight when that’s exactly what society is telling you. It fed my depression by convincing me that my struggles with weight, and the inability to reach my desired goals were 110% due to my own personal weakness. Looking back, my goals were completely unattainable if I wanted to maintain a decent level of health. 

I wasn’t thin enough because I wasn’t trying hard enough. Therefore, I felt like I wasn’t enough. 

Even more heartbreaking for me is working with kids and teenagers, and seeing them struggle with their own weight at such a young age. It kills me to hear 8, 9, 10 year old girls talking about how they need to stick to their diet to lose weight. At that age they should just concentrate on being kids!”

Holistic Fox from Holistic Fox Creative.

“I don’t have any personal experience with diet culture. However, I did watch my Mom destroy her health with diet fads when I was growing up. She never really recovered from all the physical effects that it left her with. 

Merbanshee.

“Diet culture prevented me for over ten years from discovering I had a serious medical issue. Diet and exercise weren’t working and i kept rapidly gaining weight. The doctors just kept telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough to lose weight. It’s left me obese with difficulties breathing. What I didn’t know was that I had PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), which was ultimately preventing me from losing weight no matter what I did.”

Ash from This Dream’s Alive. 

“A therapist dismissed my disordered eating habits when I was 16 as being ‘normal’ for teenage girls. They claimed it was nothing to worry about. By the time I was 18, I had a fully-fledged eating disorder. 

Although I don’t blame the therapist for dismissing the development of the eating disorder, the idea that teen girls being invested in diet culture is a ‘normal’ thing is so dangerous and needs to be stopped.”

Unwanted Life; Extracts from the article ‘Dieting to Misery’. 

“Dieting required so much effort. Trying to cut out carbs when everything had carbs in it was the stuff of nightmares. When I went out with my partner for dinner, it was easier to make that a cheat day because otherwise there was nothing I could eat.

It was all-consuming, worrying about how many carbs and calories I was going to eat. Looking at a food menu at a cafe, bar, or restaurant was filled with thoughts about how many calories or carbs each dish had. I was even thinking about how many calories and carbs were in the drinks I was ordering as well. It was so tiring thinking about this every single time we went out to eat. Sucked the fun out of the experience.

I couldn’t take it anymore, dieting shouldn’t make you this unhappy. I was depressed not because of my mental health, but because of this diet.”

Nicole Carmen from The Mhap

“I’ve always been a big girl, even as a chile. When I was a teenager my Mom made me try so many things. The Atkins, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, Alli Pills, etc. My self-esteem was okay back then, but now it’s horrible. I basically have none left! It has a very negative effect on me. I’ve never been comfortable with my body because of the numerous diets I’ve tried and ultimately failed. 

Calorie counting was by far the worst. There was a time where I was trying to keep my calories under 800 a day! If I didn’t struggle so much with depression and overeating, I honestly believe there’s a large chanceI’d be living with an eating disorder right now.” 

Ruth from That Autustuc Fit Chick.

“I don’t remember when I was first exposed to it, but I do remember the magazines when I was a teenager and the story of the model doing a chocolate advert who had to spit it out with every take. She was also given emetics by the producers and this was seen as a normal thing that was talked about in a teen magazine. 

I also remember reading an interview with a leading female pop star of the time. Her morning routine would be an hour workout followed by her breakfast of 7 slices of cucumber and 2 tomatoes. Of course, the outliers like myself adopted trying to copy the ideal in order to be more accepted, completely unaware of how dangerous it was. 

Diet culture was ingrained in every part of the media we consumed and we had less access to celebs that they do now thanks to social media. We didn’t know if these stories were exaggerated but those were our role models, so we would copy them. 

Ultimately, diet culture taught me to feel bad about myself. That I was too big for the world and I should be smaller and therefore invisible. 

My Mom joined me on my first ever diet when I was 12 and even encouraged me. She was already telling me that she didn’t know why my sister and I were so fat. 

Diet culture has poisoned the relationship I have with food and the relationship I have with myself. It’s unlikely that I would have developed an eating disorder without diet culture in play.”


*Originally posted to The Need To Live.

65 comments

  1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you found this helpful and that you found it so helpful, in fact, that you passed it on.

  2. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to leave toxic dieting and fad diets behind! Keep up the good work and thank you so much for stopping in and reading!

  3. I am constantly worrying about what I eat and how I look and it can be so debilitating.
    I hope you manage to break out of this cycle in a healthy way, and soon. Sending lots of hope!

  4. Thank you so much for commenting. I’m so glad that you’ve found a way to be healthy and not include toxic dieting into the mix.

  5. If the diet isn’t sustainable for a long period of time then it’s toxic and shouldn’t be entertained. As you said, changing your lifestyle is the way to go!
    Thank you for reading.

  6. They certainly aren’t sustainable. It always angers me when I see them loudly advertised on the front of magazines. Fad diets do nothing but cause a big weight loss followed by an even bigger weight gain when you return to normal eating.

  7. Dieting can be so destructive to our mental health. I’m actually shocked that your therapist was getting angry at you for straying from a diet tbh. Surely they should understand how horrible they can be!
    I’m glad you’ve not moved away from dieting and are practicing the eat what I want/moderation diet. Don’t give up!

  8. Great post! I really related to this because back in 2015 I went and saw a therapist who put me on a “No white food diet,” this diet made me sick both physical and made me feel worse mentally. When I was trying this diet, if I ate something I wasn’t suppose to and I told my therapist she would get angry at me. I finally told her that I didn’t have time for the diet and I didn’t like how it made me feel.
    I am now just back on eating what I want. I still am working on getting at a weight I need to be at for health reasons, but I’ll get there.

  9. I think fad diets are not sustainable. It has to be lifestyle change and not overeating to be healthy

  10. I have been affected by toxic dieting fads and propaganda. It sucks. I have learned late in life that loving and caring for yourself is the best way to go!

  11. I have always been against diets as you have described them. I am a firm believer in a lifestyle change where you learn healthy eating with exercise to actually be healthy – for the rest of your life.

  12. I think i’ve tried everything but later in life I found important lifestyle changes that really work for me. I make meaningful decisions about my food and I exercise regularly — not because I want to lose weight, but because it makes me feel good. I’ve been keeping up this lifestyle for 5 years now. I couldn’t be happier 🙂

  13. I love this post! So so important to try and love yourself even on the hard days. As a fellow mh blogger I felt this in my heart.

  14. This is so important, thanks for writing about it. I’m not a fan of diets… I think our focus should be on developing a healthy relationship with food and our body, not a diet per se.

  15. This is such an interesting and important post. I can’t even begin to calculate the amount of time I’d spent dieting. But even when I wasn’t dieting I find myself thinking about food and healthy eating and calling foods good/bad on a daily basis. I can only imagine what I could do with the time or energy if I wasn’t consistently worrying about this.

  16. I love the post and agree with you on this whole heartedly. I do love that we are seeing more of the larger models in ads and such but for me… my weight loss of 35 pounds was sheerly for heath reasons because being too heavy does hurt a person and their overall health. I think no one needs to be super skinny but I do think being too heavy is also a bad thing as it takes its toll on the body…. at least form my own personal experience. I eat cleaner and try to get in exercise every day…. that is it. No obsessing over it that is for sure 🙂

  17. I always try to tell myself that diet is not restricting yourself but more on going on a healthier lifestyle. I think that thats how it should be.

  18. I used to try all kind of diets and you’re absolutely right, the damage was a lot more than the benefits!!! Now I just eat moderately and that is the only diet that i need.

  19. I remember doing the “Master Cleanse” also known as the “Lemonaide Diet”… and thinking it was the most awesome thing… but we forget how it affects our thoughts and mindset in the long term. I was basically telling myself I wasn’t good enough.

    Thankfully, the last 2 years I started working on all the reasons that I eat / don’t eat, rather than seeing eating as a problem, I started to use it as a thermometer for what was going on in my life. It’s much harder work – every emotional issue that comes up you have to address and you never look at “eating” or “diet” as being the issue.
    The beauty of it… I’ve worked on healing so many things!
    And as as result, I’ve found my health again!

  20. So grateful you wrote this. Diet culture has become pervasive in every sense. Ads are targeted to make us (women especially) to feel not good enough – too heavy, too thin, wrong shape, on and on. It has turned food into the enemy – something we should either celebrate a win for or punish ourselves for. It’s tragic, toxic and entirely unhealthy.

    No wonder women’s self esteem suffers with such great depths! I pray more and more people wake up to the very reality you’ve written about brilliantly here. It is not about dieting at all. It is about living life, eating for health and enjoying it to the fullest.

    I’ve shared this. ????

  21. No, I vow to never speak about dieting or my body around the kids, unless it’s in a positive way i.e I love how I look to day etc. I don’t want my kids to have to go through hearing that from me or anyone else, and I certainly don’t want them thinking the same.

  22. I learned a lot about our metabolism while in treatment. It’s mad how it can be altered by following diet plans, making it easy to gain back weight but harder to shift EACH time you actively participate in a weight loss diet. I have yet to write about it because I don’t understand it 100% yet, but it’s both fascinating and scary!

  23. I wish I could say that counting calories doesn’t impact me, but I get obsessed so it’s not something I can do. I can’t even wear my fit bit anymore because I’m obsessed with the number of steps I take. It’s just part of the eating disorder, and I know that. Not everyone has an addictive personality, and can easily count calories and switch that part of themselves off, you know?I personally think it’s all about balance.

    Thank you so much for popping in Krysten! Always love to see you in my inbox 🙂

  24. I can’t believe people would go to those lengths. Better still, I remember talking to my grandmother and her telling me that after a woman had a baby years ago, they were wrapped (the women) in plastic to help them get their shape back. Like, clingfilm type stuff. I have yet to confirm this but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  25. That would have been a lovely way to spend a childhood, not worried about calories or being fat as I was always reminded. I kind of wish I could stick with a vegetarian diet but outside my own home it’s so difficult when my whole family, bar my aunt and uncle, eat meat. They just don’t get it.
    Thank you for stopping in and reading!

  26. My mother still struggles to both hear and say the word Anorexia because of my battle as a child/teen. I’m still fighting now, some 14 years later. It never gets easier, or at least not for me, and I hope that your sister got the help that she needed. Likewise, I hope your bother and you also received some sort of guidance and help. I know how badly it can impact on siblings.

  27. Thank you for stopping in and reading. Changing our lifestyle to be more balanced is far better than altering our diet so that we eat barely enough to keep us going, all in a bid to fit into societies obsession with thinness.

  28. It’s all about remaining balanced in what you eat opposed to starving and then binging. I’ve tried it all too and ultimately paid the price.
    Thank you for stopping in and reading.

  29. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve tried it all. Even some of the most unhealthy diet fads. Now I just try to eat a balanced meal and focus on fueling my body rather than punishing it.

  30. what a great emphasis you make here. i agree with you. instead of saying this and that, why not focus on actions. exercise. jog. eat healthy foods. 🙂

  31. The tapeworm diet sounds so unimaginable! GROSS. Fad diets don’t work at all. It’s all about lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet and make sure you get enough movement and sleep, and you’re good!

  32. We’re all so different, so when it comes to losing weight or gaining weight or just focusing on being healthy we need to find what works best for our individual selves. Huge diet crazes might work for a few, but not everyone and people become discouraged when it doesn’t work for them AGAIN and AGAIN… When it comes down to it, it’s a lifestyle change tailored to the person is the best!
    interesting topic!

  33. YES! I’m constantly telling my sister-in-law to just take care of herself instead of trying every fad diet. They don’t work.

  34. I agree with you diet culture is pretty crazy. Instead of doing a diet it’s better to change lifestyle and be more active rather than controlling your hunger.

  35. Shuddering at the thought that Weight Watchers would target kids. My sister was 10 when my mom first realized that she was anorexic and struggled to get her help. That is something that has impacted her for life, and inadvertently my brother and I too. Although with him and I it made us both shudder and abhor the word ‘diet’.

  36. Very interesting read. I agree diet are not sustainable and put the body through a lot. It’s best to just have a day to day way of eating that is healthy and gives the body what it needs to thrive.

  37. I am 100% with you on this. I think a lot of people are misinformed on what a diet is and what it actually does to your body.

  38. It is good to know from where the idea of a diet originated. I think that I am lucky because my family adopted a healthy vegetarian lifestyle before I turned 5. So, I have never really been interested in crazy diets.

  39. If you are alive, you have been impacted in some way by the diet culture. I loved reading the views of all of the people that you spoke to about this. I feel like most of us have felt what they have felt at times.
    I think I would have died to have to spit out the chocolate in a photo shoot. Such sad lengths.

  40. I’ve never been into those fad diets too. I think it’s just best to keep a normal balanced diet and work out regularly. Everything in moderation should be enough.

  41. Oh my gosh I remember seeing something about the tapeworm diet years ago – I can’t believe people swallowed them. It is incredible the lengths some people go to and quite sad really.

  42. Right now I’m counting calories because I’m trying to lose weight for my own well being. However, I feel that a “diet” is just never a good idea because unless you’re turning it into a lifestyle change it’s won’t work forever.

    I feel like the focus needs to be shifted to just putting good into your body and that you shouldn’t have to restrict yourself.

  43. I have always stayed away from diets as I labelled them rubbish. Until I lost half my body weight thanks to following slimming world. I am now 7 years later and half of that original weight loss is back and I can’t seem to shift it no matter what diet plan or just general healthy eating I do.
    It is soul destroying and I am now doubting my ability to ever gain the control I need.

    That said I am heartbroken to see that an old friend of mine is currently in a clinic for her eating disorder after following SW. It has certainly coloured my judgement on the whole damn thing.

    A really insightful post and so sad to see that so many people have such negative experiences x x

  44. I don’t believe in diets, but in healthy eating, with moderation. You should know what food is good for you and what is not. Counting calories doesn’t work, limiting food doesn’t work either. You are only punishing yourself. As long as you have a healthy lifestyle, you shouldn’t feel guilty for eating fast food once in a while, or treating yourself to sugary sweets – as long as you don’t do a habit out of it.

  45. I’ve never been a fan of diet culture. I personally never go on diets and I’d never speak of them around my kids. I don’t think that’s healthy. I just try to limit the junk food I enjoy and jog daily.

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