What is diet culture and the diet mentality? 

Diet culture is defined as a system of beliefs, messages, and behaviors that places value and focus on weight, shape and body size over and above health and well-being. The messages of diet culture are that weight and body size are the ultimate measure of self-worth as a human. This is especially true for females. The message is never challenged: What you look like on the outside is more important than what and who you are on the inside. It’s an incredibly painful way to live if you have absorbed the messages from diet culture which most of us have. Consider that over 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies. This is a learned experience as we are not born hating ourselves and our bodies. 

Diet culture conditions us to believe that our weight and size are indicators of our health status and therefore being at a ‘healthy weight’ means we are healthy and morally acceptable. Diet culture teaches us that there is a ‘right way’ to eat and that there are ‘bad’ foods if we want to avoid various diseases. 

Diet culture is fueled by a 70 Billion dollar industry that exploits our deepest unconscious desires and insecurities. As humans, we all want to be accepted, to feel a deep sense of belonging and to feel loved. Diet culture convinces us that in order to belong, we must follow the rules and expectations of the current paradigm. The messages of diet culture are insidious and hard to even see because diet culture is the water we drink and the air we breath. These systems are considered normal and no one questions or challenges the status quo.

It’s normal for people to comment on weight loss. “Oh, you look great, have you lost weight?” Obviously this is harmful as it assumes one didn’t look ‘as good’ before the weight loss. It also reinforces the idea that smaller bodies are more desirable and acceptable.

It’s normal to feel guilty if you think you’ve eaten “too much” chocolate. The media uses language such as “guilty pleasures” with certain foods, such as chocolate. This serves to train us to associate pleasure and guilt with eating with certain foods. Guilt and pleasure do not belong together.

It’s normal to fear fat bodies and to fear weight gain because all of us have been brainwashed to believe that the pursuit of the thin ideal is the right thing to do.  

The diet mentality is the internalization of the rules and expectations of the dominant weight centric patriarchy, known as diet culture. The diet mentality sets in motion a series of thinking patterns that’s problematic and harmful. Dieting beliefs are rooted in all-or-nothing, black-white or good-bad thinking. You’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ your diet. You’re either eating ‘clean’ or on a ‘cheat’ day. These patterns of thinking area a direct set up to fail, leaving no room for the grey area that is real life. Black and white thinking creates and perpetuates many disordered eating behaviors. And, for some, it is one of many causes into developing a full blown eating disorder.

Furthermore, the diet mentality creates and reinforces the painful restrict- binge cycles of eating. This leads to people feeling out of control around foods, not trusting their bodies and always seeking outside of themselves for the next right diet that will finally work. 

How can you tell if you have a ‘diet mentality’? 

Good question! The diet mentality is a sneaky M’Fo! 

Here are some ways that diet mentality is alive and well in your psyche:

  • You avoid keeping certain foods in your home for fear they will cause weight gain.
  • You categorize foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and subsequently internalize the belief that you are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if you eat these foods.
  • You endorse words like “clean eating” and “cheat days.”
  • You believe that emotional eating or overeating is a character flaw that needs to be fixed.
  • You believe that good health can only be achieved if you: remove gluten, white flour, white sugar, dairy and or grains from your diet. 
  • You think that they body needs to be detoxed or cleansed on occasion to rid yourself of toxins or to “get back on track.” 
  • You believe that food cravings need to be controlled, conquered or denied; avoid temptation at all costs. 
  • You believe that some food are ‘as addictive as cocaine.’ 
  • You compare your body to others, making you feel bad about your “flaws” while severing  you from the reality of body diversity.
  • You feel guilty after eating, feel overwhelmed and or worried about making the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision when choosing foods.
  • You believe the ads that say NOOM isn’t a diet, it’s a “lifestyle.” 
  • You own a scale and weigh yourself and try to “be careful” not to gain “too much” weight or else…
  • You think that if you follow external rules or plans that tell you what and  how much to eat (diet), then you’ll feel okay and in control.
  • You believe you must exercise to burn off or compensate for foods eaten.
  • You often count, measure or track your foods and or exercise to feel in control. 
  • You compare your body to others and feel bad because it seems they can eat whatever they want but you cannot. 
  • You weigh yourself and the number on the scale dictates your moods and or eating patterns.
  • You’ve internalized the belief that your self-worth is solely based on the size of your Earth Suit (aka, your body size). 

Want support in how to reject the diet mentality and diet culture?

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Karen Louise Scheuner, MA, RDN

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