January 1 shimmers on the calendar’s horizon like a mirage in the desert. The mythical fresh start. The day we vow — once again — to rein in our appetites and our impulses and go on another diet.
Many of us can’t resist this siren call, even if we understand that diets are destined to fail and that thinness does not determine health. Yo-yo dieting has been correlated, in numerous studies, with a host of concerns — including disordered eating, heart disease, insulin resistance, and immune dysfunction. Other research has found that up to 30 percent of people who are medically classified as “obese” are metabolically healthy.
Yet the pressure to look a certain way persists, especially via the norms and expectations of diet culture — a belief system that prizes thinness and aesthetic appearance, often at the expense of true physical and emotional well-being. It’s hard to feel good in your body if you’ve consistently been made to feel like it’s the wrong size or shape or doesn’t reflect the images featured across the media we see every day.
And it’s hard to feel at peace with your food choices in a culture that frequently encourages restriction in the name of achieving the ideal body.
So how can we resist a diet culture so pervasive that we often don’t even recognize we’re caught up in it? How can we begin to see the full spectrum of factors that truly contribute to health and well-being? And how can we shift our relationship with food away from guilt and “shoulds” to one that is more intentional and joyful?
This advice on protective measures, mindsets, and practices offers a place to start.
Protective Mindset Measures
1. Examine Your Own Biases
Messages we receive as children about weight, food, and bodies become ingrained in our thinking, says certified diabetes care and education specialist Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RDN, CDCES, cofounder of the Center for Mindful Eating. If we’ve been told that our shape or size is not adequate, and that messaging is repeated throughout our lives, we’re vulnerable to equating body size — our own or others’ — with value and even moral virtue.
There’s often a circular aspect to weight bias and vulnerability to diet messaging, adds psychologist and eating-disorder specialist Rachel Millner, PsyD, a certified Body Trust provider. “Many of us have our own internalized weight stigma because of the culture that we swim in. And then struggling with feelings about our body makes us more susceptible to the messages and the culture.”
2. Clarify Your Beliefs and Values
Diet culture feeds on our insecurities. “It’s saying, ‘Yes, actually, you are inadequate — but if you lost five pounds, or if you ate this shake, then you’d be complete,’” says Fletcher.
“Do we actually believe what the culture tells us? Is that really what most aligns with our truth?” asks Millner. “If we come back to our center, most of us can acknowledge that there’s pain and suffering when we’re in a constant dieting cycle. It doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t feel in line with what we believe in.”
3. Practice Mindful Eating
“We see a lot of negatives with dieting,” says Fletcher, “but eating in a more intentional way — where we’re not trying to lose weight, we’re just trying to be in the present moment — improves our relationship with food.”
When you sit down to a meal, notice the space around you and the colors and textures of the food in front of you. As you eat, pay attention to the experience of tasting, chewing, and swallowing. “You’re trying to understand your direct experience,” she explains. “You’re developing awareness, compassion, and curiosity.”
4. Be Gentle With Big Emotions
Mindfully sitting with your feelings can help you break out of the all-good/all-bad thinking that permeates diet culture, says Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT, director of Life Time Mind. “One way to break black-and-white thinking is with compassion.”
If you’re “hangry,” for example, rather than pushing away that sensation, you can curiously investigate what’s behind it. There may be a fear of overeating or anxiety about how much longer it will be before a meal is available.
From a compassionate place, you can help yourself navigate that emotion without judging it. “It’s being able to sit and actually see the gray in that experience,” she says.
5. Adjust Your Social-Media Feeds
“I don’t think we’ve ever been fed more images of aspiration than in our culture right now,” says Elmquist. “Every average ‘influencer’ has become aspirational to someone who doesn’t feel like they have what that person has.”
Yet social media is also home to many fat-acceptance and body-neutrality influencers and groups. “Having these communities is one of the most protective factors,” says Millner. “Having a space where we’re going to hear positive messages about bodies and size diversity and eating — that can really help us to push back against the culture.”
6. Set Boundaries
It’s OK to establish a simple boundary without further explanation, says Millner — especially if you know that some people in your life are likely to repeat the maxims of diet culture. “You can say: ‘We are not going to talk about food and body,’ or ‘I don’t want to hear any diet talk,’” she advises.
When people step over that boundary (and they will), Millner offers options for resetting it. “If you think it was truly an accident, you could say, ‘Hey, you might have forgotten, but we had agreed we’re not going to do diet talk.’ And if you think they’re intentionally overstepping the boundary, you might make the decision to shorten your time with them and walk away.”
7. Change Your Outgoing Message
Words matter. As you become more aware of your biases and more mindful of your experiences of eating and being present in your body, do your part to change the narrative — both your internal dialogue and the conversations you have with others.
When you’re enjoying a meal with friends, for example, check your impulse to joke that “the diet starts tomorrow!” or to lament how “bad” you’ve been lately. Instead, comment on the amazing flavor of the food or on how great it feels to be together.
It will take time and practice to release the grip of diet culture, but every time you create a new message, you build resilience. “Our brain is very receptive to the messages we give it,” says Elmquist. “What we tell ourselves repetitively gets grooved into our minds and becomes our belief system. We have to practice a healthy internal dialogue if we want our external experience to change.”
8. Get Professional Support
“If you’re obsessed with dieting — if it’s something that you feel is such an unresolved problem that you’re always searching for the next solution — you may need to get some outside perspective,” says Elmquist.
“Anybody who’s dieting needs support, really, because ultimately they get to a place where they realize that dieting is harmful. They’re caught in this hamster wheel that they want to get out of,” says Millner, whose therapy practice emphasizes Health at Every Size principles. “Or that they recognize they’ve been lied to, and they’re going to have a lot of feelings about that.”
This article originally appeared as “Letting Go of Diet Culture” in the January/February 2022 issue of Experience Life.